We caught up with Dr Daniel Stewart, Co-Founder and CEO of ViridiCO2. ViridiCO2 are aiding the transition of manufacturers towards a circular economy by transforming carbon dioxide into high-value chemical intermediates, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.
The intention of our ‘Product | People | Potential’ content series is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Daniel: My name is Dr Daniel Stewart and I am the Co-Founder and CEO of ViridiCO2. ViridiCO2 has propriety chemical technology which enables the chemical manufacturing industry to directly transform CO2 into high value chemicals that can be sold for profit by chemical manufacturers. Currently we are scaling our technology beyond kilogram scale, and we are working directly with chemical manufacturers who wish to produce new CO2 materials using our technology, or to improve current processes that produce existing materials.
What makes our business offering unique? Well, our technology is a solid-phase heterogenous catalyst, this means it can be easily removed at the end of the process. Many of our competitors use homogeneous catalysts, that’s a liquid catalyst in a liquid system, and that’s like removing orange juice from water – a timely and costly process. For that reason, our process is faster, cheaper, and the technology itself can be used under far milder temperatures. This means that we can operate at lower temperatures and pressures, which has huge energy saving benefits.
Daniel: Yes, so ViridiCO2 was born out of my PhD. I studied for my PhD in 2016 under Professor Robert Raja, who is now my Co-Founder and business partner. Robert gave me the task of coming up with a catalytic solution that transforms CO2. I thought great, nice and easy, let’s do something really applicable. We discovered something 6 months in that worked well. I still remember it vividly. We were taking some organic materials and mixing it with CO2 and the catalysts I’d designed, and it turned it into a horrible sticky goop. That was the first proof-of-concept that we had converted CO2 into polymers. That was huge. We spent the next 3 years developing it. In that time, we filed a patent to protect our invention. We then applied to the emerging technology competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry, this is quite a prestigious talk and competition where you pitch your business idea for 6 minutes against 5 competing technologies and we won. That gave us the validation from 5 independent, industrial judges that we had a really good idea. We then enrolled on Innovate UK’s ICURe (Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research) programme which helped develop our business proposition. We then won £300,000 of Innovate UK funding to spin out. With that, we secured a further £560,000 of equity investment so we raised just under a million in less than a year after my PhD finished to make viridiCO2 the real deal. Since then, we’ve grown the team from 2 to 6. And we are working with the biggest manufacturers in the world to deliver our technology. It’s exciting.
Daniel: I think when it comes to green technologies, not everyone necessarily has the technical understanding to be absorbed by the science. I love the science and my key hires early on are scientists so they can appreciate the beauty in the science. But when you are bringing in people who don’t necessarily have that understanding but bring skills to your business that you desperately need in other areas; that can be HR, BD or sales, you name it. You must share the vision and the journey that they are going to jump on board with. At that point it needs to not be about the technology. The technology is cool, but our mission ultimately is to play a key role in meeting global net zero emission targets. We are a small cog in a much bigger humanitarian crisis solution.
That is the most important thing, I think if you can get that balance right then bringing like-minded people into your business becomes a lot easier.
They can get on board and see the part they’re playing in the solution you are trying to provide to the world.
Daniel: I mean largely this is really easy. We have loads of CO2 that we need to do something with and 87% of all chemicals in the world are derived from petrochemicals which come directly from fossil fuels. It’s very simple, you replace petrochemicals with carbon dioxide to make the chemicals that either exist or are going to replace existing products in the everyday items that we use. We have a technology that can do that, and manufacturers need this, therefore, product market fit is very straight forward.
Daniel: Yes, so, a really cool project we are doing at the moment is turning CO2 into detergent. We are making materials called surfactants. Simply put,. surfactants pull oil and organic material into the water phase. So, we are making the kind of soaps that go into these detergents that clean your clothes in the washing machine. That will then fall into making materials that go into the shampoos. That’s one area of products we are making. Surfactants go into everything. Another cool one is we are making the feedstock materials that go into polyurethanes. People typically know polyurethanes as the foams in your mattresses or in the soles of your shoes. We make the feedstock materials for that. The automotive and soft furnishing industries are huge purchasers of those kind of materials. Then there’s other things we can dip into as well; if we change one part of our catalyst, we can make the electrolytes that go into batteries. There’s a huge application scope.
Daniel: I think it is just about trying to apply and scale a chemical technology. There are so many cool chemical technologies in the labs, everyone doing a PhD is theoretically doing something novel. R&D teams across every sector of manufacturing are trying to do something novel, so it won’t work unless you make it scalable and cost effective. That is one of the biggest challenges; can we get it onto the scale of millions of tonnes of CO2 utilisation that the world requires in order to actually make a dent in the 40 billion tonnes of CO2 that is produced every single year.
Daniel: The numbers are alarming, what does 40 billion tonnes look like? It looks like 5.1 million Eiffel towers or 8856.5 pyramids of Giza. I give outreach talks to school kids, so I try to explain to them how many zeros are in billions and what that means for the world.
Daniel: This is why I do it. Drawing on my own experiences, I see parents are largely stuck in the ways that they were bought up. Traditionally speaking, we always see that changes occur through generations. It’s the kids that go home and say to their parents that we need to be making impact on this area, talking about more sustainable options. Generally, that’s how families adopt new approaches. People go to university to train based on what they have fallen in love with at school, to really shape their career paths. I got into chemistry and the climate emergency after I watched Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ when I was 13. I remember thinking this is a really big problem, someone will deal with that. Then 10 years later, still, nobody has dealt with that. So, I thought, that’ll be me then.
Daniel: Again, it links into people that we touched on earlier. Investing in start-ups and scale ups is inherently very risky. What I have been told and what I’ve seen is that investors will make investments based on the team and less on the technology. Obviously, you’ve got to prove that you can hit scalability and that there’s a market for it, that there is a cost-benefit because investors, at the end of the day, want to make more money. They have to make a judgment call on whether they think you can deliver. That comes down to how you present yourself. Are you resilient? How well are you going to keep knocking down the barriers in order to deliver? That hasn’t got anything to do with your technology, that is how you are as a person, as a team, and how you communicate with investors. Ultimately, if they see that you truly believe in what you are trying to do, then that is one of the best ways you can present yourself. If you don’t believe in it, no one else will.