How scientist-entrepreneurs may be the key to solving the climate crisis

Andrew Chang, managing director of Activate New York, tells us how the nonprofit is empowering scientist-entrepreneurs to scale carbon capture technologies.

By SGN | 10 Oct 2022

The urgency of the climate crisis has mounted, and in the face of this seemingly insurmountable problem, Andrew believes tech is the answer. 

“While technologies in renewable energy and building efficiency have come a long way, we need more innovation to decarbonise our economy,” he says, pointing out how the IPCC’s latest report underscored the need for new technologies to draw down and permanently store CO2.

In October 2021, he joined California-based non-profit Activate to build their fellowship programme in New York, which supports scientists in accelerating and commercialising hardtech climate solutions with potential impact at gigaton scale. 

The two-year Activate Fellowship in New York offers $400,000 in funding for Fellows to test product-market fit, partnering with Columbia University to provide access to world-class labs, experts, and other resources.

“We look at how we can play a catalytic role in scaling decarbonisation technologies,” Andrew explains. “We also teach elements of entrepreneurship so that scientists can understand how to identify risks, build teams, and raise funds.”

As the Activate Fellowship community grows – the current count stands at around 140 – Andrew says its value also lies in scientists sharing from experience and helping each other develop into entrepreneurial leaders able to change the world through technology. 

In June 2022, the Activate Fellowship welcomed 39 scientists across the United States into the programme, its largest cohort yet.

Waking up to an inconvenient truth

Andrew’s own climate awakening occurred as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, when he watched An Inconvenient Truth, the acclaimed documentary film about Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness of global warming. 

“It inspired me to do something in climate, and so I went on to pursue a Master’s in Atmosphere and Energy at Stanford, one of the only climate programmes at the time,” he shares.

After graduation, he worked for Al Gore’s non-profit The Alliance for Climate Protection (now known as The Climate Reality Project), conducting research and analysis for Gore’s follow-up book, before joining the US Department of Energy under the Obama administration.  

Andrew’s career then veered into tech for a decade – this included co-founding Lumo BodyTech, a Silicon Valley startup that invented posture-correcting wearables and was ultimately acquired – even though his concerns for climate change never really left him.

Andrew with the 2022 Fellows of the Activate New York community.

New technologies bring new hope

“It’s easy to be pessimistic these days, but because of our Fellows, I get to see glimpses of a better future,” Andrew says. “10 years ago, I would have thought that many of these creative and bold climate solutions were science fiction.” 

He describes a surge of start-ups working on novel carbon management technologies, ranging from synthetic biology to ocean alkalinity to long duration energy storage.

“Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technology is evolving fast,” Andrew notes. “A few years ago, we were talking about whether carbon capture was possible. Then the narrative shifted to it being too expensive at $1,000 per tonne, and now entrepreneurs are talking about $100 to $200 per tonne approaches.”

Innovators in Activate New York’s 2022 cohort include Garrett Boudinot, founder of Vycarb, who is exploring carbon removal via coastal alkalinisation, a process that also rehabilitates the shellfish population, thereby benefiting the ecosystem. Another is Marissa Beatty, founder of Turnover Technologies, whose novel electrolysers convert industrial CO2 streams into chemical fuels onsite. 

“Many of these new climate technologies offer a path to improving supply chain resilience,” Andrew says. “Carbon dioxide can be captured and converted into bioplastics, aviation fuel, food compounds, and a whole host of other valuable products. I believe we are at the beginning stages of multiple new low-carbon industries.”

Andrew and his wife on a visit back to Singapore in 2021.

The rise of climate innovation in Singapore

While based in New York, Andrew keeps an eye on the progress of climatetech back home. 

“Singapore is in a position to lead in climate innovation,” he observes. “As an energy and chemicals hub, it can tap knowledge in that area to move into low-carbon energy and chemicals production. The study on carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) on Jurong Island is an exciting development that I’ll be watching closely.” 

Andrew also notes that climate innovation has expanded into other areas like foodtech, which Singapore is already a leader in. He says constraints around land and food production have driven innovations in vertical farming, which can be ideal testbeds for studying biostimulants. 

“It isn’t easy to commercialise early-stage research out of the lab,” he adds. “You need a healthy ecosystem of start-ups, investors and government partners to take it to pilot scale, and then corporates and multinationals to take it to commercial scale. Singapore has all these ingredients.

“The strong pool of deeptech talent, paired with well-designed climate policies, can enable a new generation of hardtech climate companies in Singapore.”

About Andrew

Andrew is the managing director of Activate New York, which runs a two-year Fellowship that empowers scientist-entrepreneurs to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market.

Connect with him here. 

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