Today's guest is Rob Niven, Founder and CEO of CarbonCure Technologies. In the early 2000s, Rob found himself at McGill University in Montreal, where he wrote his thesis on CO2 and concrete manufacturing. After graduating with an MS in Environmental Engineering, Rob put his remaining money into building a company. In 2007, he started a financial company called Carbon Sense Solutions. Rob used the proceeds from Carbon Sense Solutions to create CarbonCure Technologies. He holds three patents in CO2 treatment as it relates to concrete. He has received numerous science and business awards, sits on many councils and boards including, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development of Canada, and has presented to the United Nations during climate change negotiations. Rob and I have a fascinating discussion about concrete versus cement, how he got started working in concrete, and what drew him to help solve this problem. We also talk about his experience in public policy in regards to clean cement legislation. I learned a lot from Rob about the concrete market and the future of CarbonCure Technologies. Episode recorded November 18th, 2020
Today's guest is Rob Niven, Founder and CEO of CarbonCure Technologies.
Rob and I have a fascinating discussion about concrete versus cement, how he got started working in concrete, and what drew him to help solve this problem. We also talk about his experience in public policy in regards to clean cement legislation. I learned a lot from Rob about the concrete market and the future of CarbonCure Technologies.
If you want to learn more about this episode, visit www.myclimatejourney.co/episodes/rob-niven
CarbonCure Technologies focuses on making concrete a climate solution. By using carbon removal technologies and reducing embodied carbon in the built environment, they are creating economic and climate benefits for concrete producers. To learn more about CarbonCure visit their website: https://www.carboncure.com/
Episode recorded November 18th, 2020
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Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help. Today's guest is Rob Niven, CEO, and founder of CarbonCure Technologies. The global leader in carbon dioxide removal technologies for the concrete industry. Rob has a simple goal of making concrete, sustainability, both profitable and easy for industry. Under his direction. The company and its partners are achieving their mission to reduce 500 mega tons of CO2 emissions annually.
In September, they announced a new round of financing le- co-led by Amazon's climate pledge fund and Breakthrough Energy Ventures. We have a great discussion in this episode about the importance of decarbonizing concrete, why it is so hard to do, the CarbonCure approach, how the company came about, when it came about. Their progress to date and some of the key milestones along the way, some of the challenges they've encountered and lessons learned and what the future has in store, both in terms of CarbonCure, but also in terms of concrete generally, and other elements of addressing climate change. Rob, welcome to the show.
Rob Niven: Hey, thanks for having me. I'm a big fan.
Jason Jacobs: I'm so excited for this one. As we were just discussing, we just did an episode recently with the carbon direct team, and this is such a nice follow-up because CarbonCure is the kind of company and working on the kinds of things that a carbon direct might be helping big companies to spend their money on. So it's a nice follow-up and concrete is an important category and you guys are a leader and we've not covered it yet. So all those reasons great to have you.
Rob Niven: Thanks very much. I'm also a big fan of those guys as well. I'm always listening to Julio and it sounds like now Jonathan's on the podcast circuit. So I'll have to check that out as well.
Jason Jacobs: So what's CarbonCure.
Rob Niven: CarbonCure is a Canadian cleantech company. We are what's considered a carbon removal technology, but really focused on the carbon utilization side of that. What I mean by this is that we use carbon dioxide to make concrete. We make concrete with a lower carbon footprint with a lower cost, uh, but one that also exceeds the performance or quality requirements of what's normally produced today. The technologies installed in about 300 plants in three continents, we've just closed a major investment round and are just pulling up right now for even more rapid growth. And also some new innovations into this carbon removal space. But I think will be really exciting and helping us meet our mission.
Jason Jacobs: Great. Well, I have so many questions there, but before we get too far down that path, maybe we can just take a step back for me and for, I mean, usually I say for others, but I'll be honest. I don't know that much about concrete decarbonisation either. So it'd be great to just talk a bit about concrete and emissions and kind of the why it matters and the state of the state with concrete,
Rob Niven: Of course I love concrete. And when we work in this every day and I've been in this space for over a decade now, concrete is so important and it's so abundant. It's like the air we breathe as we take it for granted. And anywhere you look around where you're sitting right now is likely you can see concrete. It's the most abundant man-made material on earth, second, only to water. And by far the most abundant building material. What's really interesting is the world's going to actually double the built environment. So everything that humanity has built to date, we'll be doing that again over the next 40 years. And most of that's built with concrete. So that's great if you're a concrete producer, I suppose, but the issue here from a climate perspective is that concrete's made with cement, which is the binder in concrete, not to be confused with one another. And cement is very carbon intensive it accounts for about 8% of global GHG emissions. And it has a very difficult pathway to decarbonize.
Jason Jacobs: Just to double click on one thing you just said, so you said cement is the binder that goes into concrete. Can you just take a quick detour and explain that a little more?
Rob Niven: So cement is the reactive component in concrete. So concrete is made up of aggregate water cement, and some chemicals. You mix it all together and batch plants anywhere around the world and that creates a reaction where the cement binds the aggregates together and it strengthens over its lifetime to create the foundation for modern society. Now, from a climate perspective, what we really care about here from emissions is how do you make cement? So cement is created by digging up mainly limestone and some other minerals, putting that into a very hot kill around 1500 degrees and breaking those molecules of calcium carbonate CaCO3 and 2. So half of the weight will actually go up out of the emission stack, that's CO2. And the other half creates something that's a precursor called clinker, which is then made into cement.
