Episode 2: Saving the Planet - Transcript

In the second episode of this podcast series, UCLB Senior Business Manager, Dr Mark Harding, explores UCL spinout Carbon Re’s journey to market and their impact on reducing carbon emissions in heavy industries. He is joined by the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Carbon Re, Professor Aidan O’Sullivan.

Release date: 16 February 2023

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00:00:09:20 – 00:00:45:07

Dr Mark Harding

Hello and welcome to our second episode. It’s ‘Saving the Planet’, where we’re showing how innovation and technology can make a difference to the world we live in. My name’s Mark Harding. I’m a senior business manager at UCLB – that’s the commercialisation arm of University College London. And I have with me Aidan O’Sullivan. Aidan is an associate professor in energy and AI, and is at UCL’s Energy Institute.


00:00:46:15 – 00:01:45:03

Dr Mark Harding

Aidan is a co-founder and he’s the Chief Technology Officer of Carbon Re – Re for Reduce, Renew, Recycle, Remove, and a carbon revolution. Carbon Re is a startup focused on cement, and then steel, progressing towards furnace-related industries. Now, for many people, an environmentally based startup operating in the cement industry, an industry with a huge carbon footprint, sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not.

And I hope in the next few minutes, we’re bound to show you about the positive impact that Carbon Re can have on our environment. But before we get too far down that path, let’s let Aidan introduce himself and tell us a little bit about Carbon Re’s vision and mission for the future.


00:01:46:01 – 00:03:08:18

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Thank you very much, Mark. A real pleasure to be here and chatting with you today, and as somebody who’s been part of that journey as well, so good to be here. I’m Aidan O’Sullivan as you’ve introduced already, and we founded Carbon Re maybe two and a bit years ago during the pandemic. And the idea was to found a company that could have impact at the gigatonne scale on carbon emissions.

Global carbon emissions are at 52 gigatonnes. They need to be reduced to about 37, 32, in order to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius projections. And what we wanted to do was to found a company that could have a meaningful impact at the scale required in order to prevent climate change, and disastrous effects like that.

The desire to have that scale of impact is what led us to the energy intensive manufacturing sector as a traditionally recognised source of emissions that is difficult to decarbonise, but with a lot of potential for impact if it can be reduced. So again, I think there’s something like 3,000 cement plants in the world and they account for 15% of global emissions.

So, a very concentrated source of emissions and an area where you can make a big impact through small improvements.


00:03:10:06 – 00:03:37:15

Dr Mark Harding

Great. Thanks for that. So, help us understand a little bit more specifically about what Carbon Re does. The cement and steel industries have been around a long time. They’re kind of heavy industries, and not ones we think of are changing quickly, and not ones we immediately think of professors of AI and energy being involved in. How is Carbon Re going to make a difference? And what are you doing?


00:03:38:06 – 00:06:55:01

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Absolutely. It’s definitely not a traditional application of AI, but I think that’s what, for me, it was such an interesting challenge and such an area of potential impact as well in that these technologies should be used for the benefit of humanity and not just to play in the metaverse and to do big tech style things as well, but to do practical improvements to things that affect people’s lives.

Cement is probably the second most used, consumed product in the world after water. Obviously, it’s a vital part of modern society, so while it might not be front and centre in everybody’s minds, it is very relevant to industrial growth, to GDP, and to people’s ability to live in modern societies. What we are focused on doing is bringing AI into that industry and using it to have a positive impact on the carbon emissions that the industry emits.

How we do that and what we noticed through some initial research by one of our co-founders, Dan Summerbell at the Cambridge Institute of Manufacturing, was that these processes are very variable in the amount of energy they consume. Now, in order to get the chemical reactions you need in order to make these materials from the raw ingredients, the raw ingredients are typically clay and limestone.

And what you do is you raise them to really, really high temperatures, sort of 1,500 degrees for a period of time in order to induce chemical reactions, which give you the raw material for cement. And this process takes place on a really large scale in cement plants around the world, in kilns that are ten metres diameter and 60 metres long, and crunch through thousands of tonnes of material a day, and also consume thousands of tonnes of fossil fuel.

