What does it mean to be a beautiful business?
The inspiration for the Swiss company Climeworks goes back 20 years. The two co-founders, Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, met serendipitously on their first day of university at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. The two engineers discovered a shared love for alpine sports. While staying in Chamonix in France on a three-month skiing holiday, they experienced first-hand the rapid retreat of glaciers, representing the effects of climate change. Standing in their ski gear, the engineers looked at a 50m ladder used by mountaineers to climb down to the glacier. The locals explained that two metres had to be added to the ladder every year. The engineers felt they could not walk away from such evidence.
But in their plan to build a business addressing climate change, they encountered a challenge. Scientific studies indicate that by 2050, the world will need to remove 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. This is not so much a question of reduction; it is about taking back the carbon warming the planet. This is why Gebald and Wurzbacher wanted to develop a technology that could capture carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the air. Their ambition was that air-captured CO2 could be recycled, for example in heating commercial greenhouses, used as a raw material, or completely removed from the air by safely storing it.
Critics said it could not be done, and would never be commercially viable. And yet Climeworks proved that it could work. Wurzbacher explains how the Swiss company’s approach links with current investing practices and timelines. ‘I believe a big problem in the financing of sustainable projects is the time horizon. The typical venture capital or even private equity model has a fund which you fill up, you invest, then after five, seven or even ten years you have to repay the fund,’ he says. ‘A typical venture capital fund is not the best partner to scale businesses focused on regeneration and industrial innovation. We are fortunate to have shareholders with a very long horizon line. They are looking to build up a new industry. Climeworks investors are entrepreneurs, Swiss, German, some slightly further afield, who share this long-term vision.’
Now that Climeworks has developed a technology called direct air capture, it has established ten commercial plants. The most important of these was set up as a joint venture with an Icelandic company called Carbfix, an expert in the rapid underground mineralisation of carbon dioxide. The Carbfix process centres around the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant provides the renewable energy that is needed to run the Climeworks machines. It is one of the world’s first carbon-negative plants, showing how we can go from the term ‘net zero’ to ‘climate positive’.
Climeworks draws CO2 from the atmosphere with its direct air capture machines. Carbfix then mixes this with water and pumps it deep underground. Through a process of natural mineralisation, the CO2 reacts with the basalt rock and is converted into stone within a few years; it is returned safely to the earth. With the machine-based solution of Climeworks, the amount of CO2 that has been turned into stone can be accurately measured.
"If ever a company needed to scale, it’s this one, which is why we need more people like these mechanical engineers because you can’t do business on a dead planet."
The excitement of Wurzbacher is clear as he talks about what Climeworks’ partner Carbfix has done in Iceland. ‘When you are looking at CO2 storage, there are many questions: Is it safe? Will the carbon release itself? Conventional CO2 storage is safe and well understood,’ he says. ‘But I couldn’t think of anything better than turning it into stone and storing it a thousand metres underground. It works so well we have plans to scale this around the world together.’
The circular economy
Climeworks helps us to understand the importance of the circular economy. Wurzbacher believes that in the next five years, no CEO of a large corporation will get away with not having a climate target and a larger sustainability target at the top of their agenda. This takes us back to what people in wider society are asking for. ‘The only way we can move forward is thinking in circles,’ he says, ‘acting as a circular economy, and telling better stories and enabling people to meaningfully contribute.’
Wurzbacher goes on to say that the battles they are facing are stories about belief. So, one should not tell the story in a way that suggests we need to stop doing things. Instead, we must build a positive narrative. ‘Every story we are telling is around how we can do something, how we can act. There is technology that can solve many problems. I am a skier and a windsurfer, and I want to continue doing these things. Sometimes, I need to get on a plane to go somewhere, and I hope I can still do this but in a sustainable way.’
This is where the idea of designing something truly beautiful comes in. Wurzbacher explains that beauty can be found in a solution that has a long-term foundation. Beauty is something that I could imagine sustains us well into the future. We could build a rocket which has a finite amount of energy which burns, then has to eventually come back to earth,’ he says. ‘Or, we could build a solar- powered ship that could in theory sail around the world forever. You could even have a team on board that could maintain and repair the ship — that is beautiful.’
The power of people
Everyone can contribute, according to Wurzbacher. ‘This is something that has been on my mind,’ he says. ‘What I increasingly see is people asking us, how can we contribute?’ He reflects on how the task can seem insurmountable for an individual, but can be overcome as a collective: the most powerful tool to trigger action is through everyone doing their bit. He adds, ‘If every employee asked their employer to become sustainable, they would have to do it ... We have welcomed people approaching us.’
The Climeworks co-founder continues: ‘I believe in the power of people and the power of the perception of people. Because so many approached us, we found a way to empower them to contribute to climate change and CO2 reduction in particular.’
The adventurous engineer has high aspirations for the future. ‘I hope we can scale this not only for revenue, but because we can then affect policy. If one day we had a million pioneers doing this with us it would be important, not only to generate cash and scale our technology, but more importantly to create momentum for change at a policy level. What we are building is a new industry, a new eco-system.’
Looking at the foundational values of a beautiful business in Alan Moore’s books ‘Do Design’ and ‘Do Build’: beauty, nature, biomimicry, regenerative design, values and metrics, and governance — Climeworks is doing something truly beautiful.
The business pays respect to nature and accepts a responsibility to regenerate the earth. This takes us back to the deepest relationship that humanity has with the natural world. In the value creation metrics of a regenerative economy Climeworks is contributing, not taking. The company responds to John Ruskin’s maxim that we need to focus on things that will sustain us for an eternity.
Adopting the principle that nature is the best designer we have, Climeworks has applied lessons of biomimicry. Inspired by her principles, the business embraces the circular economy in working with a long timeframe. Often this is where pioneering technological innovation falls down, as investors make short-term demands for success. In that sense, the founders of Climeworks are being good ancestors, creating a legacy for future generations. Without a doubt, Gebald and Wurzbacher are resourceful human beings, as well as being leaders who have a compelling story that inspires and motivates.
Climeworks demonstrates an ability to envisage a novel solution to a complicated problem, with a supreme act of design engineering. My belief is that great design is perseverance fuelled by optimism. My friend Laurence John, co-founder and CEO of ctrlio and a pioneer in his own right, said to me, ‘Beauty is like a gene; genes don’t do anything, but nothing happens without them, whereas protein does the work — show people the protein.’ Here, Climeworks is doing beauty.
Alan Moore is the founder of The Beautiful Design Project: which runs courses and consulting for business leaders, innovators and young innovators to reset their thinking towards a more regenerative future and providing the methodologies, skills and toolsets to build businesses the world needs.
For students, the TBDP aims to provide young people with the knowledge and tools to navigate the right course in their future careers in changing the world for the better.
Copyright Alan Moore. Published in Do Build How to make and lead a business the world needs. Do Book Co. 2021.
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