But what's really challenging with the cement industry is like, yes, it's so abundant and that's the most abundant building material on the planet and so on and so on, but it's this reaction, this calcination reaction where it's so carbon intensive, not because of the fuel, but because of the chemical reaction. And there's no way around that. As long as we're gonna continue to build with concrete and there's no substitute, like there is oil and gas is we're going to have these process emissions. And even if we get rid of all the fuel component, it's only a third of the emissions profile making cement a third to half. So we have all of this process emissions that is a real challenge. And that's why this industry is relying on carbon capture utilization storage, to be able to close that emissions and meet some of these net zero emission targets that they've all been in fashion recently about making these commitments over the last few weeks.
Jason Jacobs: And so the decarbonization path for concrete and the decarbonisation path for cement, what is the overlap on the Venn diagram and where are they distinct?
Rob Niven: Really, if you're thinking about decarbonizing concrete, you only need to look at cement. It's the vast majority of the emissions, but concrete is part of the solution. And I think when you're looking at decarbonizing concrete is really where we should be focused. We shouldn't just be focused on decarbonizing cement 'cause you can still have low carbon cement, but use too much of it to make concrete and then you end up with a high carbon concrete product. So you do need to be thinking about the final product or both for that matter.
Jason Jacobs: It's a weird example, but like, is it like decarbonizing an engine versus decarbonizing the car that the engine is in? And so we need to decarbonize the engine either way. It's like the engine is part of the car. So if we do just the engine and don't do the car, then all the other stuff in the car doesn't get accounted for. So therefore, even though they're interchangeable, we should just focus on the car. Is that what you're saying?
Rob Niven: If you're gonna use the car analogy, I would say is like, yeah, you can focus on a low emission motor, but you're still driving it without using public transit and stuck in traffic and idling all the time and you're overusing that vehicle then it's gonna lead to a lot of emissions that are unnecessary or like a light bulb is if you focused on just decarbonizing the electricity grid, but you're using an incandescent light bulb, it's still gonna be inefficient. So you do need to look at both.
Jason Jacobs: And before we get too far down the path, it also be interesting to hear about how you got into this. And also when, because I know you've been at this for quite a while, even pre-dating CarbonCure,
Rob Niven: Well, this was my thesis, so you can imagine how personal this is. And I did research at McGill University and that was from mid 2000s on how to use CO2 and concrete manufacturing. And there had been pretty widespread knowledge that there could be a beneficial impact of using CO2. And it could be thought of as a value added feedstock to making concrete, but no one had really figured out how to do it. So having a chemistry background in my civil engineering grad studies was- was able to help me understand how to be able to do this in a way that was good for the product quality, good for the economics. And of course good for climate. So that's where I think the intellectual journey began.
Jason Jacobs: And why did you pick that as a thesis to begin with? I mean, it seems like not a thesis that many people would have picked at that time.
Rob Niven: Well, there was already work being done at McGill in this space so that was something where it just begun. I forget exactly why it had started there, but there was already some momentum. And actually my colleague, Sean Monkman who's our head of research was also studying a McGill at the same time, under a different thesis supervisor and then he was doing his PhD. So then we teamed up after the fact and continue to drive innovation in the space.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. And so when you got done with your studies, it seems like there was kind of an interim stop where maybe you started on the service side before the company was created. Can you talk a bit about your path there, why and when and how the transition came about?
Rob Niven: I had about $10,000 of remaining student loans in my pocket and met a girl who was in Halifax, followed my heart, took that $10,000 and put it to work by building this company in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And I knew that I had to see this thing through and I met with some local concrete producers and they took a chance on me to see if this thing had any legs and had to pay the bills. And I decided at that time to create a finance company called Carbon Sense Solutions, which we used a proceeds to bootstrap the technology development. So that technology development was always there, but it wasn't just necessarily the sole focus.
And this allowed us to be able to get our first operating plant up and running before we had to raise our first venture capital round and then really focus on technology. And that's been the sole focus ever since. And oddly enough is that expertise in carbon finance has now come full circle around a lot of the work that we're doing around carbon dioxide removal offsets. And so we're using that thesis and that understanding in today's business to be able to scale it up faster.
Jason Jacobs: And what was the initial entry point with the technology that you were focused on out of gates?
Rob Niven: So concrete's not all the same. And the vast majority of it is something called ready-mix concrete, which is what your listeners would see and think of as they're sitting in traffic along the highways as in it's all those trucks, the mixer trucks going by that's ready-mix concrete, but that's a little harder to get into. It's more of an engineered product. So a lot of innovation starts in a different segment called block. So these are cinder blocks also known. And that's where we began as we focused on these small precast elements and we're able to muck around in these planets and create a workable technology, which then we transferred to the other main segments, like most importantly ready-mix and also large precast elements. So not all concrete's the same, but typically block is a great starting point.
Jason Jacobs: And what are you actually doing to the concrete or with the concrete and what is the value proposition of that solution and to whom as well?
Rob Niven: Earlier on, I talked is calcination reaction. So you heat up limestone really, really hot it breaks that molecule in half, and then you get half CO2 and half clinker, our half cement. We're reversing that reaction, so we're taking CO2 reacting that back with cement when it's with concrete has concrete and that forms a calcium carbonate nanomaterial. So we're forming these in-situ very, very fine nanomaterials within concrete plants as it's being produced. Those nanomaterials are then providing concrete this improve strength, and that's really valuable for a concrete producer is if they can make this cement that they're using go further by creating greater strength.
What concrete producers then are able to do is optimize their mix. So they need less cement because it's more efficient. You get more strength for the buck and then that then doubles up on the climate benefit. So then you're using CO2 as the reagent to be able to create this effect. And then it creates this secondary benefit of using less cement, which also provides an economic savings to provide a concrete of the equivalent or better performance with less CO2 and all that's being done by reacting and mineralizing CO2 in the concrete. So that matters for concrete producers 'cause it gives them a better product, lower costs, lower carbon, and also matters to the end user, whether that be government, a private sector builder, that's looking to find the ways to lower its carbon footprint of buildings, specifically something called embodied carbon emissions.
Jason Jacobs: And in terms of your focus today, how is it the same as when you enter the market so many years ago? And in what ways has it evolved or is it different?
Rob Niven: Oh, geez, we make so many mistakes along the way. And of course, no one comes on podcasts to talk about those, but there are so many dead ends that we hit with the technology and that we look back and laugh at now. We've got the same core technical team and so we've learned from all those mistakes. The big evolution was moving into ready-mix, it's a very different process, similar chemistry, but now what we're doing is looking towards our mission of reducing 500 mega tons per year by 2030. And we're realizing that we need more solutions and we're continuing to invest so much more in innovation, by taking this, our pioneering research that we've done around the carbonation of cementitious materials and looking at other ways, other circular manufacturing opportunities at a concrete plant where we can use carbon dioxide beneficially to make a better product. And one that doesn't require big CapEx and it can just be integrated with existing plants. That's really where we're focused on if you're following the Carbon XPRIZE, which we're finalist in right now, we're really excited. We're down to the last three weeks of a five-year process.
Jason Jacobs: Oh, wow. I didn't realize that it was at it. I mean, I saw the link on your website and I actually watched the video, but I didn't realize that it was a five-year process down to the last three weeks, that's great. So by the time the ship's actually, you're gonna know.
Rob Niven: Well, I don't know if they tell us, but at least we'll be pulling on all of our equipment from that power plant where we're consuming CO2, but cross your fingers for us, we're really excited about this one, but why bring it up is because that's demonstrating our next technology where we're actually using CO2 in another way out of concrete planet to treat their wastewater material so that they just need less Virgin cement and water to make concrete. And then there's more work that we're doing around recycled concrete aggregates. And ultimately we want to have really zero emission concrete plants that are going beyond just CO2, but also water and solid waste. And that's gonna require more innovation, but we're well on our way right now, and doing a lot in digital as well, to be able to supercharge the effectiveness of some of these technologies. So it continues to be a super exciting, innovative company that has that track of work, but we're also growing into new and exotic markets that also really get my entrepreneurial juices flowing 'cause it continues to be very different and very agile, which I love.
Jason Jacobs: And if you look back at the last several years that you've been building the company with the benefit of hindsight, if there were a CarbonCure book, what are the key chapters looking backwards? Like if you had to kind of lump it into phases, how many were there and what were they and what phase are you in at this moment in time?
Rob Niven: It sounds cliche, but it's so true. It's all about team and most importantly culture. That's one thing that I've really learned and working with our president, Jen Wagner, is this is something that we found to be really our competitive advantage is we have a very straight talking, trusting, supportive, ambitious culture that I think has allowed us to be able to scale so much faster than companies that have raised 10 or 20 times as much capital. So we've really found a way to use that.
We also have our feet planted on the ground as like most of our staff come from the industry. So we're not dreaming up these solutions that won't work in the real world as we know what the real world is. And we can think outside the box, but we always are able to apply that task as would this work. So that saves us a lot of time to be able to scale up. So culture is super important. I overlook that for like the first five, six years of this company. And now I'm realizing is like that so much as just making sure that everyone is really focused on what matters and we're all working.
Jason Jacobs: I'm still learning the phases in general, let alone for a concrete company, but there's kind of lab. And then there's first plant and then there's multiple plants and scaling. And so what about, I guess, with more of like an operating framework lens?
Rob Niven: One thing that we did, I don't know if we really understood the magnitude of onboard and that would be earlier on, but is borrowing from the tech industry. And I never knew that companies like Amazon and Microsoft and others would be investing in CarbonCure 'cause I didn't really understand that linkages before, but there's so much we can learn from them. And one way is around using SAS- SAS models and using extremely low CapEx technologies. So that was something that just made sense for us. Is like we need just to retrofit plants. And of course our engineers just love to value engineer equipment down. So it's smaller and smaller and cheaper and cheaper and more powerful, but that like microchips is- is sort of how we've applied that to our solutions and how we develop technologies, 'cause we know that there's not enough capital to be able to replace the Smith concrete industry, or definitely not enough time.
