The Cleantech Unicorn Trying to Reverse Climate Change

It’s hard to keep track of all the start-ups that have gone through the ClimAccelerator programme over the past 10 years. Some however, inevitably stand out, either because of their innovative contribution to climate change mitigation or their unparalleled success. Some for both.

“The question we get asked the most is, Why don’t you just plant trees? We don’t have enough space on the planet to solve the problem with trees.”

Climeworks operates in the field of direct air capture, the process of removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere. With fifteen plants worldwide, it is the largest player in the DAC field, and its flagship Orca facility alone, the biggest of its kind, removes up to 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. While that may sound great, and it certainly is impressive, Christoph Beuttler, Climework’s Head of Climate Policy, indicates that most studies point to 7,5 billion tons as a reasonable target for 2050, if we really want to “make it”.

Climeworks was founded in 2009, the byproduct of the friendship between Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, university classmates at ETH Zurich and avid skiers, shocked by the rate at which climate change was disrupting the Swiss Alps. After vowing to do anything in their power to stop and reverse not just the retreat of glaciers, but the climate crisis as a whole, they specialized in the technology now implemented by their own company, working to turn their game-changing idea into the game-changing company it is today, not without the significant support of ETH Zurich.

“The main hurdle was to convince people that this is possible.”

Climeworks is the most successful companies to have ever gone through the Carbon Removal ClimAccelerator. It’s a brilliant case study of just how far EIT Climate-KIC can help young entrepreneurs take their ideas on our shared mission to shape a climate-positive future. The development of carbon removal technologies is a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change as Beuttler himself reminds us, “we need to reduce emissions, but we also need to take CO2 out of the air.”

Climeworks’ story highlights the importance of creating a meaningful network of companies and institutions working side by side to achieve a shared vision. That is perfectly embodied by the processes taking place in their flagship Orca facility, in Iceland, where the CO2 captured from the atmosphere is then trapped underground by the neighbor company Carbfix, with the entire process powered by clean energy from the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant nearby.