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Turning point for a climate-crisis solution


The carbon-capture industry notched a breakthrough in early 2023, when Climeworks became the first company to be third-party certified for taking carbon out of the air and mineralizing it underground. Climeworks co-founder and co-CEO Christoph Gebald is now racing to scale this new potential, from Iceland to Oman to the United States, by convincing investors, corporate partners, and governments to support a new pillar in the quest for net-zero goals. Christoph points to both serendipity and learning from mistakes as key in helping Climeworks navigate the steep path required in addressing climate-crisis.

“We are essentially going from a very young industry with a limited number of players and experience to a playground. This is what we have to figure out going forward.”

— Christoph Gebald
About the guest:

Christoph Gebald is the co-founder and co-CEO of Climeworks, one of the leading companies in direct air capture, based in Switzerland. Climeworks focuses on removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it permanently underground. With more than 15 years of experience in CO2 capture from the air, Christoph is considered one of the leading experts in this growing and important industry. Holding a Ph.D in mechanical engineering, his research focuses on direct air capture technologies. With his fellow student Jan Wurzbacher, Christoph founded Climeworks in 2009 and has since served as the company’s co-CEO, overseeing its commercial, legal, marketing, and HR operations.

About the host:

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

Direct-air carbon capture has been the missing link in nearly all climate-crisis solution plans. While not a silver bullet to our warming planet, carbon capture would fill a multi-gigaton gap to bring us closer to net zero.

— Bob Safian
Transcript of Masters of Scale: Turning point for a climate-crisis solution

CHRISTOPH GEBALD: I’m an avid mountaineer, and so to me, I always wanted to contribute to stopping climate change. It felt wrong to put CO2 in the atmosphere and not take it back. 

It’s normal to us that if we are using water, we are treating the wastewater. But we don’t really have a waste management system for the atmosphere. 

As an engineer noticing that there’s no technical and no feasible solution out there for a treatment facility of our atmosphere, it was clear to me that something has to be done.

We discovered by serendipity the opportunity to take CO2 out of the air and store it in the ground. Direct air capture is suddenly becoming a billion dollar industry. We are essentially going from a very young industry with a limited number of players and experience to a playground. This is what we have to figure out going forward.

BOB SAFIAN: That’s Christoph Gebald, co-founder and co-CEO of Climeworks, a Switzerland-based company, that has become a leading player in carbon capture technology. Earlier this year, Climeworks became the first enterprise to be certified by a third-party for taking carbon out of the air, storing it underground, and processing it into rock. 

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. 

I wanted to talk to Christoph because direct-air carbon capture has been the missing link in nearly all climate-crisis solution plans.

While not a silver bullet to our warming planet, carbon capture would fill a multi-gigaton gap to bring us closer to net zero.

The question Christoph and his team face is how to scale the new technology, leveraging not just science but investors, corporate partners, and governments.

Christoph emphasizes the role of serendipity so far in Climeworks, breakthrough efforts, as well as the lessons learned through missteps and mistakes. 

From supplying fizz to Coca-Cola to a chance encounter with the former President of Iceland, Climeworks has found product-market fit by pursuing a mountain-climbers approach: not focusing too much on the top peak above but following the path ahead, step by step. 

And in the process, they’ve given us a glimpse of what might be a better world for all. 

[Theme Music]

SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Christoph Gebald, co-founder and co-CEO of carbon capture firm Climeworks. Christoph is coming to us from Zurich as I ask my questions from New York. Christoph, thanks for joining us.

GEBALD: Thank you, Bob, for having me.

Climeworks’ Christoph Gebald on developing carbon capture technology

SAFIAN: So earlier this year, Climeworks announced that you’d received third-party certification for successfully taking carbon out of the air and putting it in the ground in a process that will turn it into rock. This is a dream for many climate watchers that this kind of technology could be successful. You’ve been at this for many years with your co-founder and co-CEO Jan Wurzbacher. How significant was reaching this benchmark?

GEBALD: We started actually to do this already 15 years ago to develop technology, to pull carbon out of the air, and some five years ago started to put it in the ground, and initial efforts to do that have been solely based on the trust that existed in this field.