Because we need these really high temperatures, the only fuels that are really applicable are very energy dense fossil fuels. While we’ve managed to decarbonise a lot of power generation by switching to renewables, that option isn’t really available to these sectors because of this need for very energy dense fuels and high-grade heat. So, what we are trying to do with AI is to move this industry into more of a predictive mode from a reactive mode.

It’s traditionally one where you, as you’ve said it, we’ve been making cement for a very long time. We have cement plant operators; we have process engineers who manage that process in a factory. But what they’re doing often is reacting to changes in circumstances. So again, they might see that the final product isn’t of good enough quality, so they might add more fuel, or they might see the opposite.

They might see that the fuel is burning, there’s too much and the conditions are too hot for what they want to experience. What we help try and manage is to take that into a predictive setting. We model the process using AI and using machine learning so that we can predict in advance what the effects of making different actions will be.

From one operator to the next, they might make different decisions in the same conditions, and that can cause unnecessary amounts of energy to be consumed. What we’re trying to do is to smooth out that variation in energy consumption from day to day, and really help this industry operate at the best possible performance that it can manage given certain conditions.

Again, it’s a very low margin industry as well so this is really attractive to them in terms of helping them with their fuel bills.


00:06:55:11 – 00:07:15:28

Dr Mark Harding

Thank you. Carbon Re’s got a great website, but looking at it, there’s a whole sort of references to different products: Delta Zero, and a collection of other ones. Could you tell us a little bit about those products? Who would use them, roughly how they work, and what effect they’re going to have?


00:07:16:23 – 00:08:42:28

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Yeah, absolutely. I think for anyone who wants to have an impact at scale and to deliver impacts globally, you have to be focused on products and to bring products out into the world that people can use and that you can grow in this way. So, Delta Zero is our first product. What it is essentially is an online dashboard that operators log into in order to get advice and recommendations as to what they should be doing in terms of improving performance.

And so we essentially take a live stream of data from the plant, which is quite challenging to do, and it requires a lot of IOT expertise. And from that, we take that to our site where we have a host of machine learning and AI models which represent the plant and simulation and allow us to make simulations of what would happen under certain conditions, which we can then use to move the plant in a direction of improved energy efficiency.

It’s a day-to-day tool that operators would look at over the course of the day, would change, and they will receive new recommendations as the conditions change as well. But it is kind of with a view to a human in the loop solution, so working with the operator as a decision support tool, as an AI add-on to what they’re doing – a bit like a Siri for a cement room operator – so giving them advice that helps them do their job better and use the power of AI to benefit them directly.


00:08:44:12 – 00:09:12:24

Dr Mark Harding

If I understand you correctly, what you’re describing is a win-win situation: a win where the cement manufacturer has to use less raw materials to burn, to create the heat, and you win because they save money; and the planet also wins because less CO2 is produced. Okay, that sounds great. So, Carbon Re’s only been around a little while.


00:09:13:13 – 00:09:26:23

Dr Mark Harding

What sort of impact is it having and can we describe that in a number that we can understand because – giga, mega, kilos of tonnes – they get quite confusing and I don’t really know what they mean to me as an individual?


00:09:27:14 – 00:11:39:00

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Absolutely, yeah. I think it can get a bit overwhelming when we talk about the scale of things. For a kind of a frame of reference, I would say one cement plant puts out as much carbon emissions as 1 million cars per year or 10% of all the cars in London. That’s an example.

If we’re trying to have impact at scale, if we want to reduce carbon emissions in a plant by 10%, that can be equivalent to taking 100,000 cars off the road or turning them into electric vehicles. That’s the kind of level of improvement that we want to get to. We’re looking to try and improve the energy efficiency at these plants by about 10%.

That seems to be what we can achieve based on our initial trial where it was about 8 to 9%. But what that manifests as is, over the period of time that we run that trial, we saved something like 30,000 tonnes of carbon emissions and in terms of people’s personal carbon footprints, they tend to be around the order of 1.5 tonnes per person or things like that as well, depending on how you live your life.

So, the scale for impact is really important because we have this grand challenge of wanting to have an impact that moves the needle on climate change. To do that, we have to be focused on something that really has impact at scale and that’s what we get with these cement plants, which are so large and such a big source of emissions.

In terms of what we’re able to achieve right now, we have just posed a second round of fundings, we’re growing our teams so we can take on more customers and grow at scale as well, and take out the product and deploy it more frequently in more places around the world. That’s led us to be able to run three projects simultaneously, which again is a great way for us to improve our kind of impact on emissions.

One of the challenges with cement plants is just how challenging an environment they are for people to run and the challenges around that, they run 24/7. They’re a massive scale and you consume huge amounts of raw materials, tonnes and tonnes of rock and tonnes and tonnes of fuel as well. What we’re trying to do is to have impact at that level as well.


00:11:39:00 – 00:12:02:19

Dr Mark Harding

That sounds great because cement seems to have a huge environmental impact. I also looked at your website and could see information relating to steel and other furnace-type industries. What’s Carbon Re’s vision about those and is that something you can do simply or is that a huge exercise to get involved there?


00:12:03:02 – 00:15:06:12

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Absolutely. The vision very much for Carbon Re is to be a transformative company in the energy intensive materials space. What we see is there are commonalities across these processes. As much as you need high-grade heat for cement manufacture, you also need very high-grade heat for steel manufacturers, ceramics, glass and all of these kinds of materials which, you know, the modern world depends on.

They have to be brought to net zero at some stage. It’s not just enough to electrify transports. It’s not just enough to change how we heat our homes. We have to put net zero in everything that we do. It’s not enough to outsource that to a different part of the world and get those materials imported.

We have to be able to use technology to have those materials manufactured in a sustainable way. In terms of a big picture of what we want to achieve, we want to redesign how companies think about making those materials with carbon emissions in mind. If you were to design a process from scratch – we’ve been making these materials for a long time – but we’ve never considered the carbon emissions of the process while designing it.

So, there are improvements to our efficiencies that can be made while looking to optimise with that in mind. They haven’t been made in the past because it hasn’t been a priority. But what we’re seeing now with things like the emissions trading scheme is it’s becoming more and more of an issue for these industries to change around that and to gear towards this.

From our vision of the world, we see a lot of commonalities across these processes that we want to be able to deploy some of the learnings across as well. Ultimately, we want to get to something like a tool for drug discovery, for material science. So, the way that big tech companies and pharma have been investing in artificial intelligence for drug discovery, we want to do the same thing for material sciences.

We want to learn from the impact of different impurities and different raw materials undergoing a pyro processing process, where they’re exposed to high levels of heat, and to understand the chemical changes that come from that. It’s very much taking artificial intelligence into the deep science realm, looking to see what can be achieved in terms of understanding those processes which, as much as we’ve been doing them for a long time, we haven’t got the ultimate understanding of in order to change it in the way that we want to.

Just as an example, the heat that you require to make cement changes depending on the materials you put in. So, one learning that the industry had over time was that if you added small amounts of alumina into the mix as well, you could lower the actual temperature that the chemical reaction happened at.

It was a bit like a catalyst in a way. What we want to be able to do is to simulate that process so well that we can use artificial intelligence to find similar insights that allow us to reduce the energy intensity overall. So, while we’re very focused on optimising the combustion process at the moment, having a simulation of the process overall enables huge opportunities in terms of what we can achieve, in terms of improvements.


00:15:06:12 – 00:15:38:21

Dr Mark Harding

Interesting. Really good. We’re used to hearing about companies that have ethics, but Carbon Re sounds slightly different in that it has much more of a vision around what it wants to achieve. I’d like to know a little bit more about how that works in terms of the organisation and how it fits together with things like your recruitment policy or people who want to join the organisation.

Have you found having such a strong mission to be a problem or has it helped you?


00:15:39:15 – 00:17:28:10

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

I think it’s helped us enormously and we’ve been really lucky in who we’ve attracted to the company – really top-quality AI researchers who are willing to work on really challenging projects, rather than join a big tech company like Google or Facebook. They’re motivated to come and have impact at scale in a problem that they can see the logic of.

They can see why we focused on this area and they can see the opportunity for impact. It’s not that any of them have a burning passion to work on cement, but it’s more that they can see the value in what we’re trying to do. That helps us enormously and for what we want to do in terms of ethics, we do want to be a company that shows the world what you can do with AI to the benefit of society and the ways that this can be used to improve people’s lives and to avert some of the major challenges that we face.

