Origin Story Interview W/ Florian Tiller, Ucaneo

Origin Story Interview W/ Florian Tiller, Ucaneo

Brighter Future

 / 

Apr 11, 2024

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #DirectAirCapture #CO2Removal #CarbonRemoval #originstoryseries #seekthechange

Brighter Future

We spoke with Florian Tiller, of Ucaneo. The Germany-based company is developing a new, pioneering Direct Air Capture technology which mimics the human lung.

Thank you so much for being here, Florian. Do you think you could tell us a little about yourself and your business?

Absolutely. I'm the founder of Ucaneo, a startup based in Berlin, and we’re developing new direct air capture technology that mimics the way humans breathe. It's an engineered solution to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and help us reach our climate targets. This technology can be used to produce various products, from synthetic fuels and plastics to applications in greenhouses or storing CO2 long-term underground to issue carbon credits. Imagine it a bit like having the effect of 35,000 trees in just 15 square metres. We're working on removing a lot of CO2 with a small space, and doing so particularly energy- and cost-efficiently with the technology we've developed.

That’s very impressive. What exactly are you trying to achieve with your company, and why does it matter?

If humanity wants to reach our climate targets according to the IPCC, we have to remove roughly 10 gigatonnes of CO2 from the air every single year by 2050. 10 gigatonnes is something we can barely imagine— and despite that, the CO2 concentration in the air is only 0.04%. It's a very hard problem to work on.

Of course, first of all, we have to reduce all emissions; this is the most important step. Direct air capture is not a silver bullet, and we have to do everything to combat climate change simultaneously. But removing CO2 from the air can play a very important role.

Our company's vision is basically two things, I would say. One is really helping humanity to reach its climate targets by removing millions of tonnes of CO2 from the air. And the second is that we can become an enabler for the factories of the future by using CO2 as feedstock to produce any kind of product you want: basically building a new oil and gas industry, you could even say. We want to be the first value in that chain, and enable all these different use cases.

Could you describe a little bit of your core technology?

Our core technology acknowledges an established electrochemical process, but we're combining that with very innovative designs of our air contactors, our cell stacks, and all solvents, especially with bio-catalysts or mimics. This enables a very energy-efficient technology. Normally, electrochemical approaches promise to be the most energy-efficient direct air capture technologies. However, they often come with the problem of very high CapEx costs. What we're doing is taking a lot of parts off-the-shelf, a lot of components which are already produced at scale and come from existing supply chains.

But if you would just use them like that, you would not have an energy-efficient or cost-efficient process. Unfortunately I can’t detail all the ways we combine some new unique key components because of IP reasons, but basically, with these combinations which involve solvents, among other things, and our own designs of air contactors, we make it very, very energy-efficient.

If you look out there, every direct air capture technology will always tell you they’re the cheapest, the best, and the most energy-efficient. But the question is always at which scale do you achieve that? Is it at a million-tonne scale? Or a 500-tonne scale? And by when? Does it need 10 years or just three?

We did a feasibility study with a third party over several months. It went very, very much into the detail of our process and all the components we needed to build our technology. The result showed that we could become one of the cheapest technologies in the world in the next one to three years— not in 10 years. We target a cost range below €300 per tonne of CO2 in the next three years. We know that’s very ambitious, but this is basically exactly what we want to build.

At the next stage, and we already have quite a big running prototype in the lab, we want to build a standardised industrial product to basically show we can reach these cost levels at scale.

Where does your company name come from?

The name originally comes from umoya, a Zulu word which essentially means "wind", symbolising capturing the winds. But we changed it a lot. Basically, we wanted a fantasy name, not another name derived from "carbon," since every second company incorporates "carbon" in their name.

The domain was free to register. "Ucaneo" was just something different. And we're big fans of The Matrix, so including "Neo" is always positive. Really, we just hope that the name remains memorable.

What are your roots or the path that you come from? What are your origins?

