With Carbon Capture Project, Silicon Valley Purses a Moonshot That Matters

(Bloomberg) -- Last week brought what now seems like the usual crop of bad news from Silicon Valley: an alleged cover-up of sexual harassment at Google, culture problems at Netflix Inc., more foreign meddling on Facebook Inc. and even underwhelming quarterly earnings from Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc.

So perhaps you missed a more sanguine development that harkens back to old, romantic ambitions of how technology can solve the world’s most critical problems. Y Combinator, the famed startup school that birthed companies like Airbnb Inc., Stripe Inc. and Dropbox Inc., said it would start looking for startups working on breakthrough technologies in the field of carbon capture, the science of pulling carbon-dioxide molecules out of the atmosphere, where they are contributing to a rapidly warming planet. “It’s time to invest and avidly pursue a new wave of technological solutions to this problem—including those that are risky, unproven, even unlikely to work,” Y Combinator writes on its website.

Y Combinator says it seeks to support companies that aim to absorb and isolate CO2 in one of four ways: by creating new breeds of phytoplankton, flooding deserts to grow plankton and other vegetation, mining and grinding certain types of carbon-absorbing rocks or designing specialized carbon-eating microbes. “The stuff all sounds bat-shit insane,” says Y Combinator partner Sam Altman, who’s leading the project. “I have no illusions about it.”

But desperate times call for desperate measures. Earlier this month the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the world must immediately mobilize to avoid catastrophic warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that level of temperature rise, bad things will happen. Avoiding it will require cutting back on the use of coal, dramatically curbing emissions, scaling the use of renewable energies and doubling down on carbon capture and storage technologies.

Carbon capture projects are seeing a wave of new support in the wake of the UN report. Altman says he and his partners at the firm have spent all year studying the topic, and held weekly meetings with scientists and clean-tech entrepreneurs to look at more ambitious and aggressive solutions. He says they avoided selecting fields where companies are already well-funded, like those that cultivate biochar, a type of soil that stores carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. They dismissed other ideas as being unrealistic and unpredictable, such as solar radiation management, or spraying the atmosphere with particles to reflect sunlight and curb global warming.

The customary deal for startups at Y Combinator is a $150,000 investment in exchange for a 7 percent stake in the company, though Altman says they are open to exploring different arrangements. The business incubator has previously funded clean-tech startups developing things like electric buses and agriculture robots. But now Altman says, “I no longer believe clean-tech will happen fast enough. I think we need other things, too.” While he says a large, valuable company can come out of the new effort, he’s dismissive of questions about potential financial returns, instead saying, “It’s an important thing to do.”

(Willett Advisors, the investment arm for the personal and philanthropic assets of Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, is an investor in Y Combinator startups, and Bloomberg regularly advocates for and contributes to environmental causes.)

Since the program was announced on Tuesday, Altman says scientists and entrepreneurs in all four areas of carbon capture have reached out to Y Combinator. Some may join the winter class of startups next year that spans from January to March. Of course, it’s unclear whether an incubator known for smartphone apps is equipped to help solve complex problems that demand intensive scientific research. But with the array of formidable challenges facing the planet—and the looming failure of the U.S. government to help address them—it’s probably worth rooting for the effort.

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

From under the iPhone’s towering shadow, Apple plans to unveil new iPads and iMacs at an event in Brooklyn, New York, on Tuesday.

Fold your phone. Samsung is preparing a new line of premium smartphones, including one with a folding screen.

No crisis of conscience in Redmond. Microsoft says it will continue to sell cloud and AI tools to the military.

Your kids will be thrilled. Epic Games, the studio behind addictive game Fortnite, raised a $1.25 billion funding round.

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