Interview With Eion Co-Founder Adam Wolf

Benjamin Schulz: When did you found the company, and what’s the origin story behind Eion? 

Adam Wolf: The origin story. In some ways I could tell you the origin story from a year ago but really, for me, I’ve been wrestling with these questions since I was an undergraduate in agronomy. I studied Agricultural Science. You’re faced with this basic challenge as a young agronomist, which is: How are we going to feed the world?  There are so many acres, you need so much fertilizer, and you’re faced almost with this kind of mass balance budget expression for being able to solve these difficult problems. And there’s no easy way out, but for me I was always passionate about farming and agriculture. I was an assistant to the farm advisor in Yolo County in California as a college student, I worked as a pest control advisor after I graduated, and I went back to get a master’s degree in agronomy.

But my path veered into studying Earth system science. I did a bunch of research in the former Soviet Union and really came to understand: Wow, what does a whole continent do to the climate? That was the start of understanding how the Earth works. And this is where I really started becoming aware of the geochemistry that underlies what we’re doing, and within the context of the whole Earth history of CO2, with this idea that rock weathering is the global thermostat.

And I ended up completing my academic career, I was a bit frustrated with being able to make change happen on the pace of writing academic papers. Just as a sidebar, I found out yesterday that a paper that I had written a criticism of in 2014, they accepted our criticism and have retracted the paper, eight years later. I started two companies in that time. The impression of the academic path is that you’re always stuck asking other people to do things.

I started a company, Arable, that really helped me wrestle with human decision making. How do people manage land? What types of information guides those decisions? How do farmers understand risk and rewards and the costs of their time and attention span and all these factors? It was just kind of by accident that there was renewed attention around carbon. I’d done some work on carbon in the former Soviet Union in 2001, and it really disappeared from the attention of the international community for many years. And then suddenly in 2018/2019, we were seeing people come to us at Arable asking about carbon. But I had this reluctance that came from my past experience, where I knew that ag carbon was really subject to a lot of risk associated with it.  What if we make all these plans to store carbon in the soil and it doesn’t happen?

It’s as though we’ve got sub-prime mortgages where we’ve spent the money, we want to know where the asset is, and then, we discover ten years later that not only is there no asset, but we’ve wasted a decade.

This is where I went back to this kind of geochemical approach where, with the rock weathering cycle, we can remove carbon inorganically in a way that cannot be reversed. I’d had the great fortune of working with an amazing team of people at Arable, including a lot of different corners of the agricultural economy. I really came to understand that the scale of agriculture and the permanence of this kind of rock weathering intersect to deliver something that’s both permanent and scalable. The genesis of Eion is meeting up with one of my former students Elliot Chang, who is a gifted chemist, who quickly was able to discern a way to verify the carbon removal of what we were doing.  That felt like it was the final link in the chain for being able to deliver a carbon solution that checks the boxes of discerning students of the art, as well as being able to build up from the ground from the acre with the farmers who are really at the center of this.

It’s a long origin story, but it was the convergence of two multi-decade paths.

Benjamin Schulz: Is it a bit of a spinoff of your former company, or how was the process for you to decide to focus most of your attention on this new venture? 

Adam Wolf: It’s interesting, I often say everything I did at Arable, I’m going to do the opposite with Eion. It reminds me of my wife’s mother, who said to her: “You may not make the same mistakes I made, but you’ll make new mistakes.” At Arable, I feel like I learned an unimaginable amount, but I also learned aspects of how to develop the product around the growers. We might think of carbon removal as driven by corporates like Stripe or Microsoft, but always it comes back to the farmer. Without the farmer, there’s no carbon farming.  This experience helped us shape the product development path.

But also, the source of intellectual property — whereas at Arable we were really around software development and IOT and just a really different revenue structure and defensibility, I wanted ours to be around chemical analysis, this kind of different corner of the agtech ecosystem. There are some really successful early-stage ag tech companies that were in the chemistry space, thinking about preserving foods and things like that.

It struck me that there’s a way to form a company that leverages what I learned and tries a new path towards scaling. But ultimately, if we’re talking about carbon, it’s built around the unique process of this particular mineral and its supply chain. Everything about it just has nothing in common with a SaaS company.

Benjamin Schulz: If you could go back to founding Eion, is there already something you would do different or anything where you’d have advice to new carbon tech founders? 

Adam Wolf: I think, for me, the lessons sometimes we’re finding out are opportunistic facets of what we’re doing, which we didn’t really realize until later. So, for example, among biological solutions, let’s say a forest reaches a saturation point, and at that point there’s no more carbon removed.  We find that if it’s done right – this idea of a mineral amendment to soils – you could do that every couple of years. That idea allows for many years of continued carbon removal. That was kind of opportunistic, we didn’t set out where that was the problem statement, it just happened to be a favorable by-product.

One of the areas though that we’re a little bit intentional and is continued to reinforce, is this idea that for it to work, we need to leverage strategic expertise within the entire value chain.  If you think about agriculture — the farmer, their trusted advisor — who do they get their materials and information from, how does all that material end up on that acre? We deliver hundreds of millions of tons of material to and from every acre, every year, and that means that we’re cost optimized around that. You quickly realize that this ag distribution network is kind of central.

By chance, I was on a Congressional roundtable about the future of work in rural America, and one of the other members was a CEO of a trade industry that represents farmer-owned cooperatives. This gentlemen — who happened to be a former Secretary of Agriculture — is spending a lot of time thinking about the future of work.  He was able to clarify for us the prominent role that co-ops play, both as the trusted advisor but also distributor. We then formulated our entire strategy around the co-op system and these strategic partnerships that enable scaling. That was a learning that came after the founding, and it really has helped me see how growth is possible. If you think about the scale of the challenge, it’s easy to get disillusioned often,. The co-ops are what gives me faith that we can actually meet that scalability challenge.

Silicate minerals are the Earth’s natural thermostat for controlling CO2 in the atmosphere

Benjamin Schulz: Could you explain the Eion service or product and how it may be different from services and products that are similar on the surface?

Adam Wolf: We think of two lanes, two products. One product is CarbonLockTM. It’s a soil input that incidentally replaces agricultural lime and farmers put on agricultural line to the tune of 25 to 30 million tons per year. There’s a recognized value in soil conditioning. We can look at textbooks on this. That means we know that there’s an input that has value to the farmer, purely as a soil conditioner. And that, in turn, unlocks a digital product. For example, what is it that Stripe procured from us?  They are looking for an audited proof of carbon removal.

Along parallel tracks, we have a physical product that is on a boat, moving, but then the digital artifacts from that include the waybill, ship tracking, GPS, the boat identifier, both when it leaves and when it arrives. Picture a digital ledger that can be rolled up at the end to provide an immutable record of reality that we can hand over.

We’ve got these two products — CarbonLock and CarbonBond — one physical and one digital. Now, how are these different from other carbon removal offerings? If we’re thinking about soil organic carbon, there’s a different answer than if I was to compare with direct air capture or other parts of the carbon removal universe.

If we’re just thinking about soil organic carbon, there are a few issues. Obviously, everybody agrees that more soil carbon is better for soil health and has all these eco-system benefits.  However, as a monetizable asset, it’s subject to a lot of uncertainty. It’s reversible. It’s hard to measure it reliably, even in the same place over time. In my former life, I was a scientist and collected all these soil data so I know how it works.  It’s just sort of hard to do a good job at it.  How it has worked out in practice is that a lot of the risk of performance falls on the shoulders of the farmer. Who has to buy a new tractor when it comes time to transition to no-till? Well, that’s the farmer. Who needs to buy the cover crop seeds? That’s the farmer.

Farmers are shouldering the cost and then they are shouldering the risk of Gee. What if the promised gains from this no-till don’t materialize on the schedule that was promised?  It should be clear why you get a lot of reluctance from the farmers to join these programs. Obviously, there’s a whole data aspect to it as well.

Our program does away with all of those issues. The permanence is there. There’s no chance that if you put this mineral in a field, it’s not going to dissolve. Thermodynamics can only go one way. The kind of verifiable tracer that we’ve developed allows us to go back to a field even several years later and reconstruct what minerals were applied and how much, and whether the carbon is removed.

Ultimately, the data that we collect from the farmer is just a soil test. Farmers are used to testing their soils, but they are reluctant to provide information on every single pass of their machine and their yields. Because that ends up being a type of sovereignty that they’re giving up.

When silicates are pulverized and added to agricultural soils, they dissolve to remove CO2 permanently and irreversibly

Benjamin Schulz: And the limestone that’s brought out, is this a special limestone that you have altered or where have you advised on how it should look, or is this the limestone that is being brought out right now? 

Adam Wolf: It’s interesting, so our product happens to replace ag lime, but it’s a distinct category of mineral. When we think about ag lime, the limestone could be a lot of different materials but it’s almost always calcium carbonate, which is a calcite, or a cousin called dolomite, which is a combination of a calcium carbonate and a magnesium carbonate. Even from the name of these carbonates, you learn that they are chock full of carbon.

The carbonates used to be stably deposited in some rock formation and all that carbon is now liberated, but a good fraction of that goes right back into the atmosphere.  It’s recognized in a lot of different analyses of this topic as being a carbon source.

Now our rock, it’s interesting, is three hundred million years old. This is a silicate. If I was to give it to you, you’d say wow, this is kind of heavy. In fact, it’s usually found in the mantle, so if we look at our earth, we’ve got the crust, the mantle starts around 60 kilometers below. It’s dense. In fact, this is crazy. What I’m holding here is a meteorite. Four and a half billion years ago, this was originated at the beginning of our universe – these crystals come from the mantle-core boundary, and these have these same silicate minerals in them. The iron that you see, the metal, this is at the core. So, we’ve got these silicates that are the most abundant mineral in the universe – they all just happen to be 60 kilometers below the surface.

Some of these minerals have gotten pushed up onto land. Picture mountain ranges. Continents collide, sometimes they leave some of these at the surface, and these are what we use. They have the same magnesium and calcium as the carbonates that fulfill this same kind of soil alkalizing role, but not only are they not adding carbon to the atmosphere, but they are pulling CO2 in from the atmosphere, and ultimately locking it into solution, where it ends up in the ocean.

This pallasite meteorite has olivine crystals that date from the origin of the universe 4.5 billion years ago. The meteorites are the most abundant mineral in the universe, but are so dense that they are usually found deep in the Earth’s interior.

Benjamin Schulz: In terms of permanence, which is often discussed around carbon removal – sounds like it is very permanent. How do you look at permanence and how it compares to other carbon removal permanence?

Adam Wolf: This is an area that was really essential for us to understand. Once these minerals are dissolved; it becomes part of the hydrological cycle because the carbon dioxide into solution is dissolved inorganic carbon or DIC. It ends up in the ground water, it goes into rivers, and rivers empty into the ocean – there’s huge literature on that topic. When it ends up in the ocean, it lingers for around 3,000 years as this dissolved inorganic carbon before it is calcified.

Picture this: in about 3,000 years, we’ve got two carbon molecules that are coming down with every magnesium molecule.  When the carbonate is formed in 3,000 years, that’s going to float to the bottom of the ocean and stay put for about a half a million years while releasing a CO2 into solution. Now that one, about 90% of it stays in solution for another half a million years. It becomes part of this ocean silicate cycle.

Together, about 5% of the carbon leaves after 3,000 years, and the remaining 95% stays in the ocean for about a half a million years. It’s a long way of saying: it is forever.

Benjamin Schulz: Looking at Eion as a company, where do you hope it is in three or in five years? What are the numbers of the milestones you’re looking at?

Adam Wolf: The numbers, the milestones, this is an interesting question.  We have our bottom-up strategy, where let’s say we get to a hundred thousand tons next year, half a million tons in a couple of years. If we’re talking about a gravel quarry, which is basically what we’re talking about, that’s 100% achievable. It’s not scary to anyone in terms of managing that scale of process. But in some ways, that’s not fast enough. I spent a little bit of time reconstructing the history of carbon capture and storage, and over about 35 years, at the cost of at least $100 billion globally, we now remove around 70 million tons of carbon per year. Yet, to meet our net zero strategy as articulated by the White House, we need to get up to a half a billion tons in 20 years. So that’s like ten times as much in half the time.

That’s possible to do, but it really becomes about orienting a lot of people along a similar direction and having the same objective. A lot of our milestones or activities are around pulling a fairly diverse group of stakeholders together. This includes farmers, co-ops, the transportation sector such as barges and trains, and the mineral processing sector including gravel pits.

We’re working to coordinate all that activity and use it to satisfy the demand for emissions reductions that are expressed in the food and ag industries’ self-identified commitments for carbon reduction. There are dozens of companies that have vowed to reduce their emissions including their Scope 3 emissions on the farm, and we’re coordinating this whole upstream effort to meet that stated demand.

Most of our activity is around satisfying each of the requirements for those entities. Centered around the farmer, at the end of the day, what talks is yield, and so a lot of our agronomic trials are not around whether this removes the carbon (of course that’s essential to have a carbon removal business), but really digging into the details of what the yield benefits are and the fundamental economics of running a farm. I guess reflects my background as an agronomist but those are also critical milestones.

Benjamin Schulz: Would you say this is 99% focused on the US in the mid-term? 

Adam Wolf: Yes. I know that there’s interest in this in Europe. As a scientist, I spent some time in Siberia. This is going to be a strange anecdote, but I spent time with this very charismatic madman named Sergey Zimov who had the entire Arctic that we could go sample from, and he says: “Adam, the lake that you’ll know best is the lake that you can walk to.”  That really helped me clarify if you’re going to do something, why pick a field halfway around the world when you can go there today. That’s true as well of all our human relationships. A lot of our ethos is depth rather than breadth, and really deepening our focus around a relatively small number of crops and geographies. In fact, we’re focused on a really narrow set of crops and geographies, so that we can check the boxes on solving their problems before contemplating expansion.

Benjamin Schulz: If you were not the CEO of Eion, what do you think you would aspire to do?

Adam Wolf: There’s really three areas that I think are important to work on. Number one is carbon. Number two is biodiversity, and even agro-diversity, if we can think about that. It’s not just plant diversity, but the diversity of people and production practices. Also, I’m really spending a lot of time thinking about Indigenous land rights. And what’s interesting you often see a nexus of all these things together, like where do you find stores of carbon and biodiversity? They just happen to be places that are historically tribal. For a lot of reasons, I felt that it’s hard to start a business out of Indigenous land rights. Although I’m meeting people now that have endeavors around this, that I’m so happy to know that people are thinking about it. But I always am finding my way around this nexus.

I think before I started, my leading idea for what I was going to do, is to start a perfume company. It sounds crazy. There’s a company in California, where I grew up, called Juniper Ridge, that essentially has a van, they go to National Forests, with permission, and they take the slash piles of juniper and spruce, and they distill it and put it in a bottle. I brought up a bottle to show. These are the smells I grew up with. And then I moved out east, to a different group of smells. I’m always trying to think of: How do I take this nature that I love spending time in and really live in it? I can’t, because I like living in a house, but this idea of extracting the essence is so exciting to me.

Benjamin Schulz: That’s interesting. Maybe this bottle should find its way to Paris and then they do what they do very well – make a big thing out of a good smell. 

Adam Wolf: For sure. There’s an exceptional perfumer in Paris, Diptyque, that does a lot of botanical work. It’s not like I have a trained nose. Nobody wants me in the perfume world! And yet there’s something extraordinary about it. You can connect with the breadth and expansiveness of the natural world when you start to pick out even just this one little element of it.

Benjamin Schulz: In the cold hard carbon removal world, how do you look at costs for Eion? As I understand it, the farmer doesn’t really pay you but you provide him probably with stones and measurements. How important is this sort of cost thinking for you? 

Adam Wolf: Picture what we’re doing is in the space that might be called carbon utilization. I saw today that someone makes vodka made from carbon removed from the atmosphere. Or somebody else is making a plastic. There are products that you can make that people attach value to and will pay money for. I think this is an underappreciated dividing line between different corners of the carbon removal economy because we’re actually doing something that has yield benefits. There’s an actual value proposition, and therefore people are willing to pay money on it.  At a minimum, the same amount as they would pay for aglime.  Moreover, farmers are attuned to the fact that if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. They’re already familiar with the variety of digital products that they don’t have to pay money for and yet I think they have an intuition that the product is not the app they’re using but it’s the data that they’re providing to it being monetized for something else.

It’s actually important and valuable to have a relationship where we’re selling something to the farmer. But then, once we can prove the carbon removal, then we can claim revenue from the carbon sale and return a fraction of this to the farmer. Thus, it’s different from other ag inputs.  This is something that has an upfront cost, and it does what it’s supposed to agronomically. Then, it also has this downstream effect where farmers can participate in the value that they know are creating for food brands whose public perception is so tightly tied to their environmental footprint. If they deliver a win, farmers would like to get some credit and appreciation for it.

Benjamin Schulz: For you producing and bringing out the silicate to the farmers and the measurement, is that something that is very costly?

Adam Wolf: It is and it isn’t. I’ve tested the gravel in my driveway, which comes from a quarry up the road, would remove about a quarter ton of CO2 per ton of rock. That’s a benchmark, and I know that I can buy this gravel for, by the yard, $30 a yard, about $30 a ton. So, there’s a part of this where we know just from our limited brain power that it can’t be too expensive. And yet, we had the bright idea to start with a very high mineral potential material that comes from Europe. That puts us in the realm of overseas transportation, and in turn, that is subject to some of the supply chain shocks introduced by Covid. Thus, at a low volume, it is expensive, but we know that it obeys unit economics where it will rapidly drop with any level of volume.

The difficult part is going from one ton to a thousand tons to a hundred thousand tons. Those are each different scales, and we have to move every ton. The rock we’re working with removes about one ton of CO2 per ton of rock, and there’s no escaping the fact that to remove one ton of CO2, you have to move one ton of rock. Even five feet that you did not account for is insurmountable.