With that in mind, it’s an application of AI that I think hopefully should encourage people to be more receptive to AI as well. I think there’s a lot of used cases of AI that are somewhat off-putting and tend to show the negative side of what it is.

But I think what we want to do very much is show that use correctly. There are a lot of things that can be solved and it’s a repositioning of, some would say, focuses of AI research, which have traditionally been on things like natural language processing and computer vision, into a real problem that we have that we haven’t had a lot of focus on.

We’re focusing on a very under-researched problem, which has never really had much exposure to AI in the past. This industry has developed very independently of some of the innovations that have come in machine learning and have come in data science historically, and we want to bring those benefits in there and start to deploy them and to be the main hub for expertise in AI, in material sciences.


00:17:30:00 – 00:18:18:14

Dr Mark Harding

Great. I think I’m really getting to see why someone with your knowledge and experience is central to Carbon Re. What I’d like to do now is to take you back a little bit to when you first started the business. We all know businesses need money to do things – they can’t operate without money. How did you find the process of getting the investment, talking to venture capitalists to be able to really bring alive this vision?

I’m interested to find out, did the guys you spoke to about getting the sort of money that you need to set the business up understand your vision? Were they receptive to it or was it all just, ‘where’s the money going?’


00:18:19:24 – 00:19:57:14

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Great question. I think raising investment is definitely one of the most critical aspects of a startup. As much as you can have a vision and you want to do things and have the technical skills to do it, if you can’t convince people that you have the right team to do it and it’s the right time and the resources are there and the demand is there, then it doesn’t manifest or it doesn’t come to fruition.

Raising investment is really important. We had lots of conversations with lots of different people and in some of those, we were definitely quite green to the experience and had to learn how to go through that process. But I think we were really lucky in terms of the investors that we ended up talking to and that we ended up attracting and by the end of the round, we were turning investment down from other people as well, which was a nice position to be in.

I think we were very lucky in terms of working with UCL Tech Fund and UCL Business that people were very much supportive of a company that wanted to have this kind of impact and this kind of mission. That was definitely a strong point for us as much as the technology and the profitability.

There was also the mission element, which helped us quite a bit, same with Cambridge as well. They were very supportive on that side of things. And then, of course, we had the Clean Growth Fund, which is a UK backed, government backed VC firm focused on clean technology. If we could have gone into the process and picked who we would have wanted as investors, those are exactly the ones we would have chosen in the end.

To end up there at the end is very nice, but we did have difficult conversations along the way and it’s important to be persistent and maintain your self-belief while having those conversations because it can get quite tough as well.


00:19:59:03 – 00:20:11:15

Dr Mark Harding

Just for the people listening, can you give us some sort of idea as to how long that all took, how much effort was involved, and how do you fit that around having another full-time role as well?


00:20:12:27 – 00:21:41:01

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Absolutely, yeah. However long you think it’s going to take, it takes longer. And however much you think it’s going to take, it takes more than that. So, it’s very much in support of the research that I’ve been developing, and it’s kind of part of it as well. I felt like as an academic and a researcher, you had to take on that challenge of – it’s not enough to publish papers and it’s not enough to kind of tell people that these things are good.

You have to go out into the world and show that to do the development side of R&D as well. In terms of kind of managing it around a full-time role as a researcher and academic as well, I think most academics work very long hours as it is, so there’s always kind of flex in that kind of space as well.

But I think the energy and the motivation around it, it has to really come from you. I think anybody who wants to go into being an entrepreneur has to have that drive to want to make this happen bad enough that they will persevere under those circumstances.

While we didn’t have, according to our advisors and our VC investors, we didn’t have a bad experience of doing it relative to what some people have had, it is definitely a tough process to go through. It is important to keep your self-belief, but also to really realise that investors also want to feel engaged by the idea and want to feel part of it as well.

So, it’s not as much selling people as it is, it’s also getting them wanting to be a part of something.


00:21:44:06 – 00:22:04:05

Dr Mark Harding

We can see and we’ve heard very clearly about the unique and special skills that you bring to Carbon Re. But you also mentioned it’s part of a team and you mentioned another colleague at Cambridge. Could you tell us a little bit about the team, what each person brings and how it all fits together?


