Fueling Innovation Cassie Hodges  | August 4, 2018

Her Silicon Valley Startup May Help Save our Planet – and Help us Reach a New One

The unique technology Dr. Lisa Dyson’s startup has developed may just help save our planet.

Or it may be the ticket to reaching a new one.

Drawing on NASA research that began more than 50 years ago, Dyson’s company, Kiverdi, has developed an innovative process that uses special microbes to transform carbon gases into oils and proteins that can be used to make foods and other consumer products. Not only does that recycle carbon gases that could otherwise prove harmful to the environment, but it also outputs exponentially more protein or other bio-based products (like substitutes for palm oil) per square mile than traditional farming, and it does so at a faster clip while using less water – potentially invaluable advantages as the world’s population grows and global food shortage becomes a mounting concern.

“Due to a population increase and an increasing demand for protein-rich diets, it is estimated that we will need to almost double food production in the next 30 years,” Dyson explained.

Meanwhile, Kiverdi’s breakthrough could be harnessed to help send humans on what are now impossibly long journeys into space, including trips to Mars someday. Such trips would probably require more food than can currently fit into a spacecraft. But with Kiverdi’s biotech process, astronauts could transform the carbon dioxide they exhale into food sources.

For now, though, Dyson remains focused on green practices that protect our current planet.

“We asked ourselves, ‘Could we develop a similar technology that would enable us to recycle carbon dioxide here on Earth into valuable products?’” Dyson, whose company is based just south of San Francisco, said in an interview with Free Enterprise. “The answer was ‘yes.’”

Dyson developed the technology with funding and support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the California Energy Commission, and the Iowa Economic Development Authority. She describes the microbes, called hydrogenotrophs, as “nature’s carbon recyclers,” and she likens her startup’s process to brewing beer.

Dyson has long been passionate about using physics and technology to address problems.

“My first research project in physics was at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where I saw math come to life in the form of magnetic fields in tokamak reactors, which were designed for renewable energy generation,” Dyson said.

Despite its promising innovation, she says there have been plenty of hurdles along the way.

“One of the challenges to bringing new innovations to market is finding the early adopters who will work with innovators through scale-up and commercialization,” Dyson said. “Our approach at Kiverdi is to partner along the value chain and work closely with partners to identify pain points where our process can provide solutions.”

While still in development, Kiverdi’s products and solutions could change the way we think about powering and feeding the world – and Dyson says, when it comes to cultivating a greener planet, her talented, mission-driven team is just getting started.

“When individuals with specific skills and resources come together to do something good, there is so much that can be accomplished,” she said. “I continue to be inspired by it on a daily basis.”