That's the real imperative here is just trying to find ways that we can do [inaudible 00:19:07] and really surgical changes to concrete plants without having to throw the baby with the bath water. And that's really been key for us to be able to scale 'cause that also lends itself to the right business model, which is those SAS business models, which customers weren't really accustomed to concrete producers at first, apart from their Microsoft office subscription. But it's something that really works for them 'cause they also don't have CapEx to deploy for new technologies. So it's working for everybody and it's allowed us to scale so much faster where we now account for about 90% of worldwide carbon utilization projects is because we've had the right technology and the right model that really scales.
Jason Jacobs: So I think what I'm hearing is that as you thought about go-to-market, you found ways to take the way they do things currently and provide a reasonably seamless transition without a bunch of upfront costs so that they can implement the CarbonCure solution without being too disruptive to their existing process.
Rob Niven: Exactly we wanna use all of the same materials, all of the equipment. We wanna use all the same people. We want it so that they don't know that they're actually making some of the greenest concrete on the planet because they're just doing everything that they did the day before. And that's really what we strive for is to make it just so seamless and giving their sales teams as well the ability to differentiate themselves where they've been living in the commodities sort of price competitive environment up until then is now that they can differentiate themselves on their carbon footprint, which is really key right now, as more and more design decisions are being made on things like embodied carbon content.
Jason Jacobs: And I don't know how much of this you share publicly. So if you don't feel not to answer it, but how long has the product been in the market? And then what kind of traction do you have at present?
Rob Niven: We have tickers on our website. So I invite anyone to come to our home page and you can actually see the CO2 and plant count and ship trucks. It's all very transparent, very transparent company. So we have about 300 plants. We have a lot of million trucks that have been shipped. That's produced about a hundred thousand tons of CO2 reductions. And we're just getting started by many of those plants, probably half of those plants are less than six months on board. So like we're definitely doubling every year, at least. And at this trajectory with some new technologies, we feel like we can meet that 500 megaton goal that we've set for ourselves by 2030.
Jason Jacobs: And given that it sounds like this is a multi-stakeholder market that you're selling into who are the key stakeholders as you look at getting more customers on board. And then how do you allocate your resource across those stakeholders when trying to scale deployment?
Rob Niven: Our most important stakeholder concrete producers and within that community, we found that the fastest moving group, uh, tend to be large regional concrete producers. They tend to move a lot faster actually than some of the multinationals. Maybe that's not a surprise, but that's something that we've learned in our journey. So that's where we focused all of our, most of our sales and marketing efforts. There is also a lot of work that's being done, but it tends to be done in partnership with our customers to work with the actual design and construction communities 'cause they play an important role as well through specifications, to be able to specify the use of concrete, whether that be a fulfillment center, data center or high rise or airport to be made with low carbon concrete. So we also work with them that really accelerates the deployment and market development and some new things that we're finding is like we entered into the public policy domain recently.
And I've found that, uh, has actually been a very rewarding space 'cause there tends to be some maybe limitations right now on available low cost climate reduction policies. So we're creating new policy models. They tend to be municipal and state governments around using procurement to drive climate reductions in the built environment, whether that be roads or buildings for government construction. So we worked with Honolulu and Hawaii initially to develop this model and it's spread out across the entire United States already through the U.S. conference of mayors. We have some really exciting legislation that we've been supporting in New York called the Low Embodied Carbon Concrete Leadership Act, also known as LECCLA, which is coming up here for a vote soon, which is we think the most refined policy model out there that doesn't have any cost implications and just leads to immediate CO2 reductions.
Jason Jacobs: And when these regional concrete producers that you were describing sign on to work with you, I'm sure it varies from customer to customer, but in the aggregate, what's the primary reason that they're signing on, I mean, is a climate, is it cost, is it durability, is it producing liability I wish I didn't put all those words in your mouth.
Rob Niven: You have a look at our producer map online, right? And you can see where all the dots are. Those typically don't line up to where there's the most fervent support for climate action. It's lining up where there is the most development or most concrete's being poured and most competitive markets. So we're giving concrete producers an ability to be more competitive in a dollars and cents perspective in their market. And climate comes second, but it tends to become very important second after they realized that, hey, like having a lower carbon product could actually help me get a lot more business, whereas before it might be just about how do I become more competitive, of course you have to pass the first test, which does this screw up my product there's float on my plant. So after you can get the quality control and production guys onsite, then the P&L decision makers are the ones who ultimately make the decision.
But then the sales guys really drive it to you get widespread adoption across their entire fleet of dozens or hundreds of concrete plants because they say, wow, now all of a sudden I'm not competing with the guy across the road. I just have a much better product that there's so much demand for right now because everybody's trying to build in a low carbon green manner. And now I have something that they don't have, and it gives me a much stronger competitive advantage, and I can offer concrete at the same price, but it's just a better product. So that's really what this is about is creating those really strong, competitive advantages for concrete producers.
Jason Jacobs: And you mentioned that you're getting more traction with the regional players. I mean, I know they move faster, but like what are the big multinationals think at least at this middle of November, 2020, where's their head as it relates to decarbonizing concrete?