00:22:04:28 – 00:23:41:10

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Yeah, absolutely. I guess I’ve been lucky to be a researcher at some really high-level institutes, to have a long career building a research group, recruiting people and working on really big research projects. I think even in technical fields, the best skill of all is to be easy to work with.

I think we’ve really been incredibly lucky to find people who really bring that to bear while also having fantastic technical skills. Dan very much brings the manufacturing expertise around industrial processes. Now, the company’s at such a scale that we’re building out a team of people who have worked in industry as process engineers and we’ve had that kind of domain expertise built in from the start.

I think that can often be one of the things that AI companies get wrong is that they say, ‘Well, our technology is so good, you just need to give us our data and then we will solve all the problems ourselves’, without really understanding it. I think we’ve seen that in some of the feedback from the industry is that what’s different about us is we’re very much domain first and then tools to support that around it.

The team of machine learning people that we’ve recruited have been really top class and we’ve been lucky to recruit them from UCL as well, so lots of grads from the Computer Science masters, which is one of the best in the UK for sure, as well as PhD grads from Trinity College in Dublin and Oxford University as well.

It’s been really fantastic to be able to see them want to shift into a role that gives them the opportunity to have impact, but it’s also incredibly challenging as well. They’re really inspiring to work with.


00:23:41:10 – 00:24:05:18

Dr Mark Harding

Great. If you were speaking to another UCL academic, or maybe just a colleague or a friend somewhere, who has a vision for a business they want to start that’s perhaps going to make a positive environmental impact, change, and make the world a better place. What advice would you give them based on your experience? What should they be looking out for and what should they focus on?


00:24:07:24 – 00:25:59:19

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

One of the things that really helps us when talking to investors was we build something. It might not have been the perfect product, it might not have been the final product, but we had something to show people and we had an idea of how it would all fit together. I think that’s important as a first step, and it also kind of filters out a bit whether you really want to do this and if you’re prepared to go off and spend the time to build a rough prototype to put in front of people, then that’s a very good first step.

It also convinces people that it is it is valuable what you want to do. I think in terms of advice, I would definitely say talking to people with experiences is really valuable. Reaching out to the Innovation and Entrepreneurship angle of UCL, I found really helpful in terms of understanding what could be done and what could be achieved and the support there is really top class.

I think there have been some stories around how much equity universities take out of startups and controversies around that, and I found that UCL has a very progressive policy relative to other universities that I’ve seen. I think when I was at MIT, it was something quite draconian in terms of equity share with the university.

That has been something that traditionally some academics have been a bit afraid by or put off by, but I would say it seems to be moving in the right direction. I think the equity share that you may give away is very valuable. What you get in return grossly outweighs that.

It’s far better to have 10% of something that’s worth a significant amount of money and making a big impact in the world, and can have 100% of something that’s worth zero money and just you and your shared idea as well. I would say talking to people in the business side of things to get a sense of what support can be provided is really, really critical and opens a lot of doors for us as well.


00:25:59:19 – 00:26:31:05

Dr Mark Harding

Yeah, maybe it might be quite useful just to comment how easy or difficult you found it to actually set up the business and bring it outside of the two universities that are involved. I know you have some investment from UCL Technology Fund, which was used to get the business up and running in the first place, along with some other investors.

What was your experience of that process and how do you think it worked for Carbon Re?


00:26:31:05 – 00:27:57:18

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Again, my experience was really positive on that. I thought the UCL Tech Fund was very understanding of what it could and couldn’t see at certain stages. Understanding where a company should be at certain times is really important. If you talk to an investor who’s saying, ‘where is your revenue at pre-seed stage?’, then they obviously don’t know what they’re doing, whereas UCL Tech Fund was really knowledgeable and really understood what the potential was for this technology and that we would need support in certain areas and adapted to putting that out.

From my experience, it has been really positive. Also, working with Cambridge Enterprise, they’ve been very supportive in terms of what we want to achieve and been really engaged in the process and there’s been some back and forth, of course as in any negotiation, but at all stages the will to see the company succeed has been very evident.

That’s really helped a lot in terms of trusting people because, again, it is a very unknown space. We’re first time founders, all of us. Also, the change from academia to entrepreneurship demands a lot of different skills and a lot of different knowledge and all the different expertise that you don’t get running a research project.

