A Carbon-Sucking Startup Has Been Paralyzed by Its CEO
(Bloomberg) -- The prototype of the device meant to stave off climate devastation looks like a shipping container wrapped in vibrant green Venetian blinds. Fans atop this shell are designed to draw air into the device, where a honeycomblike structure full of proprietary chemicals extracts carbon dioxide from the air, removing an ever-so-slight bit of planet-warming gas from the atmosphere.
Climate scientists call this technology direct-air capture. It’s basically an air filter for the Earth.
Global Thermostat, the New York-based company that created this green box, told reporters it would be able to suck about 4,000 tons of CO₂ out of the air per year. The company is one of just three around the world with direct-air capture technology that seems to have a shot at capturing carbon on a vast scale. Scientists say that to prevent catastrophic climate impacts, it might be necessary to draw as many as 10 billion tons of the gas from the air each year by 2050. But the promise of a few thousand tons removed, plus assurances about the potential for billions, was enough to generate excitement around Global Thermostat and its chief executive officer, Graciela Chichilnisky.
Two years ago, Chichilnisky was front and center as a string of journalists from different news outlets began visiting the green box, which sits in a field alongside a drab office park on the outskirts of Huntsville, Ala. She gave interviews and posed for photos with her prototype. The subsequent flurry of stories seemed to amount to a coming-out party for a charismatic leader and accomplished academic who first worked on pioneering global climate research in the 1990s. Top scientists have warned for decades that carbon capture will be an essential tool against climate change, and Chichilnisky was one of the first to heed the call.
In 2010, as an economics professor at Columbia, Chichilnisky co-founded Global Thermostat with physicist Peter Eisenberger. The core idea was as simple as the startup’s name: If you can control the amount of CO₂ in the atmosphere, you can manage the Earth’s temperature. During a series of interviews with Bloomberg Green beginning in early 2020, Chichilnisky repeatedly stressed that the company would soon be able to make a material impact. In a statement published on Global Thermostat’s website last year, she said, “I am very close to reversing climate change.”
Propelled by Chichilnisky’s vision, Eisenberger’s science, and some very wealthy benefactors, Global Thermostat says it’s raised about $70 million from investors, and it’s announced commercial partnerships with Fortune 500 companies. Most of these deals involve supplying captured CO₂ to businesses that can use it, including Air Liquide SA (which sells industrial gases) and Coca-Cola Co. (which needs to carbonate sodas). The partner that’s done perhaps the most to raise Global Thermostat’s profile is Exxon Mobil Corp., which said a year ago it was expanding an initial agreement to help scale up the carbon-capture company’s technology. Chichilnisky says the oil giant supplied Global Thermostat with $15 million in 2020.
Exxon wouldn’t confirm that figure but pointed to Global Thermostat as a prime example of its commitment to mitigating the environmental consequences of drilling and refining. “We like what we see in the Global Thermostat approach, from materials to engineering,” Exxon said in a statement. The company has pledged to invest $3 billion in various carbon-capture technologies, and Chichilnisky’s startup has featured prominently in its commercials on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
But Global Thermostat’s achievements haven’t matched its promise. For one thing, the prototype in Huntsville never reached 4,000 tons of captured CO₂ and isn’t even running today. Streamline Automation LLC, the contractor that built the facility and owns the property, says it shut the project down in the summer of 2019, shortly after the run of glowing news coverage. That contractor has since sued Global Thermostat for about $600,000 in unpaid bills, damages, and interest. Another prototype plant being built in Tulsa is at least a year behind schedule, according to Ron Key, the chief technology officer of GasTech Engineering LLC, the firm contracted to build it.
Global Thermostat denies Streamline’s claims, and Chichilnisky says the Tulsa plant will open this summer. She confirms that the Huntsville facility isn’t operational but says Global Thermostat hopes the court will award it ownership of the prototype, which Streamline built on its own property. In interviews, Chichilnisky often brushes off questions about the progress of Global Thermostat’s latest project to focus on the potential of future efforts. It’s more important, she says, that the company recently licensed its technology to partners that want to build a small direct-air capture module for a company in Chile, part of an effort to use the captured CO₂ in synthetic fuel.
