Kiverdi’s business can sound like magic at first: the company uses biology to turn carbon dioxide gas into oil. But in nature, that conversion process is nothing new; in fact, it’s how we get all vegetable oil. An olive tree, for example, turns carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water into olive fruits, which we then harvest and refine into an oil we can eat, burn, make into soap, etc. The problem with existing natural cycles that capture carbon dioxide in this way is that they’re too slow to keep up with the large carbon emissions responsible for climate change. Inspired to take action after witnessing the environmental destruction of Hurricane Katrina, Kiverdi’s co-founder and CEO, Lisa Dyson, went looking for a way to speed up the process. She found her answer not with plants like olive trees, but with microbes.
Five years after its launch, the company is working with industrial customers to transform waste carbon from sources such as land fills, manufacturing, or agriculture into customized low-cost, sustainable oils of the sort needed for everything from lotions and detergents to nutritional snacks and packaging materials. Dyson spoke with us about the potentials of this new technology and how she sees sustainability changing the landscape of business overall.
Where did the idea for Kiverdi come from, and how did you go from having an idea to having a business?
Lisa Dyson: Kiverdi began by pairing old research with innovations in biotech. My co-founder, Dr. John Reed, and I read some NASA technical reports written in the 1960s and 1970s that discussed recycling carbon dioxide aboard spacecraft. These research papers sparked an idea: could we develop a similar technology that would enable us to profitably recycle carbon dioxide here on Earth into valuable products? The answer was yes, so we started a business to do it.
What is your business model?
LD: We partner with manufacturers of goods to identify supply chain pain points where our technology can offer a unique solution. The pain points range from the need to source a custom raw material to deliver enhanced product performance, the price volatility of a specific raw material, or the desire to profitably recycle a carbon waste stream into valuable products. We work with manufacturers to commercialize targeted solutions.
What traction have you achieved to date?
LD: We have multiple projects underway with large manufacturers to bring targeted solutions to market. The projects are in various stages of development depending on the nature of the solution. This is an exciting time for Kiverdi as we are proving that we can scale up unique solutions to recycle carbon into value in a way that is not only pro table for the planet, but profitable for business.
What are the applications of your various products? And who is your primary target market or consumer?
LD: We are commercializing three key products at the moment. Our high-protein meal can be used to replace shmeal to enable sustainable aquaculture. Our PALM+ can replace palm oil in consumer goods, including detergents, lotions, and fabric softeners. Our citrus oil can be used as a flavoring, fragrance, or biodegradable cleaner.
Have you been able to find mission-aligned investors? What advice do you have for others who are embarking on a capital raise?
LD: We have. When I asked one of our investors why he invested in Kiverdi, he said that although he found our disruptive technology and huge market potential very appealing from a business standpoint, he was most excited by the impact we could have on solving real-world environmental and resource utilization issues.
We have also been able to access a significant amount of non-dilutive funding from the US Department of Energy, the California Energy Commission, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
My advice to entrepreneurs is that fundraising always takes longer than expected. Start early and be creative. Look for funding in non-obvious places in addition to the more traditional outlets.
How can we encourage more women to participate in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers?
LD: A good issue to figure out is how to keep women from leaving STEM areas. As I advanced through my career, I found the number of women — first in my classes, then in business and industry meetings — continued to decline. There are multiple reasons why women who at one point are excited by STEM areas choose to pursue other areas in life. A focused effort on retention could go a long way to both increase the number of women in STEM careers and to provide role models to encourage and excite future generations of women about the possibilities.
What’s one thing you know now that you wish you had known at the start?
LD: Building a business is a journey. You begin with an idea, then go out to the market and often have to modify your approach based on market pain points and demands. I can’t say that there are specific things that I wish I knew from the start. Every new thing that we have learned has made us a better company.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
LD: Surround yourself with mentors and industry leaders. Seek out lots of advice. Take this advice into serious consideration. However, all situations are different; your situation is likely different. After careful consideration, do what is right for you and your company. And don’t forget to take care of yourself.
What do you predict for the future of your industry?
LD: Sustainability is of increasing importance to brands and their suppliers. Companies have set sustainability targets and are actively looking for partners to help them deliver on the promises they are making to their customers. The demand is there and growing. I expect we will see more and more products that incorporate recycled components, have lower net carbon emissions, and have decreased petroleum use in the future.
What’s giving you hope for the future?
LD: Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers. As they exercise their buying power more and more by choosing the most sustainably produced products, manufacturers and brands will increase production of these products. We have a long way to go, but progress is being made. The growing demand for sustainable ways of living and the innovation that is happening to meet this demand make me happy.