Rob Niven: I've never seen this happen before, as long as I've been in the space, but like now it's just, it seems like every week there's another net zero by 2050 commitment being made. And it's really interesting to see that, like these companies are really stepping out and making strong commitments, and it's gonna be interesting to see how they actually meet those targets. And we certainly applaud them for making those commitments going forward. And they're necessary for us to have any chance of meeting Paris is we need cement to really step up and it's gonna be a real challenge to do that.
So now comes the hard part. Now we actually have to get some real technologies deployed and projects deployed. And so it's gonna be an interesting time to see how things really evolve. Carbon capture utilization and storage accounts for 50% of the roadmap where the other 50% are mostly mature decades old technologies that just need to be deployed a bit further, but there's a real ceiling on what can be achieved. The hard part is gonna be this next bit that we're leaders in is like, how do you capture and use CO2 to create concrete of higher value?
Jason Jacobs: What do you think of carbon capture and storage, is it a good thing?
Rob Niven: When you say carbon capture and storage, I'm assuming you mean geological storage. Yeah, so that I think it will be ultimately necessary, but I think that it's gonna be expensive. That's the difference between utilization and storage and that storage or sequestration it's all cost. And there's some questions about permanence, but I think those can be addressed. You should really be focusing on those that actually create value through utilization, turning CO2 into products, like all the companies involved in Carbon XPRIZE and many others. We should be doing those first and immediately because that's, those are the first CO2 mitigation strategies you should be using within the CCUS space, carbon capture utilization and storage before we're considering too much geological storage, or even ELR, which of course has the consequence of bringing more oil from the ground.
Jason Jacobs: When you see all these net zero commitments, I mean, presumably that's a good thing, but how do you feel in the aggregate about what's your gut on the quality of those commitments? And then how do you assess as you're looking from one company to the next, the quality of their specific commitment?
Rob Niven: I think that they mean well, and I think that it's they understand the challenge that's ahead. I look a little bit less favorably upon what I'm seeing around some of the products where they're closing out that gap with maybe low quality offsets, which I think is a bit of, may not be the right way of doing it. The last guest that you just mentioned from Carbon Direct would tell you all about that is like, that's not the way to hit net zero, uh, to rely too much on that. So I think that should really come off of the available, those really low quality offsets that I think might be being used.
I think they also will find that they need to be challenged beyond using existing technologies that have been available for a long time. It's like, it's gonna need more than just rebranding existing supplementary cementitious blends. These guys are all really smart and they know what they're doing, but I think that we need to work with urgency and collectively together to find ways on integrating new innovations, as well as just some of the existing stuff that's been around for a long time. We need that as well. But we also need to make sure that we're working urgently on the new stuff. That's gonna be required to actually meet their net zero goals.
Jason Jacobs: When people say that decarbonizing concrete is so hard and we don't know how we're gonna do it. I mean, is there merit to that point of view or is it not as hard or, I mean, I guess how do you react when you hear that?
Rob Niven: It's hard, this isn't like we don't have set of solutions like we do with energy. And that's the part that I think is gonna be so difficult and people don't really understand is like we need heavy industry to come along. Like we can't just focus on energy and think, okay, we've met our Paris commitments, we won't. And especially with that whole building statistics that I share is like, that's gonna be a lot of CO2. That's going to be admitted. And once we've done that and built these things, there's no going back. But I think there's a path as I think I'm more than just being an optimistic here is I think it will require a portfolio.
I do think that we also have to think about time. I think some of the solutions that are being proposed where it's like wholesale substitution of Portland cement, is I think that's gonna be really difficult because like, if you think about the size of this industry to just replace it for something that is completely different, it will be a challenge. So yes, I believe it's possible. I think it's gonna be hard. I think it's gonna take a portfolio of solutions that work and integrate together with today's existing infrastructure so that we don't have all these stranded assets. And that's really how we design our technologies so that they comply with existing regulations and technologies and processes and create economic value as well as- as environmental.
Jason Jacobs: One thing that came to mind as I was listening to you talk about all the growth we need to do and how we need to double our infrastructure and all of that is the term green growth many environmentalist's see as harmful. And I guess I'm just curious, I think why they say that is I think, and I don't wanna put words in their mouth and they're not here to chime in, but I think it's because if we do things cleaner, but we still do more and more than we are not going to transition nearly as quickly or effectively as if we fundamentally shift from this kind of GDP growth, GDP growth, like capital unbridled, capitalism. And I'm interested since you're arguably kind of a building block of green growth, what your perspective is on that topic.
Rob Niven: A couple of things come to mind is one is like, we all need a place to live. We all need places to work and roads and maybe fewer roads, but there's always gonna be a need for like those basic elements for survival. And because of that, we're always gonna need a lot of building materials to be able to supply that 'cause population's growing, we're moving more into cities. So urbanization is occurring, which is gonna require more durable materials like concrete. So that's just a matter of fact and I think that we need to find ways that break that carbon linkage so that we can do it in a way that's much more sustainable.