Interviews with a dozen current and former Global Thermostat employees, as well as investors and other business partners, make clear that the company hasn’t met its goals—and its problems didn’t start in Tulsa or Huntsville. Most of these people spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, many citing nondisclosure agreements. But together, their accounts suggest the company has been stymied by setbacks and mismanagement since almost the very beginning and has made little progress in deployment over the past decade. They say its biggest accomplishments, including the deals with blue-chip companies, amounted to less than advertised and in some cases have yet to produce anything. Colleagues describe emotional strain and a chaotic intermixing of company business with Chichilnisky’s personal life. “She kept driving people away,” says one former senior executive. “No one could deal with her lack of ability to separate the personal from the professional.”
Chichilnisky says this dim picture should be dismissed as a matter of sour grapes from job candidates she rejected or former employees too motivated by personal gain. “The people that we hire sometimes get greedy, and they think if they leave, they can try to say things that give them money,” she says. “That’s all.” She notes that Global Thermostat’s first scale-model carbon-capture device has been running at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., for most of the past decade.
Direct-air capture is real, it works, and it could well be a big deal. The think tank Vivid Economics Ltd. estimates that carbon removal will be a $1.4 trillion industry by 2050. In recent years, Global Thermostat’s two main competitors, both of which were launched around the same time, appear to have overtaken it. Carbon Engineering Ltd., located on the west coast of Canada and backed by Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Chevron Corp., is planning to build a plant that can capture 1 million tons of CO₂ a year. Climeworks AG, in Switzerland, has received support from its home country’s energy agency and several pan-European research projects, plus a deal with Bill Gates that will pay it as much as $600 per ton of removed carbon. Other parties making bids to fund such technology include U.S. President Joe Biden and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who’s put up $100 million from the world’s biggest personal fortune as a prize for CO₂ removal.
Yet there are real costs to losing years of work on this problem, as current and former Global Thermostat employees, investors, and business partners say the company has. America’s only major contender in direct-air capture is sitting on intellectual property that likely has significant planet-saving potential, and the rest of the industry simply hasn’t grown enough yet to make up for it. “The field has too few startups,” says Noah Deich, president of Carbon180, a nonprofit focused on CO₂ removal. “Getting to scale, especially when there’s very little policy support, requires effective leadership.”
Chichilnisky was born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Argentina shortly after World War II. She emigrated to the U.S. after Argentina’s military coup, and proved so capable among a pool of refugee students that she won entry, without a college degree, to graduate school at MIT. She says earning dual Ph.D.s in math and economics by the age of 30 was the most difficult thing she’s ever done, especially while raising her son E.J., who’s now a Stanford neurosurgery professor. After finishing the Ph.D.s, she took the job at Columbia, and won tenure in just two years.
Her work on the economics of poverty in developing countries brought Chichilnisky into the orbit of the United Nations, which led her to contribute to reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1995. She says she developed an early market for carbon offsets as part of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and points to this work as evidence of her stature in the field. For its efforts to educate the world about climate change and possible solutions, the IPCC, a consortium that includes hundreds of scientists, shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 with Al Gore.
Two unlikely figures who converged on Columbia’s climate scene during this period became pivotal in the creation of Global Thermostat: a former oil industry scientist and the heir to a liquor fortune. The scientist, Eisenberger, had spent years working high up in Exxon’s physical science division, then took a job at Princeton before Columbia hired him to run its Earth Institute in 1996. He met Chichilnisky, and the two became close. Photos on Instagram show Eisenberger in casual wear and Chichilnisky in a swimsuit while she plays in the water with her young son. “I love my partners,” Chichilnisky says. “Peter is a pretty special person for me, because I have known him for 20 years.” Eisenberger provided a statement supporting Global Thermostat’s technology but wouldn’t comment on Chichilnisky.
The heir, Ben Bronfman, is in the fourth generation of the Seagram liquor fortune, a son and grandson of Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Sr. He dropped out of college, toured for years with a rock band, then turned up at Columbia to learn about climate change after being inspired by An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s film. At Columbia, Bronfman found Chichilnisky and Eisenberger, whom he describes now as mentors and “extraordinary geniuses.” He also attended a lecture by climate scientist Klaus Lackner, who was the first to theorize that direct-air capture might be feasible.
Lackner’s idea was inspired by a technology used for decades in the oil and gas industry. The gases released from burning fossil fuels often contain 5% to 10% carbon dioxide, and energy companies had found it relatively easy to capture the gas for reuse in industrial applications. Before Lackner, though, it was widely believed the same principle wasn’t worth applying to CO₂ in the open air, where its concentration is a paltry 0.04%. His research suggested the consensus was wrong—that there was a way to remove the carbon more easily, with less energy, and make direct-air capture efficient enough to be legitimately cheap.