I was born and grew up in Germany. Every year, I went hiking and climbing with my dad in the Alps, which was very nice. Even when I was like four or five years old, he just put me on a rope and basically, got me up a wall. Being so close to nature was something I really enjoyed. It meant being free and having a calm space.

After taking a post-high school gap year to travel in Asia, I decided to study business, thinking it was the best way to start my own company. Maybe now, I would consider studying engineering first and then business, but I still learned a lot and am grateful for it.

I pursued my business and master's at five universities in five countries. So originally, for my Bachelor's, I studied in Germany at Mannheim and I did an exchange to Hong Kong. I really liked Asia so much that I did my master’s at the National University of Singapore with a double degree at HEC Paris and Tsinghua in Beijing. I really learned a lot.

Back at the time, I had already started two companies myself. One was in 3D printing, which we started in Singapore, though it completely failed. We tried to build a marketplace for unique designs, but the technology wasn't there yet and what we had was quite expensive. In the end, consumers didn't take to it, but we learned a lot.

The other venture was essentially an NGO where we organised educational hackathons at universities. We managed to attract attention from big names like Google and McKinsey, the consulting company. This positive experience led me into a role at McKinsey, which I really enjoyed. I then spent roughly two years working at McKinsey where I had the unique chance of being part of McKinsey's business-building entity, McKinsey Leap, building several ventures in the AI and robotics space.

Many people would rather focus on software, or let's say businesses that are easier to scale. But I met my co-founder, Carla, and we started Ucaneo. We knew we wanted to build better technology to remove CO2 from the air. How could we make better direct air capture technology inspired by biology, or even using biological parts, that could become a robust industrial process?

Getting started, we were actually officially unemployed for a few months, which sounds a bit insane. We interviewed 40 to 60 people from all around the world and experts in the area to gather knowledge.

Then, we rented a lab as private individuals, which also sounds pretty crazy because individuals normally cannot even order chemicals. Luckily, there was a new co-working space opening in Germany at that time where we went and began our first experiments.

We managed to capture CO2 from the air in a way that looked really promising, and motivated by this success, we decided to officially start a company and incorporated a GmbH in May 2022. Just two months later, we began raising our first pre-seed round, which was incredibly exciting. Since then, we've been growing and building. The details of our funding rounds haven't been announced yet, so I can't share much, but let's just say we've attracted significantly more capital in a very short period. This funding enabled us to develop our first prototypes.

That’s great. What exactly led you to create your business?

I was convinced to start my business because, even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow, climate change would persist due to the significant amounts of CO2 already in the air. It's vital to develop technology to remove this legacy CO2. Of course, however, preventing new emissions always comes first, so both approaches must go hand in hand. This was a key reason why I chose not to develop another marketplace or software platform. Instead, I was driven to create a physical product that removes CO2 from the air, leading me to establish Ucaneo and innovate in direct air capture technology.

The problem is so serious, and it hasn't been cracked yet. No one in the world has developed really good, or sufficient, direct air capture technology that’s scalable. This is so hard because of the low CO2 concentration. But if you can correct that issue, the upward potential is just insane, which is so inspiring.

The exciting part, I think, is really about enabling everything that happens afterward when you build it: all the different use cases that would really move us toward a more circular economy. Because in the end, decarbonising industrial value chains is very hard.

If only it weren’t so difficult! So who are you doing your work for— or who are you speaking to directly with the company?

Using this technology, a very exciting thing is first the benefits for every kind of hydrogen business. Large hydrogen hubs are on the horizon, where hydrogen will be able to be combined with extracted CO2 to create amazing products like E-methanol and other E-fuels to do things like decarbonize flying— which, by the way, is really, really hard to do, the same as it is with shipping.

I think all kinds of companies are very interested in having an independent supply of CO2 close to the downstream process. It can be interesting for greenhouses, for algae farms, and any kind of fermentation processes; it can also be interesting for soda companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi. At the same time, you can store the CO2 in building materials and make building materials greener. The applications really range tremendously. If you don’t use the CO2 in other processes, you can save or store it long-term underground. Doing this is basically mineralizing the CO2, which in a way means it’s like sending it back where it came from originally. With this you can issue carbon credits.