Having that guidance and having that trusted kind of advice is really important and knowing where people stand and knowing that they do want to see this succeed is really, really helpful.


00:27:59:06 – 00:28:32:09

Dr Mark Harding

Aidan, one of the things that people obviously often see as being quite complicated is about the process of taking a new business out of a university. I know you’ve interacted with UCLB to formalise the mechanics of taking the technology outside of the university and putting it into a commercial context. And then you also worked with the UCL Technology Fund to be able to get the investment required to get the business up and running.


00:28:32:28 – 00:28:42:23

Dr Mark Harding

Can you tell us a little bit about how that process worked? Was it smooth? Was it clunky? Was it difficult? Did it take you years? What was it like for you and for Carbon Re?


00:28:43:25 – 00:31:53:05

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Yeah, very happy to speak about that. It’s something that I think there’s been a lot more emphasis placed on universities in terms of innovation over the last few years. I’ve been in academia for about seven or eight years now, and it’s quite obvious to me that there is a renewed emphasis on innovation and it’s something that’s being flagged up in different scores and rankings, how well universities are doing at getting startups out.

There is incentive for universities to engage in this activity. I found that what has been put in place with UCLB and in UCL has been a really effective process for us, and very quick and rapid. The academic administration is a very particular process and has a reputation for being quite slow, whereas having an Innovation and Entrepreneurship sector and UCL Business, almost a kind of a company or a university within a university and a separate entity, is really fantastic in terms of the reactivity and the speed of reply and engagement that you get when you come to them with ideas. That was really fantastic from us learning about that process – again, first time founders. Having trusted advice and people who have seen a lot of these processes being carried out and have done this, it’s their full-time job to do these things.

It really helps us as people who are doing this for the first time and really smoothes the process of setting up and spinning out a company, which worked really well. UCL Business on that side was really fantastic. I think UCL Tech Fund is a really fantastic endeavour which the university has set up, and it really brings in very professional VCs.

Albion Capital are working hand-in-hand with UCL Tech Fund, managing it, and it really gives a sense of ambition, in terms of the university making a big commitment to innovation by having this UCL Tech Fund, which not many universities do, but also it gives you almost a preparatory track for talking to other VCs.

These conversations are happening within the realms of someone who is used to talking to university spinouts, so they expect certain things and they know what won’t be there at certain stages as well. But they also come with a certain understanding of what research at UCL is like.

There are not quite the challenges you get from VCs that are quite external. A Canadian VC we might have spoken to presented lots of challenges in terms of understanding the level of research and what was required, what needed to happen versus why wasn’t this just a business that could be spun out overnight and deployed immediately.

I think in terms of doing things like deep tech, big research and getting into solving really challenging problems, the university support around that in innovation has been fantastic for us, and a really smooth process that helped first time founders develop a company and not lose too much time dealing with some of that infrastructure work, and allowing us to concentrate on innovation and building a business.


00:31:54:08 – 00:32:40:18

Dr Mark Harding

There’s one area where there’s quite often a lot of discussion about, and not always well-informed discussion, and that’s about the transition of technology know-how from inside the university into a company where it can be exploited commercially to create value. Now, some people see that as a really complicated, slow, difficult process. At UCL, you used the Portico Ventures route to be able to do that.

What was your experience of that? How did it work and how straightforward was it for Carbon Re to get what it needed to be into the successful business that is today?


00:32:41:17 – 00:34:00:05

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Yeah, absolutely. I think sometimes those processes can feel like they’re developed for an invention, so somebody develops a new widget or a new type of chemical, and that’s what’s then licensed to a company to make– in our case, with technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning, it’s far more abstract in terms of what is IP and what isn’t IP.

For us, we found the process very flexible because it adapted to what we had, which was a case of ‘we can’t tell you what exactly the innovation is, we can’t say exactly what it is, but it’s very much the application in this space of this expertise’. So, we found that the process adapted to what we needed it to be, which is really helpful.

We didn’t lose a significant amount of time trying to define certain things in the right legal framework. It was very loose and very general, allowing us to make progress and allowing us to go off and go forward and build the business up again. But in terms of defining a technology innovation in this space, innovation happens so quickly that within six months what we would have said then would be out of date.