When I also think about that as like procurement, whether that be private or public is a powerful tool that needs to be brought onto the table here where it can't just be about people inventing new widgets is like procurement, especially by government needs to be deployed to preferentially those solutions, which are much more sustainable. I could maybe have an opinion on like on consumerism and then GDP and like, yes, maybe we need to be consuming less frivolous things, but which I think is more optional. But the world that I live in is like, these are things that are necessary. We're gonna need infrastructure, we're gonna need homes and schools and so on. And we just need to be able to do that in a way that's much more sustainable through low carbon and circular pathways.
Jason Jacobs: I have a similar question as it relates to these large companies. So the global multinationals, for example, because on the one hand they have the biggest footprint. They have the biggest plants they have, the biggest customer bases. So they have the biggest depth of bench as relates to expertise. They have the biggest balance sheet. So of course they can be most impactful in the transition and so on the one hand, we want to be inclusive and collaborate with them. We wanna bring them along for the ride, but on the other, they make these net zero commitments who knows how serious they are. Are they just stalling tactics? They have a history of stalling and- and buying time. They're dis-incentivized from embracing change because it cannibalizes their core businesses that they've relied on to eat for all these years and decades. And so while we could use their help, if they're gonna be in the way then it's better to go at it alone. So I understand, I think both sides of that argument. And I'm curious, given your perch, how you think about that tension?
Rob Niven: Well, there is no going at it alone. We need to work with industry. They are our partners in this, and I think what's changed in the mentality of certainly our industry and others is that decarbonisation can be a competitive advantage. And I think prior, not even that long ago, it was seen as a cost as a burden. And now what's happening is that the market has evolved so that the industry will be rewarded for decarbonizing. And those that can do it in a way that's very savvy using technology that creates better products, lower carbon footprint, we don't need to compromise on costs. I hate it when I read these articles that says, yes, you can have green, but it will cost you twice as much. Like that's a fallacy. When I hear that, I think stalling tactics, but there are ways to do this that are just smarter and better.
But I think that the smart guys right now are really realizing that, hey, there's a market opportunity here. There are great capitalists and they can figure out how to be able to authentically transform without throwing away all these and stranding these assets and be able to take advantage of that. [inaudible 00:35:11], there's probably gonna be some actors that are using this as stalling tactics, but I think this guys that will be around in 10 and 20 years from now, will be those that are actually taking action because the numbers don't lie and there's a lot of reporting that's happening right now. And there's a great opportunity for those to step up.
Jason Jacobs: Well that leads to a really nice follow-up question, at least I think so. I mean, may- maybe it isn't, but so in CarbonCure's case, it sounds like, and correct me if I'm wrong, more durable product, it lasts longer, it uses less material, it can be cheaper cost.
Rob Niven: No CapEx, forget that, that's important
Jason Jacobs: No CapEX, and oh, by the way, it's greener. So, but the greener is essential for the world, but from that client making a purchasing decision, it sounds like they would be making that decision potentially even without that greener component. And so as we look at the landscape and we need to decarbonize everything, there will be areas where there are solutions that line up that way. And there will be areas where those are harder to come by. And I guess my question for you is are those the only ones that are worthy of pursuit or if there's things, for example, and I don't wanna pick on direct air capture, but like, like direct air capture where maybe it's compelling for climate, but without a price on carbon, for example, the math is just not gonna work, should we even bother, or should we only focus on the things that pass the Mr. Burns test?
Rob Niven: Well, I think if we look at them in combination, I don't really understand or be able to say direct air capture is a climate solution. It- it isn't on its own. It's just a collection vehicle to get CO2, but you gotta do something with it and ideally it should be permanent and it should create value and should be scalable. So that there's two sides to that coin. We're on the second side. So we can use that CO2 and today is from point sources, but tomorrow it could be from DAC if it becomes available and is reliable and we can afford a higher price on CO2 to be able to encourage more DAC in concrete so that we need to be looking at systems. And I think the AC does have an important role for us to be able to Julio said the other day counter-strike on the CO2 emissions.
And I think it does have an important role or it could be coming from biogenic emissions as well. So using natural systems to collect the CO2 rather than mechanical, take that CO2 from like say landfill emissions or whatever it might be. I guess that's my answer is like we can take the value and cost savings from one to be able to overcome some of the costs in Mr. Burns barriers that are seen in some of these new technologies that will be necessary, but they still haven't gone through that deployment to lead to some of those cost reductions. And I think technologies like ours can be of great service to that because we would naturally prefer to be using DC if we could. But I also don't have any problem using point source CO2 today because it's what's getting the job done and it's also having a climate benefit and it allows us to scale up so that when these other sources of CO2 are available and we can just swap out one hose for another and off we go.
Jason Jacobs: Bring it back around to concrete, given how early we are in decarbonizing concrete and given how widespread and pervasive it is and how much work we have in front of us, how far can the CarbonCure solution take us? And then what kinds of things will be necessary to get us the rest of the way, if there is a rest of the way. And do you believe it's zero sum like is one company and technology gonna run the table or is it gonna be kind of a portfolio approach?
