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Harnessing the Power of the Ocean to Combat Climate Change
Kelly Erhart, Co-Founder and VP of Business Development of Project Vesta

From renewable energy to electric vehicles, efforts to combat climate change often focus on lowering carbon emissions. Yet we also need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – and the ocean may be able to help. Kelly Erhart, Co-Founder and VP of Business Development of Project Vesta, says oceans have been naturally removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for billions of years, but no one has tried to leverage that process and bring it to market. Project Vesta hopes to do just that. It plans to grind a naturally occurring and abundant mineral into a sand that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when dissolved in the ocean and used in coastal-replenishment projects. In this episode, Anik Guha, a partner in Orrick's Technology Companies Group, talks with Erhart about what Project Vesta sees as one of the cheapest permanent carbon-removal solutions today. They also discuss the broader carbon-capture and carbon-credit markets, why planting trees alone isn’t enough to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and why she’s optimistic about our ability to fight climate change.

Kelly Erhart, Co-Founder and VP of Business Development of Project Vesta

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Show Notes

Anik Guha:

Welcome to The Future Fountain, a podcast series dedicated to conversations about the tech ecosystem and, today, about the larger ecosystem. Brought to you by Orrick and NYU Future Labs. We’re excited to welcome Kelly Erhart to today’s program. Kelly is a social entrepreneur focused on addressing imminent global challenges. Kelly is the co-founder and director of business development for Project Vesta, a project to sequester carbon dioxide and reverse ocean acidification by accelerating weathering of olivine rock. Kelly is committed to reframing complex issues into solutions that facilitate growth for technologies, ecosystems, and communities. She has a multifaceted and multidisciplinary background, and Kelly’s work in the last few years has focused on the commercialization of sustainable technologies and climate solutions through both nonprofit and for-profit endeavors. I’m your host, Anik Guha, a partner with the Technology Companies Group at Orrick where I work with high-growth tech companies.

So, Kelly, let’s jump right in. We’re really excited about the conversation today. I think we’re going to be talking about things that a lot of our listeners maybe aren’t familiar with and that will be novel and interesting to them. Can you share with us a little bit about the career journey that brought you to Project Vesta? You’re a co-founder. What was the path that led you to it?

Kelly Erhart:

Well, first of all, what we are talking about today will likely be something that many of your listeners haven’t heard about. So if any of you find yourselves thinking this is a bit dense, please do visit our website. There’s a lot of material you can read to try and better familiarize yourself with exactly how this works. My career journey started, I think, really since I was a child being so inspired by and in participation with the natural world. I grew up both between the suburbs of central Florida and the rural countryside of Montana. And through that experience, really seeing the different impacts that humans could have on the natural world, whether that meant proper grazing of animals or massive industrial developments. And came to this passion internally of trying to discover how humans could be a net positive to nature—this framing of how humans, instead of being apex predators, could be apex stewards. And that’s really guided my career journey, through commercializing different technologies in the climate space, in the carbon removal space, as well as some other sustainable technologies. My last company was a wireless toilet company and so always looking for ways we can work with natural systems. I think that that’s our best bet out of the eco-grief or the climate anxiety that many feel when they look at the climate crisis today. It was in my journey of different climate-solutions mapping that I found what we’re working on, which is the overall field of what’s called weathering or enhanced weathering. All rocks on Earth weather, break down over time, and you can enhance them to expedite their carbon sequestration process. I came across this as this incredible solution that seemed to hold so much promise that was cited in every report by the IPCC, which is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, when they would talk about how we would achieve targets that keep us below 1.5 degrees warming. They all talked about enhanced weathering, but there was no company that existed yet to bring this solution to scale. So my co-founders and I founded Project Vesta to see if we could bring this technology that was stuck in lab settings out of the laboratory and into the real world, testing the viability to bring it to scale.

Anik:

Very cool. Very cool, and I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to that grew up in both Montana and Florida. Just out of curiosity, what kind of sticks with you the most from the natural world and ecosystems of those two locations?