What part of your work is most fulfilling for you?

I think the most fulfilling part right now is when we, as a team, work day and night to build such deep-tech technology, from the first point of drafting it and having the first ideas to then actually building it and seeing it run. While it's running in the lab it continuously brings our work to life, and I find this extremely rewarding. One of the most rewarding things so far, in fact. But I can imagine this feeling getting even stronger when we build the first industrial products and deliver them to clients. There are so many exciting customers approaching us already, asking, "When you're ready, what costs will you have?" across all kinds of different industries. I think this is going to be the most exciting part within the next few years of this company: really building it on an industrial scale, delivering it to clients across various industries, and actually showing that the use cases work and make economic sense.

When was it that you decided to do something differently, or to take a new direction in your life or career?

My career is one of a significant shift in direction, particularly after completing high school. I went on a lot of backpacking journeys across Asia, mostly on my own. Being with local communities was important, and I did a lot of volunteering: from teaching English in schools and building a kindergarten library to reforestation projects in Borneo and working in elephant camps in Thailand. It was really inspiring.

One defining moment came when I was teaching English to a child in Asia. For him, he had either the choice to become a farmer or get a well-paid job in a hotel. Seeing some of these children later obtain hotel jobs and how that transformed their families' lives sparked a realisation in me. But I wondered how I could have a bigger impact. I asked myself if I could teach a lot of people, or if I should just build schools.

At that point, I became sure I wanted to start a business focused on impact: a multiplier. It was a journey. I saw myself not just leading but enabling, giving our engineers the resources to develop technology together.

What's your favourite part of Southeast Asia?

I love so many countries. I mean, the street food in Vietnam is unbeatable. Every country has its own. Thailand was amazing. I lived in Singapore and Hong Kong. Both cities I loved.

What life experience gives you the perspective and confidence to know that you can come up with something different or better than what is currently out there?

I think for me, the most important thing was working at McKinsey. Where else do you have the chance in life where someone puts you in a team and tells you to build a company with no risk, surrounded at the same time by people who've done it already who are some of the best in the world in their respective fields? For me, that was incredibly helpful. Afterward I felt that I was ready to start my own.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced or mistakes that you made when you started out in your journey? And what did they teach you?

The biggest mistake we made when we started the company was learning how to hire the right people. That’s probably, in the beginning, the hardest. What is quite interesting was that, when Carla and I started our team, we almost only had people who were older than us.

And they were mostly PhD postdocs, or with a few years of work experience or people with a lot of years of work experience, often in their mid to late 30s. And I think at the beginning, when you start a company for the first time, the first thing you have to learn is who you want to hire and what kind of company culture you want to build. I think these are always the most important things.

The second thing we noticed is— especially in Germany— it's insane how much legal paperwork and bureaucracy there is. It's hard. You always want to make sure that you work really with the best. For example, we had some lawyers we had to pitch to before they accepted us because they were so good in their field that they could choose their clients. This is something I would be very careful with. But I think in the end, as long as you're managing your money, building a great team, moving fast, and building, you're fine. Then you should actually make mistakes, reengineer stuff, break it quickly, and build it new.

When have you experienced your greatest “Aha!” moments?

I think maybe one of the most personally exciting moments are just when you build the technology and it works and runs. We had a big feasibility study showing our technology was amazing, and we could get very good cost competitive points. For me, building up this company was a big “Aha!” moment because when you do deep tech, there's so much risk. You're always thinking, will it actually work the way I want? We still have to scale up and there's still risk, but getting something running continuously and seeing the good performance data and the feasibility study, that was for me a very big “Aha!” moment. It gave the whole team and potential customers a lot of credibility and belief in what we do. It's maybe a very good pathway for humanity, capturing CO2 from the air efficiently.

What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you had to make to get to where you are now?

