Part 2 - Net Zero: How are engineering and technology entrepreneurs helping?

05 Nov 2021

COP26 blog 2

The Conference of the Parties 26 summit (31 October to 12 November 2021) will be uniting nations together to join forces in a bid to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UK is committed to collaborating with civil society, companies and people on the frontline of climate change to accelerate the UK's collective climate action.

With UK investment into clean technologies on the rise, we are delighted to see the commitment and faith in engineering and technology entrepreneurs and their role in achieving Net Zero. At the Enterprise Hub, we are proud to be supporting some of the UK's brightest engineering entrepreneurs with their clean technology innovations - in this blog series, we explore a few of the Hub Members joining the UK's climate action journey to Net Zero.

Florence GschwendNext up is Hub Member Dr Florence Gschwend, CTO and co-founder of Imperial College spinout Lixea, a green tech and chemical engineering startup. Florence has made her mark in this field - she was recently named as one of 21 women nominated for the EU Prize for Women Innovators and will feature as a panellist for The New York Times' Climate Hub event: Systems Change: Sustainable Innovations Powering the Great Transformation. Furthermore, Lixea have secured a €2 million investment from the European Innovation Council Fund this year, to scale up their innovation. Read on to learn more. 

The Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26) aims to unite the world to tackle climate change., how is your innovation helping to tackle climate change? What impact will it deliver short, medium, long term?

We’re developing an environmentally friendly chemical process that uses unwanted wood waste and agricultural materials to turn them into valuable inputs for chemical industries. As such, we’re offering a renewable and sustainable alternative to the petroleum based chemical industry that is predominant today.

Globally, at least one billion tonnes of wood waste and agricultural materials are available annually. In the UK, around one million tonnes of wood waste get sent to landfill every year, in addition to the estimated 10 million tonnes of agricultural residues that are not utilised. Currently, these are either burnt or landfilled where they degrade, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide and methane, while also contributing to air and soil pollution.

Though we’re still in the process of scaling up our process, our goal is to convert one million tonnes of wood waste within the next 10 years. We’re targeting a licensing model which would allow other companies across the globe to use our chemical process locally and are hoping that by 2050, 40 million tonnes of CO2eq will be saved.

Engineering and technology startups and SMEs are considered the backbone of the UK economy, as well essential to solving the world’s most pressing challenges. What was the moment that made you think “I can turn this into a commercial opportunity for society’s benefit”?

I worked on this chemical process as part of my PhD at Imperial College London. My supervisor and a post-doc in the group had already filed two patent applications by the time I started, and my work contributed to a third patent application. I also participated in entrepreneurship programmes, which made me think it’d be a shame not to try and commercialise this process so that it could have a real-life impact. Both my supervisor and the post-doc had previously considered commercialising this, so together we then founded the spinout company.

What are the best parts about working in the climate tech sector? What are the challenges for startups working in the climate tech sector?

The best part is that it’s very rewarding, motivating, and unites like-minded people. For all of us at Lixea, it’s a reason to get out of bed every morning and gives our efforts meaning. One of the challenges is that, with environmental destruction and greenhouse gas emissions not being appropriately disincentivised through economic measures, it can be difficult to compete with the status quo on an economic level. This results in us being a “green premium” product, which can work against you in the beginning as new technologies aren’t as optimised and efficient as existing, polluting ones. Greenwashing is also very common now, which can make it difficult to differentiate yourself clearly from other misleading initiatives.

The world is aiming to hit #NetZero by 2050. How different do you think the world will be by then and how do you see your product(s) evolving over time to ensure it remains relevant?

I think we will be making use of quite a few new technologies, eg electricity generation and storage, and that a shift in behaviour will result in society adapting to make better use of existing solutions. For example, packaging industries will be using new materials with improved sustainability credentials, such as lower carbon footprints, increased recyclability and/or enhanced biodegradability. Despite this, I think we will still be using some existing products, but hopefully we will have learned how to recycle them better to reduce the amount that ends up in the environment. As such, Lixea will be looking to serve both emerging, new applications for its materials as well as offer a replacement for current petroleum derived plastics. 

If you had unlimited resources and time, what do you hope to have achieved by 2050?

Together with other sustainable chemical technologies, we hope to change current practices in the chemical industry and encourage companies to make better use of the waste biomass that is available globally. It’s a huge undertaking which can only be accomplished by collaborating with other companies, but we are hoping to be a vital piece in the puzzle towards a fully renewable and circular chemical industry.

To follow Lixea's progress, you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn. Dr Florence Gschwend is an alumnus from our Enterprise Fellowships programme - learn more about the programme here.

The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub supports the UK’s brightest technology and engineering entrepreneurs to realise their potential.

We run three programmes for entrepreneurial engineers at different career stages. Each one offers equity-free funding, an extended programme of mentorship and coaching, and a lifetime of support through connection to an exceptional community of engineers and innovators.

The Enterprise Hub focuses on supporting individuals and fostering their potential in the long term, taking nothing in return. This sets us apart from the usual ‘accelerator’ model. The Enterprise Hub’s programmes last between 6 and 12 months, and all programmes give entrepreneurs lifelong access to an unrivalled community of mentors and alumni.

Our goal is to encourage creativity and innovation in engineering for the benefit of all. By fostering lasting, exceptional connections between talent and expertise, we aim to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that can deliver on this ambition.

The Enterprise Hub was formally launched in April 2013. Since then, we have supported over 220 researchers, recent graduates and SME leaders to start up and scale up businesses that can give practical application to their inventions. We’ve awarded over £8 million in grant funding, and our Hub Members have gone on to raise over £380 million in additional funding.


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