Turning Algae into Natural Resources


Sustainability, 02.04.2024

Before Pablo Navarro Maldonado founded his startup RubisCO2, he did not see the glass half empty or half full, he saw the bottom of the glass. Now he is solving multiple problems with his solution that turns algae into biochar. He told //next columnist Markus Sekulla about how the planet and even the local communities in Mexico benefit from the start-up’s highly scalable solution.

Pablo Navarro Maldonado (right), CEO of RubisCO2, and CRO Marco Perner at work on one of their reactors. (c) Jaime Soto

Pablo Navarro Maldonado (right), CEO of RubisCO2, and CRO Marco Perner at work on one of their reactors. (c) Jaime Soto

Hi, Pablo, could you please introduce yourself? Who are you? And what does RubisCO2 do?

Thank you, Markus. I was a student at Ludwig Maximilian University. I have paused my studies to dedicate myself fully to RubisCO2. I'm the CEO and founder of RubisCO2, which focuses on leveraging increasing algae blooms  caused by climate change to decarbonize construction. This idea stems from my childhood experience in the Caribbean in 2011 when I witnessed the first Sargassum bloom. I remember the floating algae that had always been a feature in the Sargasso Sea suddenly starting to cover the entire Atlantic Ocean, ultimately washing up on the beaches of the Caribbean. It was a frightening experience. That memory turned into hope in Munich, looking for the most effective and efficient way to remove CO2 from the system. The first question to ask is, where is the carbon? It turns out there's an abundance of it in algae blooms. Building on this insight, we developed a simple process to extract carbon and bind it permanently into construction materials.

How many people work for RubisCO2? And where are your team members based?

Currently, we are three team members in Guadalajara, Mexico, testing and improving our TRL six system, including German engineers Marco and Andy. Daniel Pastor, an experienced financier with an awesome career has joined us as a CFO, working full timeenable our vision. Additionally, we have a business developer and a law firm assisting with contracts and scalability efforts in Mexico City. Our focus is on building an industrially reproducible carbon dioxide removal system, creating an exponentially scalable business model, and developing scalable contracts.

Could you explain to me what RubisCO2 does as if I were a four-year-old kid?

Imagine RubisCO2 like a big superhero friend. Its job is to clean up the air, just like how you clean up your toys. You know how plants are like Earth's helpers, right? They breathe in “bad” stuff called CO2 and release the O2, the air we breathe, keeping the C for themselves. But they cannot keep the C forever, eventually it escapes, stealing O2 and becoming CO2 again. RubisCO2 comes to save the day! It takes sea plants that are about to become CO2 and it makes sure the “bad” stuff stays locked away forever. The algae becomes something called biochar, which is like a super-strong and powerful brick with amazing properties. This bricks will be the material of the homes of the future.

Could you tell us more about your prototype?

We're currently refining our second batch of prototypes. Our initial model, a repurposed cooking pot turned pyrolysis reactor, garnered positive feedback after successful testing in Mexico. This prompted sponsorship and grants, allowing us to upscale. We work with a skilled metal lab equipment builder, who is constructing a larger, self-sustaining pyrolysis system. By mid-April, we aim to transport it to the Caribbean for further testing, with plans for a comprehensive showcase and a pilot system by year-end to combat Sargassum pollution.

“We understand that climate change is a rapidly escalating issue, demanding equally swift solutions.”

Pablo Navarro Maldonado, Founder and CEO of RubisCO2

What's your plan to grow your business, considering multiple potential customers —biochar buyers, municipalities, or corporates seeking certificates? Who do you plan to work with?

We understand that climate change is a rapidly escalating issue, demanding equally swift solutions. Through the Climate KIC Accelerator, we've embraced the concept of exponential organizations, aiming to build just that. Focusing initially on addressing widespread algae blooms, particularly the Sargassum bloom, we aim to specialize in this area and expand our reach globally.

Our strategy involves establishing linearly growing production operations for our reactors, followed by an exponential business model for decentralized utilization worldwide. For instance, in Mexico, where Sargassum decomposition poses a significant problem, we've garnered interest from individuals in the United States and India, reflecting global demand. We're structuring frameworks to facilitate the adoption of our technology for diverse local contexts.

While our clientele varies across different streams, municipalities emerge as key partners. They handle algae collection and transport, tasks we aim to complement by transforming algae residue into biochar at disposal sites. Cement manufacturers and construction firms express interest in our biochar, offering both cost-effectiveness and CO2 sequestration benefits. This presents revenue opportunities through direct biochar sales or offsets in the voluntary carbon market.

Could you describe the moment when you realized that the idea was so great it had to become a business?