Well, how much you work is not exactly equal to the output you have. You should always manage your energy— and I think the biggest sacrifice I noticed was that I was freer and much more flexible before I had this company than afterward. Many people often expect a lot of freedom when you start your own company, but you actually sacrifice a lot of it because you work for your investors, your customers and your employees. It's really tough to balance all that, but it's also really rewarding. You are always thinking about your company. Of course, you need to find time to come down and relax, because mental health is very important. But in the end, it's a full commitment or no commitment.

What future are you hoping or envisioning to help create?

What we envision is that we basically have an economy and a society which balances with the climate. Right now we have an imbalance with the climate. It's not that CO2 is inherently bad; there's just too much in the air. So, it's more about getting the balance right again. We hope to build a future where we use CO2 as a resource, creating various products, and allowing any company, individual, or government that has a mission state but cannot avoid emissions to rely on offsets. This is the future we want to build, and it all starts by first building a technology or product that can actually do it.

How do you want your close friends and family to look back on you and your journey?

I want people to look at us and see that these guys really gave their best and believed in a new technology. In the end, we're also hoping that we can build the technology and that it works and scales. What I always share with the team is this: imagine you successfully build this technology and it becomes ubiquitous in a way like the maybe the iPhone is, where everyone in the world knows it and it removes CO2. It would be incredible if it changed millions of people's lives and you could say, “Hey, I actually built that.” I think that would be an amazing feeling, and might be the most rewarding one. This is what drives me forward.

I feel my family and friends see that already. I get a lot of support from them, which I'm very happy with.

What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur just starting out?

The first piece of advice I’d give is to truly build something you care about. There will be many hard times, like a roller coaster, where you go from thinking you’ve saved the world to wondering what you’re doing at all, before thinking you’ve saved the world again. It's essential to care deeply about your project, whether it's hardware or software, to keep going. I think without that you can't build a strong company and you cannot solve a hard problem.

The second advice I would always give is that hardware is hard. But don't hesitate to get into it. Because the big problems of tomorrow are climate tech or related to it, and climate tech is physical. So build physical products. It can be very rewarding, but it can take longer.

What books, movies, speeches, people, and so on inspired you the most in your journey?

I read a lot of business books. Even if it's going to be something like The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. I think these are mostly the books I have read which are very helpful to me.

But I think in the end what really inspires you most are other people. People who can show you how to build stuff. For me, that was the case when I worked at McKinsey. I had a project manager who had already built and sold a company himself. I learned a lot from him, and another partner who had brought some companies to IPO. People like these are the ones who can help you most.

The same goes for other founders. For example, we recently talked to the CTO from a very successful hardware startup who built large plants already. This is if you talk to these founders, or people who basically need to build things and really built them themselves.

Maybe they made companies big, sold them, or scaled them. I think this is where you can really learn the most, and you get really helpful advice. It's not from someone who just read a book or wrote a book, in the end. It's always about someone who has actually already done what you want to do.

So, if you're building something in software, look at an experienced software entrepreneur who has maybe built and sold it already. If you're into hardware, look at the big hardware companies, see who built them and ask them for advice. This is how I would go about it.

If there was one last message you could share with the world, what would it be?

I think the most important thing is climate change. It's not just a problem of technology but also relates to people's mindsets and politics. What I would love to have is humanity putting the subsidies we put into oil and gas into climate technologies instead. If we achieve that, or if we can really think about ourselves together, I think this would be very important. It would also be nice if we didn't always see things with an impending sense of doom. Of course we have climate change, and many places are in drought, but I think the most important thing is that we as humanity can solve it. We can solve it with technology but also by making decisions together as a society.

If humans can land on the moon, I think they can solve climate change. Florian, thank you so much for spending some of your time with us today and telling us a little about yourself and your company. From all of us at Brighter Future, we wish you nothing but the greatest possible success in Ucaneo’s carbon capture endeavours.

To learn more about Ucaneo, please see www.ucaneo.com.

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