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Having proved its microwave method of producing charcoal is feasible, Carbonscape’s now looking for the right investors to globally expand.

As a start-up New Zealand business, whether those next investors are NZ-based is both problematic and indicative of the growth and expansion challenges faced by many of our entrepreneurs. Doubly so in Carbonscape’s case, as the technology’s very new.

The challenge is to attract strategic investors who can pony up with the $2-$10 million to give a push to its microwave technique which can convert essentially any organic waste such as sawdust, into valuable products.

This includes activated carbon (AC) form of charcoal, a product for which demand is growing at a compound basis at 5% a year. AC’s large surface area gives it a wide range of uses in many industries, and it is also an extremely stable absorber of carbon dioxide, which in turn can be sequestered/buried and take the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere.

By tweaking the microwave heating parameters, valuable gases and oils can also be recovered from the feedstock, instead of, as in other charcoal-production processes, being part of the burning process itself.
It is what can be considered an “enabling technology.”

“Our global expansion speed will be a function of our access to capital,” says Carbonscape co-founder, Nick Gerritsen. Having proved the work, and establishing datasets around the AC, gas and oil production, “we’ve had a lot of interest from around the world,” he says.

“We’d like to base ourselves here, but given the right amount of capital, labour’s quite mobile. We remain open to the next steps.”

‘The big idea is really about establishing a next generation mining proposition — where we process fresh biomass into carbon in real time.’

Gerritsen says New Zealand Inc needs to decide whether we want to play in the global technology sector and believes we can serve up solutions.

“Or do we get companies to a certain size and then sell them offshore.”

He says it could be a challenge to develop novel NZ-derived solutions, and that firstly “it would require us to get over our cringe factor, that we need to believe we can be good and excell.”

Part of that challenge is the very incremental nature of developing new ideas in New Zealand, sometimes forcing the resultant company to be or remain mid-sized he says.

He compares this to some of the big global energy companies. These businesses have the capability to take an idea from a “a bench scale to industry scale in one step,” Gerritsen says.

Without the same access to capital, New Zealand companies sometimes spend a lot of time ironing out technical issues.

“Understanding how you should scale is something that we in New Zealand have very little capability in, very little experience in,”

If Gerritsen were able to wave a magic wand and receive a chuck of money, the first thing he’d do is employ Kiwis with knowledge in the field and build a centre of excellence around microwave charcoal technologies.

This would create an “Intellectual Property engine”, delivering technology solutions that others could implement. Instead of creating and building the machines and ovens itself, Carbonscape would prefer to partner up with corporations who themselves have the channels to market.

This might involve making a microwave of a size that can fit in a container, and this container does it job where the waste is situated. In many other waste to useful-products exercises, it is the transport of the waste to the conversion site/machine, that makes what is often a good concept uneconomic.

“The smartest thing for us to do is create I.P.,” he says. “That’s a value that is lighter and easier to export. We’re better to clip the ticket by employing our thinking, dataset and I.P.”

Working with other global parties is also advantageous, “as they know their pain points and how they could obtain maximum benefit from the technology,” he says.

“These sorts of things are yet to play out in cleantech. Cleantech technology is more likely to be distributed, closer to the source of the problem.”

Though he lives in Marlborough, Gerritsen’s open to where a Carbonscape-oriented centre of research excellence could be located. “There might be a better location for the next stage of our company, and now we want to build a broader team.”

The venture’s attracting new people, including ex-patriot Kiwis who “potentially can bring a new level of global experience.”

All of which is to remind New Zealand and potential investors that the location for its next stage of development is still open.

It could, perhaps should, be done in this country. But, if Gerritsen and his team can’t find the right partners here, it will be yet another example of a good idea forced offshore, another example of our innovators being able to initiate but struggling to follow through with the value-generating part, implementation.