28 Nov 2023

The deep tech sector dreaming up ways to save the planet

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 28 November 2023

Sharon Brettkelly gets a glimpse of the future as she ventures inside a building housing some of the biggest brains in the deep tech sector working to reduce carbon emissions.

Sean smiles at the camera. He is standing outside an office building. The window of the business says "OUTSET VENTURES - THE HOME OF DEEP TECHNOLOGY".

Sean Simpson is the founder of LanzaTech, the clean energy company now worth billions. He chairs Outset Ventures in Parnell. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

In a nondescript concrete building in a backstreet of Parnell, some big brains are at work on projects that could help save the world from climatic and environmental meltdown.

The aptly named Future House is home to Outset Ventures, an incubator for more than 20 start-ups that are developing products that are better for the environment, including new types of concrete and pesticides.

They're part of the fast-growing "deep tech" sector, and one of the brains behind it is the man dubbed the "carbon saviour", Sean Simpson, co-founder of LanzaTech, the low carbon biofuel firm that has become a US multibillion dollar Nasdaq-listed company.

Simpson, who has returned to New Zealand after years in the US, chairs Outset Ventures. Its role is to support the start-ups and raise finance to speed their growth.

"We filter the great ideas," says Simpson. "And the model that we have here is quite different to the model you'll see across New Zealand. Here, we take a technology-first and experience-first look at these new ideas."

Outset's investment committee is a 'who's who' of some of the country's most successful technology brains: Simpson, Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck and Mint Innovation's Will Barker.

The Detail was invited to Future House to meet Simpson and some of the start-up founders as Outset embarks on its second round of fund raising. 

He says he wants to raise the profile of Outset and get the attention of the new government.

Damien wears a white lab coat. He is standing in a lab surrounded by machines, shelves and special storage units.

Damien Fleetwood, CEO of Biotelliga. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

"Our message to the government is we're here to support New Zealand entrepreneurs and we'd like them to partner with us."

Simpson says Outset currently receives no government funding.

The Detail toured the laboratories of agri-biotech firm Biotelliga with Damien Fleetwood, the chief executive. Started in 2009, the company is focused on cleaner agriculture.

"We're in the business of developing technology that farmers and growers can use to protect their crops from pests and diseases that are biological in basis, clean, green, and biodegradable. 

"The intent is that growers can use them in exactly the same way as they use chemical pesticides and replace those unwanted, kind-of dangerous chemical pesticides."

Fleetwood says the company has been funded mainly by the same investors for several years but has struggled to retain safe, secure funding.

Just down the corridor of Future House, we meet NeoCrete co-founders, Zarina Bazoeva and Matt Kennedy-Good, who have grand ambitions to replace polluting cement with their own product, which they say is 95 percent natural and sustainable.

"Concrete is the most-used product in the world after water," Kennedy-Good explains. "The glue that holds concrete together is cement, but the problem with cement is that it is responsible for eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

"What NeoCrete has done is to find a way to replace cement by activating volcanic ash."

Zarina and Matt smile at the camera. They are standing inside an office room decorated with colourful posters and lab equipment.

Zarina Bazoeva and Matt Kennedy-Good, co-founders of NeoCrete. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

Bazoeva says NeoCrete is working on perfecting the formula in its laboratory in Parnell.

"We think we are 95 percent ready for commercial production," she says.

The five-year-old company is about to switch on its pilot plant in Auckland to supply the New Zealand market and has received its first export orders.

Bazoeva explains how she developed a love of concrete as a young child, watching her scientist father working on the product in his laboratory in Russia.

"He told me about this amazing building material that connected the land with bridges and tunnels, that allowed us to build vertically, rather than horizontally, and that's where I developed love and excitement for this amazing building material."

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