Rob Niven: Great, definitely gonna be a portfolio. There's some other great technologies in that space that are extremely complimentary. Like when I look at all of the, there's about at least 20 solid companies in the space of CO2 utilization for concrete, we're probably compatible with like 19 of them and we need to get those guys scaled up fast as well. And we need to plug these all together and see what can be done towards getting to that zero or negative emission concrete. That's what really excites me and like there's a lot, like from my privileged perspective of being so immersed in this area, I feel very excited about that coming down the line. What really worries me though is time. The rate that we're going right now, we're not gonna get the job done. And this is a really, really, really important space. Like we can't just focus on energy.
We need to look at heavy industry and specifically cement and steel. We need to work with a lot more urgency and we definitely can't just rely on innovators to come up with the solutions and just expect they're gonna get deployed pervasively around the world tomorrow as we also need to be able to apply some focus there. That's why I think things like carbon removal offsets are really important. I think procurement from government critically important, procurement from private sector as well is to create the market signals, to give these incumbent industries the confidence that yes, if they invest in time and money in new technologies, there's gonna be a reward for that because these concrete companies are operating with razor thin margins, and it's also, they have a lot of responsibilities to provide high quality products that don't collapse. So like there's a lot of risk in this industry as well. So the market has to be able to help them move forward financially through things like offsets to get them going. But probably most importantly from procurement.
Jason Jacobs: I don't know if this one you'll be able to answer. But if you look at the big concrete or big oil or big mining or any of, kind of the big incumbents, and then you look at the fully decarbonized economy once we've gotten there, how much of that leadership pack is the same leadership pack in this next kind of cleaner, greener iteration of our global economy?
Rob Niven: Well, I won't speak for those other industries 'cause I'm just not educated on that enough to be able to give you a good opinion, but-
Jason Jacobs: This is 2020. We don't need to be, we can talk on it whatever we want, we're experts on everything, [laughs].
Rob Niven: You know the way that I see it, we're part of the breakthrough energy ventures portfolio. And there's some fantastic technology companies there that are supporting a lot of those other industries. Like I think like Boston metal for steel and [inaudible 00:41:13] cement and concrete. And what I'm finding is that there are definitely leaders in the industry that recognize their risk for that existential risk and are investing and adopting these technologies. I just don't see a lot of other new players just emerging to be able to scale up to the size that's required. So what I believe is that certainly not all of these players will be around in- in that timeframe, but those that are making decisions today authentically to decarbonize and see the competitive benefits are gonna be the ones that are thriving tomorrow, but are also gonna be around for the next 50 and a hundred years, 'cause we're always gonna need concrete and building materials
Jason Jacobs: What you said earlier in the discussion, there was no go to alone path, but wouldn't a go to alone path be taking your proprietary technology and making it exclusive and going and trying to build your own multinational, concrete company and not working with anybody else?
Rob Niven: The Elon Musk create your own supply chain, but I don't at all believe that's possible. We always look at things in terms of time and the time that would take to site and create all these plans and all of the capital and why not work with industry and find the actors that are really, really want to get something done that are mission aligned with us, become huge successes. And that's gonna allow us to move so much faster, theoretically that's possible, but it's, to me, not at all possible within the timeframes that we wanna make a difference and that's 2030. We're not building a hundred thousand concrete plants around the world and displacing all these incoming actors. We wanna be able to work with them, to make them more profitable and lower carbon and sort of transition to this new economy.
Jason Jacobs: I'm running out of topic areas here, but there's a couple big ones that we've, haven't hit. One is just, how do you think about the U.S. versus the rest of the world from a business opportunity standpoint? And then the same question from a decarbonizing concrete standpoint?
Rob Niven: The U.S. is a great market, we're a Canadian company. And I would say about 80% of our businesses in the United States there's a lot of concrete being poured here, but if we're talking about de-carbonizing concrete, the U.S. is o- less than 10% of the market. China's about 50% and these new emerging economies that haven't built their infrastructure that will be required for their society, all that congressmen important yet. So like the contents of Africa and India and so on, that's where we need to be to make a difference. Like if we truly are mission focused, that's where we need to be.
So that's why we're bringing on new investors and really focusing our business growth in those new markets where most of the population growth is happening. And most of the concrete is being poured because we can be wildly successful in the U.S. and be totally irrelevant from a climate perspective, but it's a great place to be able to create technologies, scale them up, really polish how we do things and then transition those to other marketplaces. And that's what we're doing right now is we're in that, you asked earlier what stage we're in, we're in that high growth expansion stage, where we're trying to find local partners as fast as we can to transition those concrete industries as well.
Jason Jacobs: And one thing that you mentioned to me, I think before we started recording, is just that as you've taken in money along the way and determine which investors to work with that mission-driven and climate motivated has been really important to you. I'm curious, given that your solution passes the Mr. Burns test, why does that matter?
Rob Niven: Because there's a lot of competing priorities for companies and partners. And I think those that truly believe that this is the most important challenge that we have in front of us and business opportunity is that they're going to prioritize and hustle and make this a priority to see change. And I think you're an entrepreneur yourself. Like, you know, what that's like is like, you really know the difference when you're working with someone who's mission aligned or not. Things get done, things get done tomorrow. There's never not these types of excuses and long delays is that we find a way to get it done. And- and that's really what we're looking for. And plus it's just a lot more enjoyable. I don't wanna convince someone that we're working with about the importance of climate or the opportunity around climate. I want them to already be on that bus and really finding ways to achieve the kind of impact we're looking for. It's just such a rewarding experience when you have that mission alignment. And we see that with a lot of our partners.