Kelly:

Central Florida, if you’ve ever been, when you fly over it, it’s a sponge. And, strangely, Florida has tried to make that as unintuitive as possible by pouring a lot of concrete over this very spongey limestone landscape. And, so, Central Florida is a strip mall paradise really. Eastern Montana is a place where there’s not much of anything. Very little concrete, and the only concrete that exists is the houses that are miles apart from each other. I grew up right on the border of North Dakota and Eastern Montana where it’s really just rangelands and pasture and farmland. Getting to appreciate those different speeds of life and the different ways that people participated with each other and the natural world was really influential then. Getting to spend days and days and days on end just by the riverside on the Yellowstone River and watching those natural cycles I think was quite influential at that young age.

Anik:

Cool. I imagine you get a lot more space than you do in the Bay Area.

So, Project Vesta, you’re tackling the problem with excess carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, and there are lots of different ways to do this. So, tell us about what you and your team are doing and the technologies you’ve developed. And we’ll get more into this later, but if you could also touch on kind of where Project Vesta’s work fits into the whole portfolio of different carbon dioxide removal solutions, that’s something that we can also discuss.

Kelly:

Yeah. So, I guess I’ll start by saying it’s absolutely true that we need to reduce emissions and achieve net zero emissions globally as soon as possible. None of this work to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere matters if we can’t reduce emissions, but, unfortunately, we’ve hit a point on planet Earth where reducing emissions is no longer enough. I like to use this analogy of a bathtub, where if you wake up in the morning and you turn on the tap of your bathtub and you leave to go pour a cup of coffee, and you come back and there’s water overflowing. You’ve forgotten that the tap was on. Water is all over your bathtub floor, so you turn off the tap. You don’t expect that because the tap is off, the water will just start draining. That’s not going to happen unless you unplug the bathtub, right? And it’s kind of the same thing as what’s happening in our atmosphere. So, right now, we’ve been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at twice the rate that natural sinks can absorb it. So, because of that, the oceans and the world will keep warming, and climate change will keep affecting weather systems and populations around the world even if we got to net zero emissions today, because there’s all this excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So, for a little bit of climate context, that’s kind of where we are and why carbon removal is not just, you know, important but absolutely necessary today. Moving from there, it’s really important to acknowledge the role of the oceans in storing atmospheric carbon, and that’s a part of where we get our inspiration from. So, the oceans have been naturally removing carbon dioxide for billions of years and storing it as rock. If we can give the ocean a helping hand, we can actually speed that process up and begin to address a part of the climate problem. Because it turns out that that trillion excess tons of carbon dioxide that we have in the atmosphere isn’t just warming the planet. It’s also made our oceans more acidic and very fast. A pretty terrifying statistic I recently learned is that we’ve been dumping about the equivalent of 16 Olympic swimming pools of battery acid into the ocean every single minute, so it’s become thirty percent more acidic.

Anik:

Hmm.

Kelly:

And if any of us have spent time in the oceans or enjoy watching Planet Earth, we’ve probably seen that the oceans are becoming more acidic, and the corals are bleaching, the fish populations are dwindling. We are seeing changes in coastlines that maybe we’ve maybe been our entire lives. And ocean acidification is bringing marine ecosystems to the brink of collapse, and that’s the type of thing that billions of people are relying on for fish, for protein, for livelihoods, and that’s at risk. And so to make the link between carbon dioxide and ocean acidification is an important one, because this is how we partner with nature to neutralize the acidity in the oceans and help them continue removing carbon dioxide like they’ve been doing for billions of years. Project Vesta recognized that there was decades of research on this promising solution to do just that, but no one was yet bringing it to market. And so what we’re doing is taking an abundant volcanic mineral, called olivine, and it turns out it’s one of the most abundant minerals on Earth, actually. It makes up over fifty percent of the upper mantle. Grinding this rock up and creating something that we call carbon-removing sand. When we take this sand to the ocean, it gradually dissolves with the help of wave action and tides. And as it dissolves, it makes the ocean less acidic by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in the ocean as bicarbonate, which is essentially a baking soda. So it’s kind of like we’re giving the ocean an antacid. And this all helps the ocean safely store carbon dioxide. There’s one added benefit, which—that’s very near and dear to my heart—the process also helps create resilience for vulnerable coastal communities that today are on the front lines of climate change as they experience sea level rise and erosion. So, in the United States and all over the world, coastal communities and island nations are bringing in foreign sand for coastal replenishment, and we can replace a portion of that sand with olivine sand to try and provide a solution for coastal projects to be carbon negative and climate resilient. So that’s kind of the overall of what we’re doing. And it’s worth noting that we’re in the process of developing this from something that was set in scientific literature and lab experiments to something that we can bring into the world in a real way. So we’re engaged in lab experiments, studying natural analogs. There’s a really large-scale olivine sand beach in Hawaii, probably the most famous one. It’s called Papakōlea Beach, and so we’re studying that. And also planning some of the very first field trials of coastal carbon capture around the world and here in the United States. In this process, we’re really rigorously measuring ecological safety and working on a robust community engagement plan so that communities are deeply involved in this process. But, yeah, we hope that this means kind of less coral bleaching, healthier fish, more coastal resilience, all while we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Anik:

There’s a lot there that’s really interesting that I think before I had learned anything about olivine, there aren’t a lot of projects or efforts that are kind of similar to this. It brings a lot of interesting questions to mind. I was curious, what’s the history of the research efforts to test the effects of doing this? What’s the largest scale at which this has been studied prior to what you’re doing?

Kelly:

Technically, nature has been running the first experiments and has been doing so for billions of years through weathering. Actually, weathering is the process that is truly actually responsible for some of the last ice ages, when there were tectonic events that shifted the tectonic plates and exposed more of this rock to the atmosphere. It weathered more quickly. Of course, that’s a very different scale of what we’re trying to do, but nature did those experiments through the last hundreds of millions of billions of years. And then this natural analogue at Papakōlea is another large-scale kind of natural experiment. Beyond that, there’s been long-standing, you know, multi-year laboratory experiments and mesocosm experiments, which is essentially where you simulate an Earth system in a smaller container. And so those have run for the last 30 years. We will be deploying some of the first actually in-field trials.

Anik:

Interesting. And how do think about scaling and commercialization? I mean, obviously there’s an enormous amount of coastline in the world, and I’m sure the long-term vison is to make this a solution that people can use in all kinds of different locations. But as somebody who’s not closely involved, it sounds like a very ambitious, time-consuming, and potentially expensive thing to do. How do you think about those challenges and about how you approach scaling a solution like this?

Kelly:

It is ambitious, indeed, but in terms of time-consuming and expensive, it’s not so much those. The scientific research needed is indeed time-consuming, but that’s the case with really any carbon removal solution that we’re endeavoring to do today. The cost is actually something that’s most attractive about this solution. So, to just note that our process at scale, we’re aiming to achieve $25 to $30 per ton of carbon removal, which will make it the cheapest permanent carbon removal available on the market today. And the reason for that is that we actually don’t really need to invent any new technology to bring this to scale. We can work with the efficiencies of the mining and shipping industries to bring this to scale. And, yeah, it does require a lot of resource in terms of bringing a billion tons of rocks around the world to remove a billion tons of carbon dioxide, but this is not an industry that’s outside of the scale of other industries that have been created before. And I actually think that’s a part of the elegance of this solution is that we can take an industry that’s historically done a lot of harm to our planet and use the efficiencies created in it to undo that harm.

Anik:

What would you say about the efficiency of this approach, meaning for every ton of olivine that you bring to a coastline… How reliable is it in terms of being able to first measure how much carbon you are removing and then the efficiency of that removal?

Kelly:

It’s a great question. And that’s another really attractive piece of this is that typically permanent carbon removal, people like to think about direct air capture, these big machines that look—are like vacuums that suck carbon out of the air. They are getting a lot of attention, and it’s because I think we have this bias to really like technological fixes. But when you dig down into it, the energy-efficiency and the materials cost and the infrastructure investment that’s needed, it kind of inhibits our ability to think about deploying this at planetary scale. With coastal carbon capture, that’s not the case. So, our process is about 97% efficient, which means that for every 100 tons of carbon that’s sequestered from the atmosphere, we’ll only emit 3 tons of carbon in the process of mining, milling, shipping, transportation, and deployment. So, it’s incredibly efficient. It’s probably one of the most efficient when we are talking about per kilowatt hour, it may be the most efficient permanent carbon removal. Of course, we don’t have it at scale yet, so we can’t do that overall analysis, but that’s where we’re aiming for. And even in subscale projects, we’re still able to achieve a 95% efficiency, so the numbers really work out there. When it comes to measurement, that’s actually a different question. And that’s something that our science team is really focused on. So, it is one of my favorite questions because I think it’s a fascinating scientific opportunity. Right now, there’s actually no way to—no validated way, I’ll say—to measure carbon removal in the ocean, and the same was true for forestry, or planting trees. Years ago, before the forestry carbon credit industry sprung up, and then hundreds of millions of dollars and many, many organizations came together to try and figure out what those variables are that we need to define to really understand that there’s carbon removal happening by growing trees. Even though, we know for sure that trees growing sequesters carbon, right? So, we’re trying to do the same thing but for the ocean, and the way that the ocean interacts with minerals. But, you know, we’re one startup and a team of—we have an incredible team of about nine Ph.D. staff scientists, so we’re working hard at it, but it’s really the cutting edge of ocean geochemistry. It’s a fun problem to be tackling.

Anik:

Yeah, and maybe that’s something that will come up later when we’re talking about carbon credits and marketplaces. Surely the measurement part of that it is important in terms of commercialization.

Kelly:

Absolutely.

Anik:

Can we talk a little about where Vesta fits into other carbon removal solutions? You talked about ambient carbon capture from a handful of companies that are trying to do that now. There are natural solutions like reforesting, there are engineered solutions. So for our listeners, our audience, can you sort of paint the picture of what this whole portfolio looks like and where you fit in?

Kelly:

Yeah, absolutely. So, within the carbon markets, there’s the voluntary market where corporations and individuals choose to buy carbon removal. This market is small but growing, and I think this year I saw a report that it’s slated to surpass a billion dollars, which is massive because last year it was only 300 million. So, it’s growing a lot. And, then there’s also the compliance market. So, the compliance market is government-led, and polluting industries are forced to purchase carbon removals for the excess that they’re pumping into the atmosphere. In both of these markets—and they work very differently—but in both of these markets, there’s currently no distinction between avoidance and removal of carbon, carbon emissions. So, this is important to kind of differentiate the impact of solutions that are supported in these markets. You know, emissions avoidance are things like renewable energy credits, so financing a solar plant, things like that, which is definitely an important part of the problem. But these two solutions not being differentiated or having any pricing stratification makes it hard for customers and companies that are doing the removals to compete with very cheap subsidized emissions avoidance credits. I’ll say that when it comes to carbon offsets, there is a difference between just emissions avoidance and removals. But then in terms of how we fit into the removals conversation, I think when most people think about carbon offsets, they typically think about planting trees. And so trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide, and when they die, they rerelease carbon dioxide. So that in a nutshell is the short-term carbon cycle, and permanence—or kind of how long a carbon that we remove from the atmosphere stays removed from the atmosphere—is a really critical variable to be looking at when we’re talking about long-term climate impact. And, I will say it first, I love trees. There’s a billion reasons to plant a tree or more, especially when we look at the ecosystem services. But they are not permanent, and we can’t afford for that removed carbon to go up in smoke in forest fires, be cut down, or for microbes to kind of respire carbon more quickly in a warming world. The other thing is that with fossil fuels, we’ve essentially taken carbon that was stored long-term for hundreds of millions of years in rock and pumped it into the atmosphere in little over a century. So expecting the short-term carbon cycle to wholly counterbalance this mass of interruption we’ve made in the long-term carbon cycle is a little unintuitive. So at Project Vesta, our solution is working on the long-term carbon cycle. It’s permanent carbon dioxide removal that stores carbon geologically, and the long-term carbon cycle is what we’ve spent a little bit of time talking about, where atmospheric carbon dioxide slowly turns into rocks over millions of years.

Anik:

Right. And so compared to things like air capture, where you’ve got to figure out what to do with the carbon that you captured, here you’re using the natural solution of just having it be stored in the rock forever.