It's funny you ask because initially, I thought it was the worst idea ever. I remember being on the Munich subway, grappling with my climate anxiety, trying to distract myself. So, I started jotting down ideas for pulling carbon out of the system. With each new idea, I'd cross out the old ones. The more I pondered, the clearer it became: the imperative was finding the most cost-efficient, preferably energy-neutral method. One of the challenges with carbon capture is that it often requires a lot of energy. That's when it hit me—algae. They're incredibly efficient at absorbing CO2, perhaps the best in nature. And even better, there is abundant, and increasing algae waste so there’s no need for producing it at first. Through pyrolysis, we could lock away that carbon forever.

What will be your most important milestone for 2024?

Our most ambitious milestone for 2024 is to implement a pilot plant capable of removing approximately 8000 tons of CO2 annually. It may seem like an unattainable goal, but achieving it would not only validate our efforts but also instill hope that solutions like RubisCO2 can genuinely impact climate change. This belief motivates us to push forward. Tlacuache 1, our largest reactor, is already up and running, and we're continually enhancing it. And by October 2024, we aim to deploy eight reactors along the Mexican coastline, equipped with a preprocessing system. Soon we will start receive Sargassum daily and convert all collected algae into biochar to remove carbon dioxide effectively.

Do you have competitors, or are you surrounded by allies with the same cause? Either way, what sets you apart from others if they exist?

It really does not make sense to label others as competitors when your focus is purpose-driven because we are all working towards the same necessary goal. However, in the market landscape, we certainly have peers. Our approach differs. We believe the future lies in industrial systems producing pyrolysis reactors, maximizing their capacity utilization. Instead of grand factories, we prioritize simplicity, modularity, and flexibility. Moreover, we stand out in our specialization in algae waste, a plentiful yet challenging feedstock. As far as we know, we haven't encountered any other pyrolysis firms focusing solely on algae waste. Additionally, we're exploring and developing potential technologies that could significantly enhance the efficiency of algae pyrolysis, potentially patentable innovations.

“It's heartening to see so many individuals and inspiring competitors working towards
the same goal.”

Pablo Navarro Maldonado, Founder and CEO of RubisCO2

You mentioned climate anxiety earlier, a sentiment many of us grapple with today. How do you view the age-old question: Is the glass half full or half empty? And do you believe we, as humans, can still solve the climate crisis?

I used to see the glass as completely empty. But as I delved into this project, I began to witness the power of collective action. It's heartening to see so many individuals and inspiring competitors working towards the same goal. Yet, I still perceive the glass as half empty, albeit with a glimmer of hope. We need to act swiftly because time is running out.

If you would not be a start-up founder, what would you do for a living?

My dream is to be a physicist. Let’s save this planet first and then we can explore the next!

Interview: Markus Sekulla

Markus Sekulla

Author: Markus Sekulla

Hi, I'm Markus. I'm a freelance management consultant in the field of creative/digital communication. In my free and working time, which is not always clear-cut, I like to focus on new work, trends, gadgets and sustainable iedas. In my real free time, I'm quite a health freak: eat, run, sleep, repeat.

Markus Sekulla on LinkedIn

Further Readings

What is the Carbon Removal ClimAccelerator?

Interview with Strategic Programmes Builder Carla Erber (EIT Climate-KIC) 

PLENO: Streamlining carbon removal projects 

Interview with PLENO Co-Founder Nura Linggih 

NEG8 Carbon: Rapid scaling key to carbon removal

Interview with Chief Commercial Officer Dr. Adrian Costigan

Blue Carbon Tanzania: Restoring a part of the planet’s lungs

Interview with Debora Benjamen, the CEO and co-founder

Point2Hectare: Next gen fertilizer

Interview with Max Billinger, CEO and co-founder

ClimeRock: Making Earth Cooler Using Rocks

Interview with the founders Antoine Davy and Arthur Chabot

Your opinion
If you would like to share your opinion on this topic with us, please send us a message to next@ergo.de.

Related articles

Sustainability 04.03.2024

Restoring a part of the planet’s lungs

Debora Benjamen ia CEO and co-founder of Blue Carbon Tanzania, a start-up that sets out to restore mangroves in the country in eastern Africa and manages to solve a few problems simultaneously. Blue Carbon Tanzania takes part in the Carbon Removal ClimAccelerator programme of EIT Climate-KIC that is supported by Munich Re and ERGO.

Sustainability 18.04.2024

Using Wind Turbines to catch Greenhouse Gases

Yuri Tsitrinbaum, Co-Founder and CEO of BomVento, plans to transform wind turbine to sequester greenhouse gases. In his interview with //next columnist Markus Sekulla, Yuri talks about the current state of research and strategies for moving beyond the testing phase towards successful implementation.

Sustainability 01.02.2024

What is the Carbon Removal ClimAccelerator?

An opportunity for start-ups that develop technologies to reduce CO2 emissions: Munich Re and ERGO have been supporting the ClimAccelerator programme from EIT Climate-KIC since 2017. We talked to Carla Erber from EIT Climate-KIC about the initiative.