So if you buy an electric car, you can feel the performance of the car. If you have solar panels, you can power your computers or your lights at home. If you capture CO2 from the air with machines and pump it underground, you’re not feeling anything. You can’t see CO2; you can’t smell CO2. And so far every action in this whole industry has been based on trust. We finally had a third party confirm and verify that the services we are doing are right and quantified in the way as we put it on our certificates.

SAFIAN: You attended the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, not long after reaching this milestone. What kind of reception did you get?

GEBALD: At the World Economic Forum, I perceived a very genuine interest. Business leaders are gearing up and understanding solutions to achieve the targets that they have announced. And for us, being one pillar of the solution pool that is out there to achieve Net Zero by, latest, mid century.

SAFIAN: Yeah, you say it’s one pillar. For people watching this direct air capture can sound like it’s a silver bullet for the climate crisis.

GEBALD: First and foremost, we have to reduce CO2 by driving electric cars, insulating our houses, and using renewable energy sources instead of fossil sources. However, there’s only so much you can reduce. There’s a remaining part of unavoidable emissions around about five to 10%. And this has to be removed from the atmosphere. If we were to approach the full 100% with direct air capture, this would be simply uneconomical and unfeasible. We are the last resort for things you’re not getting rid of otherwise. Like agriculture, hard to abate emissions flying for example, or hard to decarbonize industries like steel making, aluminum making, et cetera.

Why Christoph Gebald founded Climeworks

SAFIAN: You started this journey in university, you started the company in 2009, but there have been a lot of critical voices over the years about whether this could even work, whether this was feasible at all. Why did you keep going?

GEBALD: I’m an avid mountaineer, and the outdoors are a very sensitive environment, especially the mountains. The effects of climate change like landscapes are changing. And so to me, I always wanted to contribute to the topic of stopping climate change. To me it always felt wrong to put CO2 in the atmosphere and not take it back. It’s normal to us that if we are using water, we are treating the wastewater.

If we have trash, we are not throwing it out of our windows in the streets, and it’s piling up. But we don’t really have a waste management system for the atmosphere. As an engineer, noticing that there’s no technical and no feasible solution out there for a treatment facility of our atmosphere, it was clear to me that something has to be done.

I could have earned much more in the last 15 years elsewhere but not earned more to my heart and my passion than what I’m currently doing.

SAFIAN: You guys have scaled this technology to the point where you’re able to remove thousands of tons of carbon, but we need to get to billions of tons to be climate relevant. Is reaching that goal, applying what we know now at greater volume or are there scientific hurdles that we still have to overcome? Or is it about cost?

GEBALD: It’s essentially about cost. Technology we have today and we are deploying today works, period, and we could scale that to gigatons. The question is what is the ultimate cost entitlement of the technology that we are having today and will be achieved by scaling today’s technology in the long run? We are working on heavy deployment of the current state of technology. And we are continuing to work on technology development to progressively walk down the cost curve.

The energy it takes to remove carbon

SAFIAN: How much energy does it take to remove carbon? Because you don’t want to create as much as you’re removing.

GEBALD: Very simple answer: 10%. If we take a ton of CO2 out of the air with our machines, we are emitting 0.1 tons in the form of gray emissions from both energy and material use. If we are serving a ton of carbon removal to the market, like be it corporates or private people or maybe in the long run even governments, what that means is we are taking roughly 1.1 tons of carbon out of the air and provide 1.1 tons for permanent underground storage in order to have net removed a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere.

SAFIAN: I know that you opened your first commercial plant in 2021 in Iceland where there is lots of geothermal power available there. So you were using renewable energy to be able to do that.

GEBALD: Exactly. We do focus on the application of sustainable energy sources to power direct air capture. Air capture, no matter how you do it, it’s an energy intensive business, and you want to make sure that you are using renewable energy sources. Now the world urgently needs to scale the deployment of renewable energy sources. However, there’s a limit. Like the classical example, maybe the wind is not blowing when you want to use your dishwasher. It’s becoming increasingly a challenge to balance the availability of renewables and the need and the grids.

Direct air capture can be a catalyst to the deployment of renewable energy systems because we can take renewables at times when others cannot or promote the deployment of renewables in areas where you today don’t have off-takers for renewable energy sources. Think about the sunbelt of the planet. If you install a large-scale direct air capture facility, you can promote the construction of a solar electricity park, and that can help to electrify parts of the world that are currently not being electrified. So in summary, yes it requires energy, but it can also be a catalyst to much needed deployment of renewable energy sources.

How serendipity has fueled Climeworks

SAFIAN: I love the way entrepreneurship can evolve by plan and also sometimes just by happenstance, by luck. I understand that Iceland became the destination for your first commercial plant, not just because there was geothermal power there, but because of a chance meeting in Marrakesh you had with the wife of Iceland’s president. Can you share that story?

GEBALD: I can confirm over the last 15 years the really big breakthroughs were serendipity. It’s probably a 90% serendipity, and a 10% result of the rough planning. And the fact that we are operating in Iceland really goes back to lucky encounters like being invited to a very special party at the COP in Marrakesh where I happened to meet the wife of the former president of Iceland who introduced me to the former president of Iceland Ólafur Grimsson who I had the chance to talk to and tell him that we are capturing CO2 from the earth with machines. And he said, “oh well that’s beautiful.” This is something he has been looking for for many years because in his country of Iceland, for two decades, researchers have found a way how CO2 can be stored very effectively and safely in the ground. And he helped to enable contacts, and actually it went very fast from the first encounter at this party in Marrakesh to the first pilot being installed. It took less than 12 months, which was remarkable for our company at that state.

SAFIAN: I understand you’re working with other carbon storage companies on some other projects in Norway, in Oman. Why is that?

GEBALD: It’s because of scaling. Our core competence is pulling carbon from the earth in the most effective way, and the core competence of others is how CO2 can be stored in the safest and most durable way and lowest cost way in the underground. Underground storage depends heavily on the region you’re working. For example, in Iceland where we are actually doing underground mineralization, which means the CO2 is essentially turned into stone. Looking at Norway where it’s more conventional underground storage where the CO2 is locked up in the underground as a gas in the United States, in Louisiana we have a project going on which is also more conventional storage. And those partners at those sites have to of course understand the local properties of the storage wells and this is why it’s distributed on several different shoulders.

SAFIAN: Does it matter if carbon is captured in Iceland versus in the United States? Is there a different impact based on where it’s captured on the local climate or anything or…?

GEBALD: That’s the beauty of air capture. It’s independent of the location you’re capturing the CO2. We can capture CO2 anywhere on the planet and through the fusion and jet streams and the wind phenomena, it’s diluting over the atmosphere.

The evolving business models of carbon capture

So you’ve mentioned serendipity, you’ve mentioned scaling. I know that since you started Climeworks in 2009, you’ve tried a bunch of different business models. You tried selling captured carbon to Coca-Cola in an effort to close the carbon loop, you offer individuals an opportunity to pay for direct air carbon capture. Now you’re focused more on corporate customers and this underground storage, the business model keeps shifting. Do you expect that to continue?

GEBALD: Actually our original first dream has been to sell plans, but no surprise, no one wanted to buy those plans because no company on earth had the business model to buy and operate direct air capture machines. We transitioned to: we pre-finance those facilities, and if we operated and sold CO2 molecules as a commodity, and that again transitioned to put the CO2 in the ground and lock it away safely. And we charge companies or people to pay us for the service of removing carbon from the air.

The business model will clearly continue to change. What I do however see is that the product for carbon dioxide removal as a service for both people as well as corporations, and hopefully one day even governments is a product to last. What will change is the details on how we go about it.

SAFIAN: There are other direct air capture efforts out there. How much do you look at what they’re doing with other technologies? How much does the industry collaborate versus compete? I mean, there aren’t unlimited investment dollars, and yet in many ways, you’re all on the same team because you’re trying to develop this area?