Kelly:

That’s right. Yeah, and again, I think there’s direct air capture has a role to play. We need to try all solutions, but it’s just not our sole player. Again, thinking about the scale implications of delivering direct air capture at billion tons scale is concerning, and you do have that transportation issue as well. And then, indexing back onto some of the more natural climate solutions, they mostly all come with co-benefits. So you’re not just removing carbon, but you’re supporting ecosystems in a different way. And that’s another reason we’re excited about coastal carbon capture, because we can reduce ocean acidity and support marine life as well.

Anik:

Great. I was curious. There are so many different approaches to carbon capture, can you talk a little about the cooperation in the industry generally—how networked are companies that are taking different approaches? Do you talk to companies that do other things and talk about how each approach has a different role, or is it more siloed? Just curious to hear how sort of cooperation versus competition works in this area.

Kelly:

There’s quite a bit of crosstalk in the industry, and maybe that’s the lens that I’m coming at it through, but I think that competition is not going to get us out of this issue. I think cooperation is really the only way out. And so, that sentiment has been held by many working in climate. Because when you look at the problem, I think it’s easy to want – your brain wants to jump to: what’s going to fix this? What’s the solution that’s going to fix this? And in reality, there just isn’t a solution that’s going to fix it. So, none of the solutions that are available today are going to be the one thing. There’s no silver bullet. Many people say it’s going to be a silver buck shot. It’s going to be a lot of things that all need to work together in concert, because this is a unprecedented challenge, and we need to treat it as such. This is – the IPCC says it is code red for humanity, right? And that’s not something that one company or one technology can do. So, I would say there’s a fair bit of crosstalk. I think that right now there’s even more, especially as the U.S. government is talking more through the Build Back Better plan and different ways they can support climate initiatives. And then COP26 just ended, so there’s a lot of talk about how policy measures can be instituted to support growth of carbon markets. And companies are definitely in conversation about ways that policy initiatives may be mutually beneficial to us if we work together on them. Of course, there’s always room for more collaboration. I’ll say that for sure. There’s a couple of great groups. One that comes to mind is called Air Miners, where a bunch of carbon removal companies just kind of talk on a slack group and have online events often.

Anik:

Great. It seems like an area where there’s so much potential for fruitful kind of collaboration or at least people coordinating. Now we wanted to move to something we’ve touched on a little bit in the conversation already, which is carbon credit marketplaces. And there’re so many interesting things that come up around this topic and the way that your solution at Project Vesta can be helpful. Can you talk a little bit about that and maybe also for our listeners who aren’t as familiar with the carbon credit marketplaces, just give a little bit of the overview of what we’re talking about and where you fit in?

Kelly:

Sure. So, as I mentioned, there is the voluntary market where people choose to buy carbon removals, you know, whether that’s because they want to meet certain ESG goals or be able to market their green initiatives or just really out of goodwill. And then there’s the compliance market where living industries are forced to purchase carbon offsets through international marketplaces. Right now, Project Vesta is working within the voluntary market, and so in order to participate in a voluntary market, there’s a series of levels of certifications that a methodology can have. You can be independently verified kind of by your organization, or you can be third-party verified—someone says, “Yes, this method works,” or you can be accredited by a registry like Verra or the Gold Standard. And then moving beyond that, you would then get certified to be able to participate in international compliance markets. Because we’re a new solution, we are really just working in the voluntary market and we are developing our own methodology for measuring carbon removal. That’s really the key thing, as you noted. When you’re selling carbon credits, you have to be able to prove that you’ve removed carbon from the atmosphere and kept it out of the atmosphere, right? And right now, there’s not a validated way to do that in the ocean, so our team is busy at work defining that, and we’ve been working so far with corporations that are interested in making big climate commitments. So, in 2020, we worked with Stripe. We were selected as one of the four companies they chose in their climate program to purchase about a quarter million dollars of carbon removal from us, and we’ve been in conversation with some other corporations about selling carbon credits to them as well. Right now, we have a pretty limited small supply since we still are at this subscale point where, you know, we’re working on pilot demonstrations. But scaling up, we’ll be selling hundreds of thousands, millions of tons of carbon removal over the next few years through the voluntary market, and then, eventually, we intend to work in the compliance market. But, again, really have been heartened by the movement in the voluntary market this year. And we’ve seen big tech companies taking leaps and bounds by making large commitments and then putting their money where their mouth is, and not just in an uninformed way, bringing in sophistication and nuance into how they’re choosing carbon removal projects and sharing about that process, so, one of which was Microsoft. They shared a great report. I think it was called “Lessons From Corporate Climate Commitments,” or something to that effect, and that white paper really walks through the process that they made of deciding how to choose carbon removals and what they wanted to see in the market. We’ve also seen a lot of innovation from Shopify and how they’re purchasing carbon removals. Stripe, that I already mentioned, and a lot of bank corporations that are just asking for more quality carbon removal.