That’s what we’re working through the details on – each of these logistical considerations to drive it to the rock bottom price. That, in turn, goes back to my original comment on my learnings when I founded the company, to connect with strategics. Strategics are the ones who know how to do things at scale now. Use that expertise. There’s no substitute.

Benjamin Schulz: What are the most overlooked opportunities you think in clean tech and climate — what excites you there? 

Adam Wolf: I always go back to a conversation I had with my thesis adviser, Chris Field. He got to sit next to the King of Sweden when the IPCC got a Nobel Prize for the climate work. After all that effort that produced thousands of pages for the IPCC report, that year the CO2 in the atmosphere still grew faster than the most pessimistic scenario that they analyzed.

Chris is a gifted plant scientist and ecologist, and said: “You know, I think we need to work on the human sub-routine – the part of the model that says how humans act.” I think we tend to really fixate on technical possibilities and accomplishments. At Eion, we’re scientists and engineers, so we’re not immune to that. Yet, I think social entrepreneurship, changing how people think and act and behave, really studying various people’s incentives and why they do different things, is just so unappreciated for what it takes to introduce not just hard technology but social technology. That’s what we’re talking about – is transforming society with a type of social technology.  In the same way that I can walk down the street and if I see even a single piece of trash on the ground, it’s outrageous. And yet, we know, in human history, the streets used to be littered with garbage. We just have changed our mindset around different types of behavioral norms. So, how do we introduce these pro-social norms to normalize accommodating our carbon/energy/material footprint?

Benjamin Schulz: If you had one wish, one policy to enact in the US or globally, what would it be?

Adam Wolf: I have my eyes on the US more than anywhere, but there’s been a lot of really great news out in the last two years. There’s a long-term strategy to meet net zero. This expresses an idealized deployment pathway for wind and solar to be able to decarbonize the energy system. All the different agencies are being asked what they can do, from the Department of Treasury to the Bureau of the Interior. You might have seen the SEC is starting to look at people’s commitments, insofar as their greenhouse gas emissions, because obviously investors make decisions on ESG performance.

I see a lot of great policies being introduced and my only thought is: “Yes, more and faster.” You can see that if you lose a year, there’s no way we’re going to get to that half a gigaton in 20 years. The acceleration around all this is so important and that means putting more pilots on the table, to let loose the entrepreneurship that we know is here and set rigorous requirements for what it takes to graduate. I think it is important to do this at a scale and still enable more ideas to come out. We have the resources; they’re just not deployed.

Benjamin Schulz: Last question, is there any person or organization which particularly motivates you that you think our readers should know about? 

Adam Wolf: This is going to sound crazy, but over the last couple of years I’ve been spending a lot of time with the work of Sun Ra – he’s a musician. I’m actually going to go and see the Arkestra tonight. Sun Ra was born in the 20’s or 30’s and was active from the 50’s until he died around 1980. He developed this idea of Afrofuturism. With Afrofuturism, there’s a lot of different people and directions and what-not, but fundamentally has this joy attached to the fact that We (from the perspective of African Americans, or people of the African diaspora) are in the future, and the future is good.

I had started thinking about this in agriculture, started wrestling with the idea: “In the future, will there be agriculture?” It’s not always easy to see, when there’s cellular meat, and there’s vertical agriculture in the absence of sun and soil. You start to think: “Is there going to be agriculture in the future?” I go back to this inspiration around Sun Ra and Afrofuturism and really this embrace that — he grew up in Birmingham Alabama in the 30’s, which wasn’t necessarily an easy place to grow up — that nevertheless it’s possible to be hopeful about the future. It’s not only from this kind of engineer’s standpoint, but almost a spiritual standpoint. There will be agriculture in the future.

That’s who I’ve been spending my time with lately, is Sun Ra and his inspiration.

Benjamin Schulz: We’re going to need one link to a song or an album, if that’s possible. So that readers can follow Ra’s path. 

Adam Wolf: In fact, he’s got a line we say around my house all the time: “Somebody else’s idea of some other world is not my idea of the world for things as I wish them to be.” Especially young people, I think it would be very challenging to be a young person in the world today and feel like you’re inheriting a world that was created by other people who made all the decisions without consulting you. Always I think it’s our challenge to overcome cynicism such as, “what I can do will not affect things” and instead to really embrace the idea that “the world as I wish it to be is valid and I can make that happen.”

Somebody else’s idea of somebody else’s world
Is not my idea of things as they are
Somebody else’s idea of things to come
Need not be the only way
To vision the future

Earth Couldn’t Contain Sun Ra’s Ideas. His Arkestra Is Still Exploring Them.

Benjamin Schulz: This is definitely going to enter the realm of CleanTechnica favorite quotes. 


 


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