Time To Play For Team Earth

Maybe planet-healing is your next big thing.

DALL·E’s vision of a Big Oil chemist in her new life reversing ocean acidification and sleeping well at night.

As a person with eyes, ears and a phone in their pocket, you know that the planet is literally on fire. I’m willing to bet you’re here at our doorstep because you’ve started feeling like perhaps someone should do something about it. Welp, you’d be right.

And if you’re reading this blog, chances are pretty darn good that you’re one of those someones who can do something about this fiery mess we’re all in. 

How’s that for a ray of hope against the orange glow of doom?

You see, we need your skills. And when I say we, I don’t just mean the folks at Lowercarbon. I mean the all-of-humanity we. The skills in sales or policy or coding or engineering or marketing (or just about anything) that you’ve worked years to hone are mission critical to ensuring the future of large swaths of life on this planet. 

“But somebody else can fix the planet. She’s not writing to me,” you’re likely rationalizing to yourself. “Bystander effect be damned. I can’t switch careers! It’s too late, too much of a risk. Especially without knowing the best areas to go into.” 

Please know: I hear you. I get it. On a personal level. Fourteen years ago — before I earned my degrees studying climate tech, published green H2 and solar panel research, filed climate tech patents, incubated a green steel startup, worked for the Department of Energy’s moonshot agency, and became a climate tech investor — I was telling myself the same things. 

As a precocious sophomore in college, I was working towards a stable career path: to become a fundamental biology professor. With research on the metabolic pathways of mice and yeast under my belt already, I knew if I kept at it, I could, in theory, unlock a stable, tenured job.

The problem? Deep down, I wasn’t truly excited about my model organisms and their gene pathways. I found them esoteric, removed from real-world impact. But I was too afraid — of change, of failure, of starting over — to admit it to even myself, never mind to my advisor.

And climate? I knew it was important, but I figured someone else was handling it. As long as I was recycling and carpooling, that was enough. Right? I stayed in my lane pipetting with blinders on as another semester ticked by.

Then, in December of 2009, I attended a talk on climate tech that — at the risk of sounding trite — truly changed my life. Princeton’s Emily Carter, professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, dropped a bombshell. After grappling with the latest IPCC report’s climate data, she’d decided she couldn’t be a just-recycler-carpooler anymore. She decided to switch all her lab’s research to climate applications. Full stop. Climate change was, she said, “the central problem of the 21st century.” I was shocked — and inspired. 

My wheels quickly turned: If climate is a good enough reason for her to expend the time, effort, money, and political capital with her dean to bring all the research of a major university lab to a screeching halt — and totally reimagine her career in the process — then I could pivot, too.

That very week, with a lump in my throat, I admitted to my advisor I needed to bid adieu to the yeast. And to my surprise, he was actually glad I was following my heart. 

Well, shoot. The one holding me back this whole time had been me. This story has become a mantra for me: What good can I unlock by releasing others’ expectations (real or imagined) and following my gut?

Before year’s end, I had applied to work in a chemistry lab inventing flexible solar panels.

And holy smokes, am I glad I did.

Suddenly, a mere career path became a calling. And science was no longer an esoteric pursuit, but rather a way to invent technologies and build products that make a meaningful, quantifiable, gee-the-air-looks-less-apocalyptic-today kind of difference in the world.

That’s the beauty of working in climate tech. We’re not coding apps born destined for next year’s digital graveyard or an on-trend candy crushing game to distract us from the dumpster fire out there (is it obvious I have no idea what happens in Candy Crush?).

What we build in climate tech, we build to last. We transform whole industries and breathe life into new ones. It’s hard not to reach for the top shelf of superlatives when talking about this stuff, but joining climate tech really is a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to rewrite our legacy on this planet. 

Picture yourself at a dinner party. Someone asks what you do. You can literally reply, “Oh, just driving the next industrial revolution. You know, the one fixing the problems caused by the last one.”

Ok, you’d sound like a tool if you actually said that. But just knowing you could say it is pretty cool.

But maybe you’re still not convinced climate work is right for you. Maybe back-pocket bragging rights, and the peace of mind that comes from doing something about the climate doom you hear on the news, are not compelling enough reasons. 

How about making boatloads of money? Is that compelling?

In my short time with Lowercarbon, I’ve seen again and again how this work just makes money. How when super smart founders apply their academic training and work experience to a pressing climate problem, getting paid is part of their output. Especially when they reinvent an inefficient carbon-spewing process and make it cleaner and leaner. 

Take Solugen. 

Co-founders Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti (an M.D./Ph.D. cancer biologist and enzymologist from UT Southwestern) and Dr. Sean Hunt (a Ph.D. chemical engineer from MIT) took their experience from adjacent industries — Gaurab, a physician-scientist, and Sean, a U.S. Navy fuel-cell engineer and a Merck vaccine and API process engineer — and applied them to the grand challenges of the $6T chemicals industry: reducing emissions while decreasing costs. 

