In San Francisco, one of the most shocking days on record was September 9th, 2020. Eerily orange skies and unbreathable air made us feel as though we were living in an apocalypse. This was just one of the more recent extreme climate events that hit close to home; humanity has no more time to waste when it comes to protecting our planet.
Climate and the environment has been a focal point for philanthropists for many decades. Many feel most comfortable funding large, established NGOs such as Greenpeace and EDF– organizations that do important work, attract big donations and have substantial annual budgets.
When Matt and I started Incite.org back in 2015, we didn't have billions of dollars to donate or even a team to help us manage large programmatic grants. But, we were (and still are) willing to take big bets on bold ideas for change – like carbon removal. We had a feeling that we could help actualize real, lasting change on climate by seeding new ideas and nimble teams across sectors. As a result, we built Incite.org with the ability to fund nonprofits, for-profits and political initiatives working on climate.
Today, there's still an incredible opportunity for smaller donors and family offices to be just as catalytic in helping fund climate efforts as the large philanthropists, especially when it comes to carbon removal. We’ve learned how to do this first hand over the last 5 years, and we hope that in sharing our story, we can inspire other budding philanthropists to have bold impact.
New & Transformative Categories
Just a few short years ago, investing in carbon tech was seen by climate philanthropists and Silicon Valley investors as too risky or too “out there”. The majority of climate funders preferred to invest in clean technologies, such as energy efficiency improvements and renewables, rather than looking at technology to undo damage we had already done by actually removing existing carbon from the air. They also preferred to give to big, established organizations taking on this complex challenge.
Carbon tech was a tiny, nascent category and carbon removal was still largely unrecognized as an area for funding.
Two people who understood this massive, emerging opportunity were Noah Deich and Giana Amador. In 2016, they came to Incite.org pitching a new kind of NGO, one that would fundamentally rethink what was possible with carbon to help our planet. The more we learned about the science of climate change, the stronger we believed that carbon removal was critical to reversing climate change and its effects on our planet. So, Matt and I wrote Noah and Giana’s first $500K check from the Incite.org foundation arm. The Center for Carbon Removal was born.
Starting as a research and communications hub, Noah and Giana began to elevate carbon removal into mainstream climate conversations. Rebranding as Carbon180 in 2018, they evolved into a policy and advocacy focused think-tank while developing an EIR fellowship to advance thought-leaders and entrepreneurs working on carbon removal solutions. One of their biggest successes to date is helping lobby to win the carbon tax pricing in 2018 during a gridlocked Congress and a Presidential term that didn't support or believe in climate science.
We also learned quickly that validation from the scientific community was also important to catalyze public sector interest and action on carbon removal. In 2017, Noah and Giana connected us with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), a nationally recognized academic organization that wanted to create a groundbreaking report to assess the risks and benefits of carbon removal. We recognized the potential for this first-of-its-kind study to draw future funders to this area of climate change mitigation. Less than a year after NASEM published the Negative Emissions Technologies & Reliable Sequestration, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 leveraged the findings from this study to expand and extend the 45Q tax credit. A carbon removal roadmap had been established by one of the most revered, objective sources of scientific truth in the nation.
Today, climate change is listed as a one of the top four priorities for the new President. In just a few short years, carbon innovation has become a national conversation, a pillar of climate change solutions and a one trillion dollar (and growing) industry.
Beyond funding research and education for new and transformative categories, we knew a variety of projects were necessary to accelerate deep decarbonization. We set up Incite.org to be able to make grants, investments and to participate in politics. Matt and I knew that if we truly wanted to address climate change meaningfully, we had to do more than support new companies and research. We couldn’t ignore civic and political engagement. Especially after the 2016 elections, when progress on climate change stalled, we needed to elect leaders who not only believed in climate science, but made climate a central focus of their policy agendas.
In early 2018, we started working with Phil Schiliro and Phil Barnett who had just created Co-Equal. We seeded their non-profit and c4 with $250K to help them realize their theory of change. Phil and Phil’s vision for Co-Equal was to inform and provide strategic advice to freshman members of the House and Senate. They leveraged and invested in climate experts to talk to and provide Members with scientific reports, findings and talking points to maximize their impact and draw attention to climate change and carbon removal priorities.
On the Hill and across the country, the advocacy championed by Incite-backed groups and candidates in Congress would directly impact an emerging category of companies: carbon innovation startups. Again, there was a role for Incite.org to help catalyze progress with some early, flexible funding. Early on, it was proving challenging for these early carbon-removal or carbon sequestration start-ups to raise their first rounds, because traditional investors were not keen on funding what they considered to be science projects in the lab.
In 2018, we met Peter Reinhardt, a successful tech founder, who had aspirations of building something to return the atmosphere to 280 ppm CO2, profitably. His new company, Charm Industrial, had developed a patent-pending method for removing carbon dioxide. They would convert waste biomass to bio-oil and then inject it into rock formations, permanently. We wrote a small $300K check to participate in his first seed round, and today, big tech companies like Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify have already made commitments to be Charm’s first customers.
Incite.org’s investment and grantmaking philosophy has always been anchored in supporting the best and brightest people and teams. The Incite.org team, itself, is and will always be small. Instead of adding more people to our staff, we direct as many of our dollars as we can to make unrestricted grants and investments to our portfolio organizations. In turn, those organizations are able to build much-needed talent and organizational capacity within the climate ecosystem.
At Incite.org, we invest in great people as much as great companies, technologies, and advocacy. That is a focus of our work: to build leaders in climate innovation who will champion this cause for decades to come. Our small but mighty team does everything possible to support our portfolio teams working on carbon innovation, because humanity only has so long. We mentor founders, we meet with teams and we even take board seats when our deep involvement can be truly catalytic. We leverage our collective networks to make introductions for talent, investor, advisor and board recruitment. The climate crisis is a problem of whole-world proportions and it requires a deep talent pool.
No one cares more about elevating amazing talent in the climate space than Ilan Gur. We met Ilan in late 2017 to learn more about Activate (formerly Cyclotron Road), an accelerator focused on moving deep technology solutions from the lab to science at scale. Providing Ilan and his team with a $500K grant in 2018 and becoming one of their anchor donors solidified our deep commitment to fostering the next generation of carbon removal scientists.
Obsessed with reinventing our economy to be sustainable, resilient and equitable, Activate is training more and more scientists to become successful business leaders. Expanding from Berkeley to Boston in 2020, Activate has supported 83 fellows, leading to 58 transformative startups, and garnering more than $200M in additional capital.
Funding innovation in carbon removal has proven to us that there’s no easy fix. There’s no one investment or one grant that will solve the climate crisis. People and businesses continue to emit more carbon that we are able to remove from the atmosphere. Even if we stopped emitting today, a substantial portion of CO2 would remain over the coming century and beyond.
Swift, bold action and funding to new, transformative areas of carbon innovation is needed. Here are some of the opportunities that are underfunded, yet have the potential for catalytic change today:
We hope that what we've learned at Incite.org will inspire others. Climate change needs more innovation – and it needs donors to get creative with their funding and to support bold, new ideas and talented leaders. You don’t need to have the biggest team, largest budget or deepest expertise to make a difference. Early, nonrestrictive capital can be put to work across grants, investments, policy and advocacy to catalyze meaningful and lasting change.
We’ve deployed less than $10M in just five years entirely devoted to mitigating climate change. But the results have been staggering. We know it’s working. Today, the world needs even more funders convinced emerging technologies, ideas and advocacy in service of permanently removing carbon from the atmosphere is today’s biggest challenge and greatest opportunity.
Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash