The founder of NeoCarbon, Silvain Toromanoff, on having an impact, finding a co-founder and learning from failure
Silvain joined Antler after four years as a CTO at Sayduck, a Finnish company providing services for e-commerce and enhancing interactive shopping experience through displaying 3D products on their websites. Silvain helped to shape the company strategy and played a pivotal role during the acquisition of Sayduck by the Swedish Goodbye Kansas Group. However, he was missing a deeper sense of purpose as the company was “not solving any pressing issue” as he explained in our interview. Therefore, he decided to leave the company and started making the first steps toward building his own company. A company with a significant positive impact on the climate, planet, and people.
However, this was harder than expected, and even though he met many talented people, there was always something missing – not the right match, timing, or diverse expectations. Struggling to find the right co-founder he joined Antler. Now, he and his co-founder René are building NeoCarbon and are on a mission to tackle climate change using Direct Air Capture.
Antler in Germany
Hello Silvain, thank you for being with us here today! You and your co-founder started NeoCarbon when you joined Antler. Can you first tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and life before Antler?
Both René and I have a technical background. I have a bachelor's degree in Mathematics and Physics and a Master's degree in IT from Télécom in Paris. I also have a master’s degree in Innovation Management from Aalto University in Finland. Now it should not come as a surprise that I am French, but lived for about ten years in Finland. I'm a scientist at heart and was raised in a very deeply scientific family. René is German and he is an industrial engineer with a master's degree from the Technical University of Berlin and gained his experience mostly when he worked at Siemens Energy and as Head of Business Development at a Berlin-based scale-up, called tink.
We will talk about how you two met later on, but before we do that, I would like to talk about NeoCarbon. What is it and what is the technology behind it?
Sure. At NeoCarbon we capture carbon at scale with cooling towers. Cooling towers are industrial machines that blow a lot of air to evacuate heat. This heat comes out as a waste product from other industrial plants and buildings. So, instead of paying for it, we take the heat that would otherwise not have been used. What we then do is that we build machines on top of these cooling towers which makes the process of capturing carbon much cheaper. By efficiently retrofitting those towers, we remove the carbon dioxide from all this air at a very low additional cost. Several billion tons of CO₂ could be captured this way annually, a huge share of humanity’s long-term needs.
What is the goal and vision of NeoCarbon?
The obvious goal is to try to do something about the pressing problems of humanity, particularly climate change. I am not saying that we can solve all the problems of humanity, because as we all know we are facing many – the collapse of biodiversity, rising methane content in the atmosphere, or water pollution. But CO2 is the kind of problem that we along with others have to solve. And we at NeoCarbon are trying to have a significant impact in solving this problem. And when I say significant, I mean that we want to be a large part of the solution for carbon capture, large enough so our actions are visible. It is also about having a stand for something and working on something that matters, that has a positive impact on the climate, planet, and people in the largest way possible.
"We want to be a large part of the solution for carbon capture. Large enough so that our actions are visible."
So, the gigaton vision that large tech companies like to use is to get to billion tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere by 2050. But in practice, it is just about doing something that matters.
How did you come up with this idea? Did you have it in mind before you joined Antler?
In my head, I was playing a lot with building something that would have a positive impact on the climate. Carbon capture was one of the possibilities. I also had ideas about electrical planes or artificial meat. There were a lot of exciting topics I was exploring but I knew I wanted to build something with a large impact and a good business case within climate tech. In my personal life, I was trying to do as much as possible to minimise my negative impact on the environment, but eventually, this was not enough. I told myself that I want to commit my professional life to something that matters. It was one of the reasons I left my previous company. I had a great time there, we had an exceptional team, and we had cool technological products, but it was not solving any pressing problems. And the climate crisis was making me more and more anxious.
"In my personal life, I was trying to do as much as possible to minimise my negative impact on the environment, but eventually this was not enough."
I started to do a lot of research on climate change and everything that has an impact on it, both positive and negative. It was bothering me but also exciting. If I'm not excited about a topic, I will not perform. That’s just who I am. I also needed to find a large business case because otherwise, the impact would not be significant. So, I made myself a little checklist – impactful, scalable, and exciting. And these three topics – carbon capture, electrical planes, and artificial meat – met all these three conditions.
Why did you decide to build your company with Antler?
After we sold Sayduck, I was looking for a team that would join me in building a company with an impact in climate tech in Finland. I met some great people, but the timing was not right, or it was just not the right fit. It was not until I joined Antler that I found a perfect match. One of my friends told me about Antler in Berlin - a program that brings people together to build companies and requires a 100% commitment from all participants. That was all I needed, and in less than a week, I moved to Berlin after ten years in Finland.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you and René met?
I actually met René on Day 1 at Antler when we had this one-minute pitch about ourselves, and I expressed my intention to build something in climate tech and he was up for it. We immediately clicked, we share the same values and are both driven by the same cause. So, on the very first day, I invited him for dinner. But the intention was not to immediately found a company together. It was about finding out what kind of person he is. We both shared a lot about ourselves, I talked about why I spent such a long time in Finland, and about what matters to me - that I like when things work on trust and when people are open and transparent. I wanted to build a company like this, build on trust with people who believe in what they do and are not there just for the paycheck. And René was 100% aligned on this.
"I wanted to build a company like this, build on trust with people who believe in what they do and are not there just for the paycheck."
However, we both wanted to explore other opportunities, we were making friends in the cohort; we were validating other people as well as ideas. But after about three weeks, it was very clear that we were the best match for each other, and one day he came to me and said, ‘You are on the top of my list since Day 1 so let’s give it a shot and not waste time.’ We started working together and the rest is history.
What surprised you the most after you joined Antler?
I would say that one thing that was really shocking for me was what Antler was really about. I didn't hear about it a couple of weeks before I joined, and I got convinced by this value proposition of meeting people with high profiles who are fully committed. And then I got there and I was like 'Wow!'. The people were amazing, highly capable, critical thinkers, but also down-to-earth and friendly.
What was the biggest learning for you during your time at Antler?
Before we came up with the concrete idea of carbon capture, we had a different idea about sustainable e-commerce, and we thought it was pretty good. We also thought that it was what we should do because we both had some experience in e-commerce. Then we had weekly sessions with the partners – Christoph and Alan – and every week we pitched, and our idea got destroyed. And it was really hard, it hurt. Every week we tried to make it better and make them like it, but it was just not good enough. But every week they would give us honest and valuable feedback and we would learn from it. And it eventually saved us from going through with the wrong idea. And it was also one of the things that eventually forced us to come up with NeoCarbon. I now realise that this was one of the most beneficial things ever and that we were just improving tremendously every week.
What would you advise people who are deciding to join Antler?
If you want to start your own company, Antler is the place to be. Even if you do not have an idea, or if you do but do not have a team. There is very little for you to lose but there is so much to gain. You will meet all these highly skilled and qualified people who are builders. You will also get the support to find the person who is the best fit for you. You will get support on every step of your journey from finding your co-founder to building a business that is actually solving a real problem.
To find the people and funding you need to build a world-changing company, apply to an Antler residency.
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