Jason Jacobs: So have there been any folks in the road looking backwards at the CarbonCure's story to date where if you weren't mission-aligned you would've made a different business decision. And can you give me an example?
Rob Niven: I think mission alignment with partners is really important. And I think looking back is that often I think we probably spend an inordinate amount of with partners that may not have been mission aligned, that didn't lead to the results. And as you know, startups, it's all about bandwidth. It's all about time, 'cause that's all you have. And you're spending a lot of time working with partners that may not be aligned and ultimately those don't lead to success. And then you sort of look back and say, was that really worthwhile? Oh, of course, I'm not gonna give you examples of that, but it's something that I think all startups need to keep in mind is they're acting with a lot of urgency and maybe desperation and they see exciting opportunities by working with like a blue chip company. But oftentimes those might not be the right partners if they're not mission aligned to actually see impact and they can eat up a lot of cycles where you could be really making some traction. That's one example that comes to mind.
Jason Jacobs: One other question I had is now I know you're a Canadian company, but given that it's mid-November here, we theoretically are going to have a presidential transition and a new president in the new year. And if president elect Biden's transition team gave you a call and said, “Hey, this is going to be a climate presidency. And we really wanna up our game, as it relates to concrete. What's the most impactful thing we should look to do in the first hundred days of this administration?” What would you say?
Rob Niven: I would say there's two things and one's a little sexier than the other. And I'll start with the non-sexy one is like, we need to remove regulatory barriers for innovation to happen. And what I mean by that is we need performance-based standards. So, so much concrete right now is purchased according to very prescriptive, mixed designs or recipes that were put together 50 years ago, and that are way too conservative and they block any kind of innovation to occur. So that's job one. We gotta make sure that innovation can happen and people are providing products based on performance rather than some sort of prescriptive, outdated manner.
Then next is we need to use procurement policies and we can look at the model that New York has developed right now as a way that can lead to immediate scale up of reducing the embodied CO2 of the built environment. And at the same time, it's accelerating the transition of heavy industry to green jobs. So government buys a lot of concrete. It's the single largest purchaser of concrete and because of that, as they can, and they should be looking at about how that matches up with their climate ambitions. And it's in everyone's interest 'cause it creates a lot more efficiency and better products.
Jason Jacobs: And last question is just, I looked over as if you were a third base coach or something you gave me the signal, and I can't believe we've made it this far in the discussion and not ask, which is about COVID and the pandemic given how focused you are on building stuff. And I know that building stuff, at least at some point in this pandemic has been quite impacted. What have you seen in terms of the types of impact and the extent of impact that you've seen both to CarbonCure, but also just in general in the concrete industry?
Rob Niven: So the construction industry in general has largely written out COVID quite well. Certainly there are some segments within construction that are deflated. So like commercial office spaces, for instance, look at Amazon and the growth that it's going through in fulfillment centers and data centers, as people are moving into digital environment. So those use a lot of concrete and we're definitely a green concrete supplier of choice for some of these new construction types. So the market has stayed stable. There are periodic shutdowns of course, due to the public health concerns, but those are usually overcome. But what was really key for us is being able to quickly adapt our business. So even if the market was gonna hold firm, how are we gonna continue to be able to grow? And what I'm so proud of is last year, we more than doubled our growth during COVID and our fiscal year ended in October.
So that was really largely due to some changes that we made to the product. And the fact that we already had a very strong IOT and digital component to our business that allowed us to be able to go from sending engineers on planes, to set up pants, to being able to do that completely remotely. And that was done almost overnight. And what we found is that actually made us so much more efficient and productive, and we're never going back because of it. And it also allows us also to support some of these international markets a lot easier where it would have even been harder to reach them by airplane and so on and plus language and cultural issues. So this was fortunately worked out in our favor, and I think that a lot of other companies, like even in the hardware space have been able to adapt largely by using digital. And I think digital is gonna be a big part of our decarbonization story going forward, as well as we're taking all of this data now to provide more decarbonisation insights for concrete production.
Jason Jacobs: Great. And is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have, or any parting words for listeners?
Rob Niven: I thought we did a great job. I guess what I would say to the audience here is let's not forget about other industries and like, let's make sure that we, when we think about like the transition to the new economy, is that we're also looking at some heavy industries as well, like we need them to be part of the solution. We need to help them transition. A big piece of that is creating the right market signals, but also making sure that innovation is being adopted at the right sort of urgency and being implemented to transition these companies. It's more than just energy, more than just mobility is that there's definitely a lot of need right now for heavy industry like cement and steel.
Jason Jacobs: Great. Well, this was awesome, Rob, thanks so much for making the time out of your busy schedule and for all the important work that you're doing. I learned so much in this discussion, which tells me that the audience will as well. So thanks again and best of luck to you and, uh, the whole carbon cure team.
Rob Niven: Thanks Jason.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co, note that is .co not .com someday we'll get the.com, but right now .co. You can also find me on Twitter at J Jacobs 22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests. You'd like to hear. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers may be say that, thank you.