Anik:

Right. And when you talk to corporations, what do you note about just the—I don’t know if it is fair to call them challenges or what’s basically the process of getting them informed about what you’re doing? I’m assuming not everybody is familiar with olivine sand and the approach that you’re taking. So, can you talk a little bit about what that’s like in terms of educating and basically starting that conversation with companies?

Kelly:

Right. There’s definitely an education aspect to it. And some companies have either an internal corporate social responsibility team that does that analysis with different technologies for them, but some companies are putting out their own request for proposals for carbon removal—though those are pretty much just the really large corporates. And then others have outsourced this service to companies that do diligence on carbon removal projects, so they kind of outsource that understanding to those who can do a deeper analysis. However, the smaller ones, you know, I think that it takes an attention to what that company values. And the smaller the company, the less likely they are to spend money on a more expensive carbon removal credit, which is definitely what’s needed right now in the market. And so, the approach that I’ve been seeing people take is kind of building their portfolio. So supporting by buying a little bit of permanent carbon removal that’s more expensive and then buying a larger portion of their portfolio in air emissions, renewable energy credits, and maybe some of the cheaper forestry credits, but still supporting in small ways the more engineered solutions.

Anik:

I was also curious as you were talking about that, I mean, there’s—from a business perspective, of course—this is a huge part of the business for you, which is being able to work with companies that are purchasing credits. Do you also have – I imagine just since your solution depends on coastlines, do you also have discussions with local governments, state governments, on how you could partner with them?

Kelly:

Yeah, absolutely. And we’re in the regulatory process with two sites in the UnitedStates right now that are on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., one in NewYork and one in NorthCarolina. And with both of those, yeah, we’ve been in pretty thorough dialogue with the local regulators and the town council meetings, things like that. So it’s – a large part of our process right now is to find the right kind of community engagement process so that we’re including stakeholders at every level of the chain, whether they’re the regulators or the people that live on the coastline, and engaging in just participatory governments, workshops, and anything that’s kind of contextually right for that area. So, the process is – probably the biggest boon in the process is just the slowness sometimes of the permitting process to be able to work in coastal area, but we’re definitely in conversation with, yeah, local representatives.

Anik:

Great. So, I wanted to spend a little bit of time just trying to understand what are the challenges that you’re facing? What are some of the biggest hurdles to commercializing and building the vision at the pace that you want to?

Kelly:

One of the unique challenges is that we have the opportunity to blend science and business in a way that they don’t usually get to blend, right? So, we’re blending academic research with a startup execution, and usually those things are operating on very divergent timelines. So what we have this opportunity to do is try and create a fusion between those two things and use the best of both worlds to find the right timelines. Academic timelines are often much slower because people are working on tenure or they’re trying to get more grant funding. And startup timelines are as fast as we can get, right, so we can get to the next milestone. And we have a team – of more than half of our team are academic scientists that are now kind of joined the dark side of startup land, and we have done a lot of work to build a project management system that works to maintain scientific rigor while still kind of meeting the milestones that we need. That’s been an interesting challenge, and, you know, just the whole concept in itself is a challenging scientific opportunity where we, as I mentioned, are kind of on the cutting edge of ocean geochemistry and how we measure it and how we know that what we know is happening geologically, how can we really define that with very distinct variables? How can we bring more accuracy into this? I think the other challenges, as I mentioned, are around permitting and just that that can sometimes be slower than we’d like. But, yeah, we’re beginning some work in the policy space right now to try and alleviate some of that and also to create some new pathways towards hopeful funding for the work we’re doing.