Lackner’s direct-air capture company folded after he sold it and the new management ran out of money. But Bronfman was an instant believer, and Chichilnisky and Eisenberger persuaded him to fund their version of the idea. Global Thermostat’s technology revolves around the use of CO₂-trapping chemicals attached to a porous solid. The more porous the solid, theoretically, the more efficient the process of capturing CO₂ could be.
Bronfman brought Chichilnisky and Eisenberger to his father and grandfather, who agreed to invest millions of dollars in 2010. The other early investors, he says, included leveraged-buyout king Henry Kravis and David Elenowitz, president of investment firm Zero Carbon Partners LLC. Kravis declined to comment, and Elenowitz didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Two elements of the company’s founding structure decidedly favor Chichilnisky, according to employees and a potential investor. These people say the Bronfmans agreed to leave Chichilnisky and Eisenberger in control of the patents and intellectual property and grant them each a third of the corporate equity. Chichilnisky declined to provide exact numbers but agrees that the equity awards were “something of that sort.” Effectively, this means her control over the company and its IP cannot be altered as long as Eisenberger is on her side.
Current and former employees who spoke with Bloomberg Green describe Chichilnisky’s accomplishments at Global Thermostat as a series of mostly empty announcements, such as the company’s supposed partnership with Coca-Cola. When pressed over the course of several interviews, the CEO’s account of that partnership shifted significantly.
Last year, Chichilnisky said Global Thermostat had a 10-year contract to supply Coke with 20,000 tons of captured carbon annually. Global Thermostat declined to provide details about where or when this work would be happening. Then, in an interview this February, Chichilnisky acknowledged that no facility to do it had been built. The deal, she now says, was to capture carbon for Femsa, the Mexican company that is the world’s largest Coke bottler. Femsa says they never had a contract and that the parties weren’t able to agree on the technology’s potential usefulness or cost.
A former Global Thermostat employee familiar with the talks says they centered on a small direct-air capture device that was to be set up at a Femsa bottling plant about 30 miles outside of Mexico City, in a hilly region where it’s expensive to import CO₂ by truck. The negotiations foundered, this employee says, after Chichilnisky upped her asking price. She also insisted that the bottler haul in the demonstration plant from Huntsville. “Femsa wanted a brand-new piece of equipment,” says the employee, “but Graciela wanted to save money.”
Chichilnisky says the project remains ready to move forward, on the condition that Global Thermostat finishes its latest demonstration plant and proves its reliability. “We need to do the testing,” she says.
Current and former employees say Global Thermostat’s promises to expand its footprint and advance its technology have mostly turned out like the would-be bottling deal. Early on, Chichilnisky ran the company out of her townhouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before moving into the Madison Avenue building shared by Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s investment company. Global Thermostat’s staff generally totals fewer than a dozen people, and everyone at its headquarters sits together in one large room, with daily dysfunction on open display. The accounts of current and former employees range widely across the company’s history, but they consistently depict Chichilnisky as a difficult boss who could be Global Thermostat’s own worst enemy, while Eisenberger defers to her and the Bronfmans stay out of day-to-day affairs. “We used to joke about pitching it as a reality series,” one staffer recalls.
Chichilnisky wouldn’t comment on specific allegations regarding her behavior. A public-relations firm representing Global Thermostat offered to discuss the company’s technology but would agree to an interview only on the condition that it wouldn’t address Chichilnisky’s management style and declined to make anyone available to speak on her behalf.
Current and former employees say Chichilnisky has routinely berated business partners and subordinates at all levels, including Eisenberger. Her expectations frequently shift on the fly, they say, and intense anger often follows. “Multiple times we had to replace the phone because she would slam the headset onto the cradle,” breaking it, says a former senior executive.
Another common complaint is that, regardless of their role, any staffer could be treated like Chichilnisky’s personal assistant. Former employees recall spending most of their time handling errands that were clearly unrelated to Global Thermostat, from grading papers written by Chichilnisky’s Columbia students to filling out paperwork for her medical appointments. “I spent 10% of the time on my stated job, 40% of my time on Columbia, and 50% managing Graciela,” says one staffer.