GEBALD: There are a handful of companies that existed pre-2010. On the other hand, we are seeing more and more new companies, existing only for one and a half or two years now. The market is large enough for a good two dozen companies. Climate science asks our industry to remove several gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere. An individual company can achieve, if we are ambitious, say, in the range of a gigaton.

So if the target is 5 gigatons for direct air capture in 2050 and you have 5 super successful companies like unicorn squared, it’ll be 5 firms each contributing a gigaton. So plenty of space. In 20 to 30 years down the road, there will be an ecosystem of, I do think, 20 to 50 companies which are very, very successful, very profitable in this domain capturing CO2 from the air.


SAFIAN: Before the break we heard Climeworks CEO Christoph Gebald talk about how direct-air carbon capture can have a positive impact on the climate crisis.

Now he talks about the rapid evolution of the carbon-capture industry, and how Climeworks’ own path has been marked by unexpected pivots. 

He also shares lessons about following intuition, testing new ideas to find product-market fit, and keeping your eye on what’s directly in front of you, even if your dream goal is way up in the sky. 

The carbon capture industry

SAFIAN: There are different carbon capture that happens in industrial plants, which keeps emissions from ever reaching the atmosphere. Is that related technology to what you are doing?

GEBALD: It’s two different tracks. The only thing that we have in common is the underlying science. The way you capture a CO2 molecule from a very chemistry point of view is similar to capturing CO2 from the air and from a combustion flue gas. All the rest is very different. In air, CO2 is heavily diluted — it’s 0.04%. In a combustion flue gas, it’s 10 to 20%. So the system implementation, the business models, the market applications, and the whole value chain is different.

SAFIAN: I asked these questions because the carbon capture industry can seem a little bit like a wild west. There are things happening at industrial plants, there are folks planting trees. There’s the work that you are doing, and as you say, there isn’t sort of a recognized certification authority globally. This industry and this marketplace is still early, and there’s a risk about a trust gap in all that about what you’re getting for what you’re spending.

GEBALD: Everything we do is actually going back to October, 2018. The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a report on the 1.5 degree target, and in this report they made clear to achieve this target, you have to remove CO2 from the air in massive quantities, massive being gigatons. What that did to us and our whole industry was really a step change in perception. Like before October, 2018, everything we did was mainly based on us educating. Now since October, 2018, suddenly we had a lot of wind in our sails, and the boat was driving much faster, and it not only did it for us, but for this whole ecosystem.

It’s actually not too much time where you had to figure out a lot of pieces of the puzzle. To me it totally makes sense that you declare it as wild west. On the other hand, I’m seeing substantial acceleration since October, 2018, which gives me a lot of confidence that we can move the needle in the right direction for the 2050 targets.

Finding the product-market fit for Climeworks

SAFIAN: In running this business, you started needing to know engineering, and then as we talked about some business model adjustments, now you’re adding people rapidly, you have different kinds of partnerships. How do you know if each next wave of skill sets is something you can handle?

GEBALD: The good news is we are two founders, and this is simply too much for one brain. The way we have split it up at Climeworks is that Jan is working on the technology and operations front, and I’m working on the market investor and policy side, so we can actually have our brains fully contributed to those two challenges of scaling market and scaling tech at the same time.

What we developed over time actually a lot is intuition for certain things and gut feel for how things should be and where they should go.

In 2017, our main business was about selling CO2 as a commodity. And we were extremely proud of having the Coca-Cola company behind it as a customer to the CO2 we are pulling out of the air to carbonate their drinks. And right at this time we discovered by serendipity the opportunity to take CO2 out of the air and store it in the ground. You have the ability to actively reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere. And we did a couple of scoping calls. We had a pilot plan with a minimal CO2 capture capacity in half an afternoon by scoping 5 clients. The capacity of this plant was put on the market, and that felt, that somehow confirmed, hey there could be something in there, this can be really a nice product market fit. And fast forward five years, the world is waking up on the need for carbon removal. Large corporations are integrating carbon removal in the business model. That was one of those intuitions where we thought, hey people and companies, I’m sure they will love this. And today we see the fruits, and actually we do have finally after many years this very nice product market fit.