Anik:

And in terms of the team that you have, do you find that it’s easy to kind of recruit people to the company? Are there a lot of people that you find that have both the background and the inclination to join the team, or what’s that like?

Kelly:

Yeah, we have had a pretty great time of recruiting. When we first started Project Vesta, we kind of came out online in that we were featured in a few publications online that got us a lot of attention. And so in the early days, our inbound from our website got us some amazing scientists that I don’t know if we otherwise would have found. And these are people that just have such deep expertise and are some of the leading experts in the field globally. Because we have this incredible wealth of knowledge and expertise already on our team, I think that’s made it easier to recruit. And people want to work on climate, which is great. I think that was a big thing that came out of COVID of just people noticing that it was time to apply their efforts where they felt passionate and kick them into gear. You know, “Oh, if I’m working from home, why don’t I work on something I really care about?” So, we’ve seen a lot of influx of support through that.

Anik:

How big is the company now? How big is the team?

Kelly:

We have 15 full-time employees, and then we have a team of collaborators kind of part-time and advisers of about 35.

Anik:

So, the technology is efficient. It sounds like your team has been really efficient too if you’re able to make all this progress with a team that lean. It must also have a nice kind of startup feel to it still.

Kelly:

Yeah, it does. And we’ve been a remote team since we’ve started, which is fascinating rolling into COVID and continuing to be a remote team and then growing from a team of 4 to a team of 15 or 35, depending on how you slice it. So, yeah, it’s been fun to define new processes for how we manage that growth.

Anik:

It must also be a nice kind of selling point that if you have site visits or if you need to see how everything is working, you have to be at a beach somewhere, right?

Kelly:

That’s right. Yeah, our off-sites are in not so boring places.

Anik:

Cool. So, I think we are sort of coming to the end of our time here, and we generally finish our episodes by asking guests if they’re optimistic about the future. I’m assuming that if you’ve decided to devote your time to doing this, that you do have optimism. And so I wanted to frame this in a slightly different way, which is—the more you kind of read about the climate crisis, whether it’s popular articles or books, there’s a lot of kind of negativity, dread, some kind of despair that filters in too. And I’m sure you’re familiar with that kind of tone that can be pervasive. So, the question is really more, in the face of that, how do you kind of maintain the optimism? And how do you respond to people that say that it’s too late or that we’re already past the point of no return?

Kelly:

Yeah, a friend of mine says it best. She says, “Pessimism is a luxury for a much less urgent time.” And I couldn’t agree with that more. We just don’t have time to be pessimistic. Pessimism brings us into apathy, and, truly, the opportunity to be remembered kindly by future generations is here with us right now and it won’t last very long. This window of opportunity is small, but it does exist. And I think that’s why I’m so passionate about my work at Project Vesta, because it really could help change the course of our planet’s future. There’s more than enough olivine in the world that we could return to preindustrial CO2 levels. And, of course, it’s going to take a whole suite of climate solutions to actually get there, but just to say that we can impact change. And, yes, it’s going to be a big lift, but we faced probably the biggest risk that humanity has ever faced, but it’s also an unprecedented opportunity—unprecedented market opportunity. We’re talking about the next trillion-dollar market is what people call carbon dioxide removal, and that’s massive. And so, what I described today, I think is not the entire solution. It’s a part of a very complex problem, and to really make this change real is going to require imagination and really like the courage to do the right thing in both markets and governments. But what keeps me hopeful is that we really don’t have an option to do anything else. And the more that you dig into the problem, yes, the more grim you can see the projections are, but if any of the listeners haven’t yet read Project Drawdown and taken a look at that book, it’s a fantastic book that catalogs a lot of climate solutions. It was put together by a couple hundred climate scientists around the world, where they were able to basically rank climate solutions by their cost and their overall gigaton or carbon removal impact potential, and they also track some of the social benefits as well. So, I would definitely take a look at Drawdown, because when you look at that book, you see it’s possible. This mess is a big one, but we can get out of it, and it is possible to really turn the tide and reverse climate change.

Anik:

Great. Well, thank you, Kelly. Thanks for joining us. It’s been really interesting and a fun conversation. And for everybody else, thank you for joining us on The Future Fountain.

Kelly:

Thank you.