The ivory tower is witnessing an exodus.
Academics and scientists in search of more impact are finding an outlet in the fast-growing climate tech field, as startups move from pie-in-the-sky to commercially viable. And companies are increasingly seeking out researchers to ensure their solutions are rigorous and benefit the climate. The timing couldn’t be better as the world races to reduce emissions and deploy climate-saving technologies at the scale needed to limit warming.
Some of the fastest-growing climate startups have made headlines in recent months for hiring big-name academics to lead their science teams. One of them is carbon removal platform Watershed, which recently nabbed University of California, Irvine professor Steve Davis as head of climate science.
“This wasn’t really an opportunity before now, and all of a sudden companies actually want climate science in-house,” Davis told Protocol. “And I think it’s really kind of a neat turn of events for me and my students and postdocs.”
He’s not alone. Stripe Climate’s roster is littered with Ph.D.s. Over half of the approximately 60 employees at carbon management firm Carbon Direct are scientists.
Maturing technology as well as the growing pile of venture capital dollars flooding climate solutions have led to the wave of academics rushing to work on climate tech.
“Nobody cared about this five years ago,” said Laura Lammers, who left her post as an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley to found carbon mineralization startup Travertine Technologies. She was able to start her company this year after almost a decade of research, because “the demand side is there now, and the supply is available.”
Like other former academics, Lammers decided to leave her comfortable and well-respected post because of the urgency of the climate crisis. “In academia, you have the luxury of asking a question for a decade. We don’t have the luxury to sit around for a decade. We need to be implementing solutions,” she said.
Beyond urgency, climate tech also offers a far greater impact than traditional metrics of academic success. For scientists, the pinnacle of achievement is publishing in a respected journal like Nature. But there’s always a question of, “Did anyone even read it?” said Dan Sanchez, Carbon Direct’s chief scientist for biomass carbon removal and storage, who temporarily left his post as an assistant professor at UC Berkeley this year to join the startup.
“In academia, you have the luxury of asking a question for a decade. We don’t have the luxury to sit around for a decade. We need to be implementing solutions.”
“Maybe your colleagues did, but was it salient at all for decision makers in industry that are actually going to decarbonize the sector?” Sanchez said.
Sanchez decided to spend a year on entrepreneurial leave — a type of leave offered by some universities and federal labs — to work for Carbon Direct to be in the room with those decision makers to actually implement his research on the ground.
It’s not just the carbon removal field that’s drawing star talent away from basic research. Nuclear fusion is also seeing a burst of energy as a number of companies inch toward their goal of generating net energy.
Debra Callahan left her post this month at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab to join Focused Energy as senior scientist. She was one of the leaders on the team at the National Ignition Facility that successfully demonstrated the use of lasers to reach the edge of fusion ignition, a key milestone. (She even got a tattoo to commemorate the moment: a sun with an infinity symbol in the middle.)
Callahan described that moment of inertial fusion demonstration as the industry’s “Wright brothers moment,” which inspired her to leave the national lab and focus on commercializing the technology at the fusion startup, which also uses lasers. (Other companies are working on different ways of using fusion to generate energy.)
“Funding is difficult” in the public sector, and getting things done is easier at a small, private company, Callahan said. “Startups can do this faster than national labs,” she added, and time is of the essence when it comes to generating zero-carbon energy.
“Rather than studying the problem to death, let’s make a decision. Let’s try this. If it doesn’t work, let’s change our path,” Callahan said.
Climate scientists who’ve made the jump acknowledge there’s a cultural shift — and tension — between public research institutions and the startup world.
“Scientists are risk-averse people. That’s why we often end up in these tenured faculty jobs,” Davis said.
By contrast, the startup world mantra of “move fast and break things” can at times be at odds with the meticulous nature of the scientific method. That’s particularly the case for the nascent carbon removal field, which has come under some scrutiny for its potential unintended consequences.
“Scientists are risk-averse people. That’s why we often end up in these tenured faculty jobs.”
What Sanchez and other scientists are trying to do at Carbon Direct is “move fast but understand where things might break along the way,” he said, meaning “we probably move a little less fast than your prototypical VC-backed market-grabbing machine.”
Finding the right pace, though, can be a challenge in the sector. Funding for carbon removal startups has grown explosively. Investors and large corporations alike view the technology as a crucial one to reach net zero in time to avoid catastrophic global warming, something backed up by nearly all research. How much the world needs to rely on it is a different story, though, as is where and how to deploy various technologies equitably.
“We found out pretty early on that you need scientific expertise to scale the industry responsibly,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said that during the first rush of carbon removal projects, “it wasn’t standard practice to do incredibly deep due diligence,” Sanchez said. It takes a lot of scientific understanding and “reading reams and reams of project documents” to evaluate whether or not a carbon removal project is ethical and high-quality. That’s why Carbon Direct hires so many scientists, he said.
But academics who’ve changed sectors caution that it’s a fine line between making an impact in the private sector and being a tokenized figurehead for greenwashing.
For researchers considering the switch, it’s important to make sure the company’s culture “respects conservatism” on both the science as well as fiscal front, Sanchez said. If it’s the right fit, he added, “Going to the private sector doesn’t mean you’re inevitably going to compromise your ideals.”
The world has also passed the point of talking about solutions. The need to implement them and do so in a rigorous manner is paramount to staving off the worst effects of the climate crisis.
“I think everybody is feeling an acute sense of urgency tackling the climate crisis,” Lammers said. “We feel the fire, breathe the smoke, feel the heat.”