SAFIAN: It must be hard to make that pivot. I’m sure you work very hard to get a top-notch brand like Coca-Cola to be a customer and then to get to the point where you say: maybe that’s not even the business we want to be in.

GEBALD: Yeah, that’s the thing with decisions. Decisions are mostly painful, and mostly the more painful they are, the more powerful they can be. This saying of Warren Buffet I think who once said: successful people say no 9 out of 10 times, and saying no hurts, it really hurts. Like saying no to opportunities hurt. And that’s one of the biggest challenges in our field is with this essentially unlimited market and essentially unlimited applications you could have for pulling carbon from the air, there’s also the risk that you’re not focusing. One of the most tricky parts is to constantly turn down opportunities all across the board to people who are applying to your company, to potential partners, to potential investors, also to potential policy. So this constant refocusing and recalibrating on what you are up to and then considering the bandwidth you have and what you can focus on.

What’s at stake for Climeworks

SAFIAN: So Climeworks has reached a certain stage, a certain stage of growth, a certain stage of opportunity for you, for Climeworks, for Jan. What’s at stake right now at this inflection point?

GEBALD: Half of my brain is in the future, and I always try to figure out how to unlock the next phase of growth. And for example, in the United States, we have this huge piece of government support with the Department of Energy. There is 3.5 billion on the table to deploy direct air capture on the megaton scale. And on the other hand, we have the Inflation Reduction Act which also has support for direct air capture. So the question that we are currently having is how can we leverage what we have accomplished to date in the best way to fulfill the requirements of this program and show really the large scale implementation of air capture in the United States.

This is only half part of the story. The other half has to be financed from the private market or from investors. The direct air capture industry is suddenly becoming a billion dollar industry where you are having projects being enabled on the billion dollar scale, which is similar magnitude as other large scale energy projects or renewable projects. So we are essentially going from a very young industry with a limited number of players and experience to a playground that is reserved for very large energy companies and figuring out how to convince investors to fill the gap that is at stake going forward.

SAFIAN: You sound excited by it though.

Keep your sight beyond the peaks

GEBALD: This is a dream policy and dream deployment support that’s happening there. I mentioned, I’m an avid mountaineer. When I studied in the U.S. at the end of my studies with two friends from college, I climbed Mount McKinley in Alaska, and it’s a bit like saying, “Hey, I’m really dreaming about climbing this mountain.” And suddenly you have someone saying, “Okay, let’s do it. Here’s the gear you need. Here’s your ticket to fly to Alaska. Here’s the pair of skis you’re going to use, here’s the plane to the glacier.”

It’s a bit like that feeling, you know, you have been dreaming about that, and suddenly you really have the opportunity to do it.

SAFIAN: I sometimes use a climbing analogy for entrepreneurship. You know, work very hard to get to a pinnacle, and you look over your shoulder, and you pat yourself on the back that you’ve reached this place, and then you turn around, and you realize you’re only in the foothills, and there’s yet another mountain to climb. Is that the way it feels for you?

GEBALD: If you’re climbing Everest and if you’re constantly looking to the peak, you’re frustrated all the time because it’s so far away. But if you simply consider the next step you have to take, it can be a very beautiful journey. This is a philosophy at Climeworks is the power of small steps. And this is something everyone can do. If you on the one hand have a very big target climbing Mount Everest, but on the other hand you focus on the next step and make sure you are not being killed on the next step that you’re taking and that you have the energy reserves to do it and the right team to do it, you’ll be successful.

If I recall summiting Denali, for example in Alaska, I dunno, what was it like a minute on the peak or two minutes on the peak. But it was a five week journey. The time in base camp, the time in high camp. So if you do something like direct air capture, which is an extremely long journey, you have to acknowledge the beauty of the journey you’re taking and not only think about the end game or else, you’re getting frustrated and unmotivated.

SAFIAN: Well Christoph, this has been great. Thank you so much for doing it and for talking with us.

GEBALD: Thank you Bob for the invitation.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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