They’ve gone from a backyard PVC pipe reactor to a sold-out 10 ktpa Bioforge in five years. They’ve used technology tailwinds to do this: pairing directed evolution with machine learning to 500,000× production of chemicals made from enzymes eating biomass. They achieve software-like margins and 9-figure run rates already at Series D. Oil and gas majors are buying Solugen’s chemicals not because they give a damn about climate, but because they’re just plain cheaper. 

What I’m saying is, even though you’re doing good, this work isn’t charity. You will go down as a hero and make a bunch of money. Pretty ideal, if you ask me. 

Clearly, I get pretty excited talking about climate work and the path my colleagues and I took to get here. But ultimately, you get to write your own climate story, following your gut to find what you’re passionate about — the thing that makes it impossible for you to sit on the sidelines. 

Just know, it’s less about finding the 100% perfect match, and more about showing up, getting inspired, and taking a leap of faith. Where you start isn’t where you’ll have to stay forever, so it doesn’t need to be optimized to a fault.

We need the most talented, driven, relentless people in the world working on this problem. Jump aboard now. We don’t have time to wait for reinforcements.

I want to give a special shout out to folks in academia because it’s where I had my proverbial light bulb moment (LED, of course). From students to postdocs to professors, I’m going to lay down a gauntlet: Think of yourselves as founders. This fight calls for us to be unreasonably ambitious and push ourselves way out of our comfort zones. Feel the urgency of this moment in history and rise to the occasion.

There are a couple of activities that academics do all the damn time that are perfect for being a founder. The first is risky endeavors: Creating new knowledge is inherently low-probability. The challenge is steep, and the reward is great. The second is learning new fields. No one beats academics at this! Y’all are ninjas at learning new things. The proposal writing process has prepared you for the venture creation process: digging deeply to figure out what the real unsolved problems are, creating a framework of knowledge to pose the right problem, and only then beginning to propose a solution.

So my challenge to academics: Let your next research project be on climate. Not an offshoot from your prior work, but from first principles. Give yourself permission to tackle a climate issue that genuinely excites you. The latest ones from ARPA-E and EERE might get your juices flowing. You’ll need TEA basics for your proposal — consider “Techonomics” your starter kit.

Take the leap of faith — it pays off. For instance, several professors found themselves inspired by my iron and steel decarbonization video in 2021. Though they weren’t trained as metallurgists, they used my first-principles framing. Now they all have patent(s) pending and have won research funding for their zero-emissions ironmaking methods. They’re on track to spin out and have a tangible impact. They’re thrilled they jumped in.

To get going on climate, it helps to get smart. So here are a few of my favorite resources to help bring you up to speed. 

First, an oldie-but-goodie that I still pull from my shelf all the time, “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air,” a quantitative primer on today’s energy use and renewables’ potential written by the late Professor David MacKay (and a personal hero from my time studying in the UK1). To me, it’s the way to teach yourself how to think like a sustainable energy engineer without taking a course. 

Second, if multimedia is more your jam, here are my faves. Jason Jacobs’ My Climate Journey podcast will get you right in the thick of things, hearing from today’s climate tech stars on how they started out. And if you’re ready to nerd out on a specific topic, chances are you can find an ARPA-E Fast Pitch that piques your interest. From power beaming to CO2-to-proteins, the ARPA-E federal science team has for a decade been churning out talks framing provocative technical problem statements on topics at the forefront of climate and energy. You can find all the recorded ARPA-E Summit Fast Pitch talks on YouTube

And if you want more, here’s the ultimate climate reading list, with books, sites, Substacks, and podcasts hand-picked for everyone from the climate curious to the committed climate crusader. 

Alright, time to wrap this up. Let me just say, when you work in climate, you can sleep well at night, look your kids in the eye, have a fulfilling, challenging time, all while making bank. And if you’re someone who just wants to “make cool shit,” then you should know that in climate tech, you’ll be making the coolest, most necessary shit. So strap in, and don’t be afraid to swing big. 

At Lowercarbon, we support climate tech founders at the earliest stages. If you’re already building something awesome, holler at us. Or if you’re just getting started, this is the sign you’ve been waiting for. I am here to meet you wherever you are in your process — drop me a line at christina at lowercarboncapital dot com. 

And if you’re not a founder type (yet) but want to work for a kickass one, start exploring your new calling now.

1One summer in college I taught myself sustainable energy engineering from Prof. MacKay’s book. I became obsessed. I dreamt in kilowatts. So it was a literal dream come true when I met Prof. MacKay while getting my MSc in Sustainable Energy as a Marshall Scholar. He was another mentor who shifted mid-career to pour himself into the climate fight. He died in 2016, a huge blow to the climate community.