The carbon dioxide removal (CDR) sector faces a challenging conundrum as projects require significant funding and mentoring to reach the demonstration phase, but financing remains scarce until projects can demonstrate success. Although various initiatives have been formed to solve this chicken-and-egg problem, companies continue to experience various barriers to scaling up.
Novel CDR technologies need to grow by a factor of 1,300 on average by mid-century. Over the past few years, the number of start-ups working on developing CDR solutions has rapidly increased in response to this need. This entrepreneurial ecosystem plays a crucial role in scaling these technologies towards the gigaton levels necessary to reach the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. However, starting and growing a young company in this novel market is a challenging endeavor. Despite the attempts of various corporations to kickstart the sector, many promising CDR projects are yet to take off.
In reality, very few companies have actually started (pre-)purchasing durable CDR. Robert Höglund has recently outlined five reasons explaining why buyers remain hesitant, including companies’ expectations that prices will drop in the near future. However, to reduce costs and increase adoption, CDR technologies must ascend the learning curve through the actual removal of carbon. Waiting for lower prices to invest will be detrimental to CDR growth, risking the situation that there may not be sufficient CDR available when companies reach their net zero targets. Early purchases through platforms like CEEZER enable new removal methods to see the day, help existing methods to transition from pilot to full-scale deployment, and widen the playing field. For this, CEEZER is proud to partner with many exciting companies to make their CDR projects accessible and approachable for corporates through pre-purchases and long-term agreements. That said, more support is needed to truly scale CDR.
Map of scale-up initiatives
It takes an ecosystem to save the planet and scale CDR. Despite the market being in its infancy, there are already many initiatives available to help start-ups operating in this sector get off the ground. To help guide young companies in this space, CEEZER has compiled a comprehensive overview of accelerators, incubators, innovation competitions, venture capitalists, and purchase commitments that cater specifically to CDR.
When taking a quick glance at the map, one may feel cautiously optimistic about the future of this sector. In the short time that it exists, this ecosystem has managed to create a breadth of initiatives that ultimately help CDR companies reach that first carbon credit sale.
In the remainder of this article, each category above is discussed in more detail, along with some of the most notable initiatives in that bucket. In the end, it is assessed whether the current landscape is sufficient to scale up CDR and help it overcome its “chicken-and-egg” problem.
Accelerators and incubators
AirMiners Launchpad, Catalyst by Carbonfuture, Y-Combinator, Sustaintech Xcelerator, First Gigaton Captured by Third Derivative, Carbon Management Imperative by Activate, C2V Initiative, Brinc Climate Tech Accelerator, Marble, Carbon13, Deep Science Ventures
Joining an accelerator program can help start-ups gain access to mentors, investors, and other resources. Besides networking opportunities, most accelerators guide founders through complex entrepreneurial issues, add structure, and help raise the next round. According to a list by CTCV, there are more than 40 climate-related accelerators and incubators out there. Yet, only a few are really dedicated to the topic of CDR.
AirMiners is a lively network of entrepreneurs, scientists, investors, and other experts dedicated to CDR. It hosts a Slack community, a comprehensive five-week CDR sprint course, webinars on a variety of topics, and a Launchpad program geared towards early-stage ventures. It covers topics such as engagement with key stakeholders on pathways for selling CDR credits, value proposition development, customer discovery efforts, techno-economic assessment capabilities as well as connecting to a network of fellow start-up founders. The latter is a 6-week program for early teams working on CDR, developed in partnership with Xprize and Creative Destruction Lab. It is offered quarterly and has already hosted eight “batches” so far. Over the last two years, 95 startups graduated from the AirMiners accelerator program with a combined $57 million of grant money and venture capital raised.
Originated at the ETH Zürich’s Sustainability in Business Lab, this program has supported more than 60 European early-stage CDR start-ups since its start in 2021 with coaching, expert matchmaking, ecosystem access, and non-dilutive capital. Originally known as the CDR ClimAccelerator, it rebranded as remove in April 2023, and now offers a two-stage accelerator program that introduces early-stage CDR founders to the CDR space, connects them with relevant ecosystem stakeholders, and addresses individual challenges on their entrepreneurial journeys. It provides non-dilutive funding and the opportunity to profit from remove’s vast network of CDR domain experts.
Carbonfuture’s Catalyst accelerates the growth of negative emission technologies to the gigaton range. The program supports innovative CDR companies on their journey from proof of concept demonstration to formally participating in and benefitting from the CDR market. It gives participants early access to revenue and support from carbon market experts. One focus area of the program is the development of methodologies and robust monitoring systems to accurately measure removals.