One symptom of the turmoil inside Global Thermostat has been rapid turnover. Anyone who lasted six months was considered a veteran, according to one former senior executive who left in 2019. Another who left that year puts the standard tenure at four months. A former senior executive who spent less than two years at the company says Chichilnisky went through 10 assistants in that span. A Global Thermostat spokesperson says its turnover rate for full-time staff is on par with the national average.
These problems have held back Global Thermostat’s progress for years, Chichilnisky’s former colleagues say, culminating most notably in the abandonment of the Huntsville plant almost two years ago. People who worked closely on the project say Eisenberger was left to handle the technical details during construction. One senior engineer says the CEO only expressed frustration with the plant’s output once potential business partners began asking to see it.
Engineering reports showed the plant was on pace to capture, at most, 1,000 tons of carbon in a year, just a quarter of the original estimate. Another problem, according to the engineer: The chemical-coated, carbon-sucking sponges at least once burst into flames inside their shipping boxes.
Exxon executives were among the plant’s final visitors in July 2019. The senior engineer says Chichilnisky told the group the plant could pull a ton of carbon from the air for $50, about one-fifth of the real cost. When Global Thermostat fell behind on unpaid invoices, the engineer says, Streamline, the contractor, shut the plant down and called a meeting with Chichilnisky. (Global Thermostat didn’t answer questions about the invoices.) The negotiations failed, hence the ongoing lawsuit.
As Global Thermostat appears to have stalled, its rivals are making progress. Carbon Engineering, the brainchild of a Harvard professor, is focused on creating large-scale devices for direct-air capture. After switching on a pilot plant in Squamish, B.C., it’s working with Occidental on the plant meant to capture as many as 1 million metric tons of CO₂ a year as soon as 2024. Climeworks, which builds smaller, more modular devices like Global Thermostat’s, has about 15 in varying sizes across Europe. Carbon Engineering has published results from its demo plants in peer-reviewed journals, and Climeworks has accepted grants that require disclosures about its performance.
These companies will likely be well positioned to take advantage of the coming explosion in carbon-capture funding. Earlier this year, the U.S. extended a tax credit that supports businesses in the field, including Exxon, Chevron, and Occidental, netting $50 for every ton of CO₂. The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden’s March 31 proposal outlining the contours of a landmark infrastructure bill, signaled an interest in replacing those tax credits with direct payments. That would represent a potential bonanza for companies prepared to meet the challenge.
While large-scale direct-air capture technology edges closer to reality in other parts of the world, however, America’s homegrown company has little clear progress to show for the past several years. The Global Thermostat plant that’s supposed to come online this summer in Tulsa remains firmly in the design phase, according to contracting firm GasTech. “We’ve done a lot of pro bono to keep this project going,” says Key, the CTO. Once completed, he says, the plant should reliably capture 2,000 tons of carbon a year, not much more than the initial Stanford prototype Chichilnisky’s company built in 2010.
Global Thermostat is still drawing in partners. In final interviews, Chichilnisky emphasized a deal struck in February with HIF, a Chilean company. Siemens Energy AG will use Global Thermostat’s designs to help HIF build a plant that aims to use captured CO₂ in synthetic fuel for Porsche AG. “We spent the last two years with Siemens making a very detailed technical assessment of all the technologies, and Graciela’s made the most sense,” says HIF President Cesar Norton. Asked how HIF had evaluated Global Thermostat’s technology without an operational demonstration plant, Norton says it evaluated the company’s designs. Construction has yet to begin.
Chichilnisky also continued to emphasize the expansion of the company’s partnership with Exxon, which Global Thermostat said in a news release last fall would soon be capable of sucking 1 billion tons of CO₂ from the air each year. Current and former staffers say it’s unclear exactly what Exxon is doing with Global Thermostat besides advertising it heavily. Exxon says it’s focused on advancing the technology and reducing costs. “During our relationship with Global Thermostat, we have seen progress in their research and development of carbon-capture materials, and we are providing our expertise to evaluate the potential of bringing these materials to commercial scale,” the company said in a statement. It declined to specify a timetable for billion-ton scale, however: “We don’t take issue with that as an aspiration, but there is a lot of work to be done to reach that.”
When pressed, Chichilnisky acknowledges she isn’t quite sure how her ties to Exxon or Siemens can lead to scaling up from thousands of tons of carbon into the billions. “The answer is, I don’t know,” she says. “These are humongous firms. I’m not telling these friends what to do.” —With Cyntia Barrera Diaz
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