The new thing that’s even better is what we’ve developed and kept going. I think there being a lot of practicality and pragmatism from UCLB really helped with that.


00:34:00:05 – 00:34:21:01

Dr Mark Harding

Excellent. Good to understand that. Thank you very much. So, just picking up on one of the things you said there, do you feel this has been part of a personal development journey for you? Do you feel you’ve learned things out of it? Was it positive or do you look back and think, ‘oh, I wish I’d never done that?’


00:34:21:01 – 00:35:54:10

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Yeah, I guess a personal baptism of fire in a way. I think, yeah. Doing hard things is hard. It’s going to be the case, but I think it’s definitely been worthwhile. In some sense, it’s validating as a researcher. I think there’s often this criticism of maybe an ‘ivory tower’ kind of academic, or these things look great on paper, but do they actually have an impact?

To take technology out to the world and to deploy it, it’s a really big part. I think as an academic, you often have to be an advocate for your field. You have to want to convince undergrads that they should dedicate the next four years of their life to studying mechanical engineering or studying statistics or studying machine learning.

In some sense, this is validating for a lot of the kind of research in a lot of directions that we’ve been trying to do of ‘this can have a major impact in the world’ as something that we tell students as well. In some sense, I felt like there was almost an obligation to do it.

So it’s kind of actually to prove, ‘put money where your mouth is’ a little bit, and actually go out and see if you can deploy these things in anger. In terms of my personal journey, it’s been a really, really positive experience and challenging at times talking to a client and trying to convince them that they should use your software.

They say, ‘well, actually, we’re not really that interested’, and you go on to the next client to try and learn from that, try and improve, and try and think about what you can do better on the pitching side of things. Having those kind of discussions isn’t something you get into in academia. It’s very much about grants, do the research and publish, whereas this is very day-to-day, ‘what are the problems? How do you kind of solve these as you’re building the aeroplane while you’re kind of flying?’ is the best analogy I’ve come across.


00:36:04:02 – 00:36:39:27

Dr Mark Harding

Okay, that’s really great. I think it’s fantastic to see how cutting-edge technology at a university is having a real impact, especially with the climate emergency and producing win-win solutions for both industry and the environment. I think that makes Carbon Re a really interesting business. We haven’t got loads of time to keep going through and learning more about it, but if people do want to find out a little bit more about you, about what you’re doing, what the company’s about, how would they go about doing that?


00:36:40:20 – 00:37:32:26

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

As a first step, please do check out our website and drop us a message. Also, things like Twitter and social media, we’re on some of those as well – LinkedIn. We have given talks at different places so again, I’m quite involved in the UNESCO International Research Centre in AI and I’ve presented some of Carbon Re’s work there as well.

There are some talks on YouTube about what we do as well. We are trying to be quite active in the space. We do want to fly the flag for what people can do and inspire more companies to do the same thing. It’s not that we want to be the only company in the world using AI for climate change or climate tech.

We definitely want to show that this is something that can have an impact and is sustainable as a company as well. Hopefully, people can see enough from those resources to feel the confidence to take on whatever projects they might have in mind or whatever they might kind of be inspired to do as well.


00:37:34:06 – 00:38:38:21

Dr Mark Harding

I hope we’ve managed to show over a short discussion how an environmentally focused startup business coming out of a university with cutting-edge technologies really can make a difference to a heavy industry like the cement industry and beyond. I think I’d like to take a minute or so just to thank you Aidan for coming along and telling us all about Carbon Re.

I mean, what an exciting and interesting business. I guess the next step for me is really to say the next episode, episode three, is also another opportunity to see how cutting-edge research is changing the world, but in a slightly different and maybe a more personal way, where we have Dr Richard Fagan, who’s the UCLB Director of Biopharm, and Professor Charles Swanton, co-founder of Achilles, where they’re going to be talking about beating cancer.

So, that’s in the next episode. Thank you very much, Aidan. Is there any last words you want to say about Carbon Re?


00:38:38:21 – 00:38:46:09

Professor Aidan O’Sullivan

Watch this space, I guess, and let’s see where we can get to in the next year. But yeah, thank you very much. It’s been fantastic to chat to you.


00:38:47:09 – 00:39:01:28

Dr Mark Harding

Thank you very much.