Y Combinator (YC)
Founded in 2005, YC is arguably one of the most known accelerators in the world. Twice a year, it runs a 3-month program where start-ups of varying stages are welcome, whether they are still in the planning phase or have been operational for a year or more. Overall, it has funded well over 100 climate tech start-ups, which together are worth over $10 billion. Currently, it specifically has a Request for Start-ups (RfS) outstanding for companies working on Carbon Removal Technologies, noting that “it's time to invest and avidly pursue a new wave of technological solutions to this problem - including those that are risky, unproven, even unlikely to work”.
XPRIZE CDR, OpenAir Carbon Removal Challenge, Keeling Curve Prize, Earthshot Prize
CDR companies can benefit greatly from competitions as they provide a platform to showcase their innovations, compete for funding and recognition, and gain mentorship and networking opportunities. Innovation competitions have clear, measurable goals and can inspire to take action. In addition to the ones above, various other corporate-run contests may be relevant, but it is uncertain if they actually accept CDR submissions. Similarly, various public programs that only touch upon CDR are not included, such as the Innovation Fund of the EU, or SPRIND’s carbon-to-value challenge in Germany.
XPRIZE Carbon Removal
Funded by Elon Musk, this $100 million competition is dubbed “the most significant incentive prize in history”. This four-year global competition invites innovators and teams to create and demonstrate solutions that can pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere or oceans, and sequester it durably and sustainably. To win the Grand Prize, teams must demonstrate a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tons removed per year, model their costs at a scale of 1 million tons per year, and show a pathway to achieving a scale of gigatons per year in the future. Registration for the Grand Prize will close on September 2023. To date, $20 million in prizes have already been awarded. In April 2025, judges will select the winners, $50 million paid to the single Grand Prize Winner, and $30 million to be distributed among up to 3 runners up.
Incubated within The Royal Foundation of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Earthshot Prize is designed to find and grow the solutions that will repair our planet this decade. Each year until 2030, five winners with the best chance of helping to achieve the Earthshots will receive £1 million each and tailored support to help scale their ground-breaking solutions. In 2022, the “Fix our Climate” category was won by the Oman-based 44.01, which removes CO2 permanently by mineralizing it in rock.
OpenAir Carbon Removal Challenge
The 2023 OpenAir Carbon Removal Challenge was a global competition that invited students to develop innovative methods, strategies, and models for reducing carbon emissions from the land, water, and air. With the support of researchers and industry specialists, participating teams created open-source solutions to address the issue of carbon pollution. The top-performing approaches were showcased at New York University in April 2023. Given its success, it is probable that a follow-up challenge will be announced in the future.
Counteract, Carbon Removal Partners, Lowercarbon Capital, Carbon Direct Capital, Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, Alchemist Climate Ventures, Propeller VC, Acceler8, Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, Voyager, USV
Investors are showing a lot of interest in climate technology, including those related to CDR. The overview here only includes those with a very specific focus on CDR, which means that more generalist climate tech VCs who have made bets in CDR such as Planet A, Extantia, AENU, and Prime Impact Fund have been omitted.
Over the past two years, the climate tech industry has been performing exceptionally well in this field, compared to other sectors. As noted by TechCrunch, despite a slowdown in tech investing last year, climate tech start-ups continued to thrive and secure deals. Data from Climate Tech VC shows investment in the “Carbon” sector was $2.3 billion in 2022, representing a growth of factor 4 compared to 2021. Last year, about half of that funding went toward CDR. Judging from the announcements made in 2023, CDR investment does not seem to be affected by the wider downturn in the market either.
This VC’s tagline brilliantly emphasizes their commitment to improving the planet: “Lowercarbon Capital backs kickass companies that make real money slashing CO2 emissions, sucking carbon out of the sky, and buying us time to unf**k the planet.” With regards to CDR, it states that “we have to figure out how to hit Ctrl+Z on decades worth of carbon pollution”. Lowercarbon Capital raised $350 million to invest in start-ups focused on CDR, making it a real force to reckon with.
Counteract is a VC firm dedicated to fighting the climate crisis through research, development, and investment. It offers financial and strategic support to engineer and scientist entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas that can turn into self-sustaining businesses that can capture or store greenhouse gases on a global scale. Counteract aims to overcome the obstacles to large-scale CDR. It is investing in a range of initiatives that include both nature-based and engineered solutions, which must meet four criteria: they must be diverse, catalytic, self-sustaining, and responsible. In February 2023, it closed £15 million on its inaugural fund (targeting £35 million in total).
