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Our Investment in Living Carbon
Developing trees that capture & store more carbon
Likened to Earth’s natural air purifiers, trees represent the most cost-effective means of carbon sequestration and one of the key solutions to addressing climate change. In the U.S. alone, forests capture an estimated 15% of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the annual emissions from 163 million cars. Climate scientists have argued that global reforestation — on the order of an additional 2.5 billion acres — could sequester 200 gigatons of carbon and, potentially, absorb as much as two-thirds of historic emissions. While trees represent a feasible means of blunting the advance of climate change, there are a spate of threats that endanger their existence. We’ve previously written about how forest fires are becoming more frequent and intense. Coupled with climate-induced drought and pest infestation, these causes of mass tree destruction — amounting to an estimated 25 million acres per year — can result in a forest releasing more carbon than it absorbs. In order to mitigate the climate-related consequences of forest destruction, trees need to absorb more atmospheric emissions and slow their decomposition (and the resulting release of CO2).
Living Carbon, based in San Francisco, California, is working to achieve this by bioengineering trees that have these enhanced properties. The team has honed proprietary techniques to develop seeds that — like an environmental superhero in a comic book — are imbued with abilities that enhance their durability, resistance to decay, and carbon sequestration. The benefit of these “super trees” are forests that capture and store more carbon. We’re very excited to announce our investment in Living Carbon, founded by CEO Maddie Hall and CTO Patrick Mellor (inaugural guests of our MCJ Startup Series), whose team is working to address climate change by developing the trees of tomorrow.
What is Living Carbon?
You can learn more about Living Carbon from Maddie and Patrick’s 2020 Startup Series interview.
Living Carbon is a biotech company that is engineering faster-growing, more durable trees that benefit both the climate and landowners. Utilizing genetic engineering, it has developed techniques that enhance a process found in nature, known as hyperaccumulation, that allows for trees to absorb metals, like nickel and copper, from soil. The metals not only augment the durability of the wood from the tree, but also serve as a fungicide slowing decay. These properties ensure a reduction in CO2 release when the tree dies and is used as wood. In addition, the company applies a genetic modification that enhances photosynthesis by improving upon the breakdown of one of the toxins produced by that process. In doing so, trees conserve more energy which enables them to capture more CO2. The team has shared their research results demonstrating that photosynthesis enhanced trees can capture more carbon dioxide due to a faster growth rate and accumulation of 53% more biomass.
Living Carbon’s business model is initially based on the sale of its genetically-enhanced seedlings, typically to private landowners who may commercialize them for lumber. In addition, the company envisions generating carbon credits, which can be sold to a host of ready corporate or individual buyers. Living Carbon trees are able to capture more carbon with less acreage, and can also thrive on underperforming and degraded land (such as land where abandoned mines are situated) with otherwise toxic heavy metal concentrations.
Why Did We Invest?
Compelling Founder-Market Fit
The background and skill sets of the Living Carbon team reflect a complementary fit of science and commercialization. As CEO, Maddie Hall brings a number of years spent in product management and startup investing and has demonstrated incredible leadership in guiding the company through major milestones. CTO Patrick Mellor has a background in paleobiology and botany and offers deep insight into plant genetics. They have recruited additional talent including Yumin Tao, who has spent over a decade at DuPont and serves as VP of Biotechnology, and Jake Cacciapaglia, who has led business development in the biotech sector (and was previously a longtime colleague of Jason’s at RunKeeper!) and is now Head of Commercialization.
The founders originally met at a conference in 2019, where each discovered what the other was working on – Maddie was exploring photosynthesis enhancement and Patrick was working on decomposition resistance. They quickly realized that their respective areas of focus made for a compelling opportunity to combine forces around tackling climate change.
Creating a Biotech Platform for Climate Impact
Living Carbon offers more than just trees better suited at sequestering carbon. Its bioengineering methods serve as a platform that can enhance a range of different plant species (e.g. pine, switchgrass, algae, moss) by making them more efficient and resilient. Moreover, lumber products, like furniture, lock away carbon in woody forms and currently represent an offset of just 1% of annual global emissions. Living Carbon sees an opportunity to expand this share of carbon capture through its technology while delivering higher-quality wood products to industry.
Trees are a fundamental solution to solving the climate crisis, and Living Carbon’s genetic enhancements serve to fortify its impact. While there’s a long journey to go from the lab bench to forest-scale deployment, the company has made major inroads and is quickly demonstrating its potential to serve as a transformational solution to climate change.
If you are an accredited investor and want to learn more about being an investor in our fund (to back more great companies like this one!), reach out here, and include desired quarterly commitment level, accredited investor status, and info on your background and how you could be helpful to the portfolio.