Carbon Removal Partners
This Zurich-based VC has a pure focus on the expanding CDR industry, funding technologies that can permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere, as well as supporting companies involved in the CDR value chain. It states that it “takes decisions with regards to its deepest conviction that CDR will take on an indispensable role among other carbon reduction strategies”. Its portfolio hosts well-known names in the sector such as Climeworks, Lithos, Carbonfuture, and Heirloom. For full transparency, it should be noted here that Carbon Removal Partners is also an investor in CEEZER.
NextGen CDR, Frontier, First Movers Coalition, Milkywire, Climate Vault, Apple, Microsoft, Klarna, Swiss Re, J.P. Morgan, Airbus
Early bright spots in market shaping have attracted strong media attention that helped build awareness and momentum for CDR solutions among a broader group of stakeholders. These buyer clubs purchase in the form of advance market commitments for CO2 removed in the future, generating a secure stream of revenue for project developers. According to cdr.fyi, purchases of bio-oil and biochar account for most of the transactions to date. However, in May 2023, Microsoft entered into the largest CDR transaction yet, agreeing to buy 2.76 million tonnes from a Danish bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS) project. Following this, about 80% of purchases are now made by organizations from sectors like IT, consulting, and finance.
Initiated by Stripe, Alphabet, Shopify, Meta, and McKinsey, Frontier is an advance market commitment to purchase a significant amount of permanent CDR between 2022 and 2030. In April 2023 various companies joined the initiative and agreed to spend $100 million to remove carbon through the Frontier program, pushing the portfolio over $1 billion. Frontier assists its member companies in acquiring CDR through pre-purchase or offtake agreements. The program's objective is to foster the development of a new industry by providing a unique funding source that does not rely on debt or equity investments, but rather on actual product purchases before the technology is fully available at scale.
First Mover Coalition
Members of this buyer's club, which include SwissRe, Microsoft, and BCG, have stated their commitment to not only focus on reducing their direct emissions to the maximum possible extent but also to contract for a minimum of 50,000 tons of net CDR that is durable and scalable for a minimum of 1,000 years. This goal is set to be achieved by the end of the year 2030.
Apple announced an expansion of its Restore Fund in April 2023, doubling the company’s total commitment to advancing nature-based CDR projects with an additional $200 million. Located in Brazil and Paraguay, Apple’s three initial investments with Conservation International and Goldman Sachs aim to restore 150,000 acres of sustainably certified working forests and protect an additional 100,000 acres of native forests, grasslands, and wetlands. Together, these projects are forecasted to remove 1 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year by 2025
Enough to overcome the “chicken-and-egg” problem?
The majority of funding directed towards CDR currently primarily originates from private sector investments and donations. However, relying primarily on companies’ voluntary activities will likely not be sufficient to create a sizable market on track to reach net zero. For this nascent industry to really take off, public sector procurement will need to play a bigger role in the future.
Nevertheless, to kickstart this process and address the chicken-and-egg problem, we need a more extensive and profound demand now. While early-stage investments and pre-purchases by corporates have begun, they must dramatically increase to grow the CDR ecosystem. It must be normalized that all companies must finance climate solutions in the upcoming years, with a specific emphasis on supporting the scale-up of CDR to achieve net zero in 2050 and beyond.
While it may be true that not all companies are a VC that is able to make a risky bet in a start-up or have the resources to make a $200 million long-term purchase of CDR, all companies must start integrating durable CDR in their carbon credit portfolios. Indeed, companies use CEEZER to already include volumes of novel, durable CDR technologies in their current and short-term portfolio via CEEZER. The white paper on how to build a portfolio of carbon credits in 2023 already shared best practices of how experienced buyers are optimizing their portfolios by mixing long-term offtake agreements and pre-purchases of selected technical CDR credits (which can often be purchased at a discounted price when bought in advance) with flexible spot-purchase credits.
Platforms like CEEZER hence play a pivotal role to generate early offtake once first volumes are on the horizon, while they can make adding durable CDR risk-free and easy for buyers only starting on their journeys. By building balanced portfolios optimized for the available budget, CEEZER empowers companies to engage in CDR without the need to pre-commit huge amounts to finance risky technologies. On CEEZER, many exciting project developers make their CDR credits accessible and approachable for buyers already today. While many of the outlined initiatives above help CDR players to get off the ground, CEEZER offers project developers the opportunity to enter into future contracts with buyers early and list long-term offtake agreements to secure stable revenue streams. This can have a significant impact in catalyzing the CDR industry, and we encourage projects to achieve their very first carbon credit sale using CEEZER.