ONE-HOUR WITH THE SARAH LAMAISON CO-FOUNDER OF DIOXYCLE
by French Tech SF
"AT DIOXYCLE, WE ARE DEVOTED TO HELP DECARBONIZE INDUSTRY BY TURNING INDUSTRIAL CO2 EMISSIONS INTO VALUABLE CHEMICALS AND FUELS."
Sarah is a 27-year-old researcher/entrepreneur. It was in the "Pays Basque," her native land, that she developed her unvariable passion for the Environment, the Ocean (and for surfing). But it was here in San Francisco that we met her virtually (thanks #Covid-19) to tell us about her and the start-up she co-founded with her lab-buddy and friend, David Wakerley: Dioxycle.
Sarah received an engineering degree from Ecole Polytechnique and a master's of research in Chemistry from theUniversity Cambridge. She then carried out her PhD between Collège de France with Professor Fontecave and Stanford with Professor Jaramillo in the field of artificial photosynthesis. It was at The University of Cambridge that she met David Wakerley, her friend and now co-founder. Together they developed electrolysis technologies for converting CO2 into chemicals. The remarkable performance of these systems led to the filing of several patents and earned the L'Oreal-UNESCO French Young talent award for women in science. Driven by the will to have an impact on the Environment, they co-founded Dioxycle, to scale this technology with one goal: help decarbonize industry in an economically viable manner.
FTSF: Can you start by pitching your project?
SL: Each year, 35 gigatons of anthropogenic CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere, standing as a major culprit in climate change. Action to reduce these emissions is imperative if we want the next generations to see the beauty of the environment as we know it, and I have always been deeply attached to this cause. Dioxycle’s technological philosophy has grown straight out of the example set by photosynthetic life; that low temperature, efficient conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) to chemical fuels is key to energy storage and release. Our breakthroughs originate from the design of a customized electrolysis environment to convert carbon dioxide into energy-rich and valuable products with minimum energy input. The resulting electrolyzer takes in CO2, water, and electricity and can generate e-fuels and chemicals such as carbon monoxide, methane (natural gas), or syngas depending on the environment engineered. Looking ahead to industrial applications, CO2 inevitably generated by fermentation, steel, and cement could be completely removed from industrial exhaust streams and converted into a wide range of e-fuels to create a valuable circular economy. And this is what we are devoted to do at Dioxycle.
FTSF: How did you work with Stanford teams? What did you find here that was different?
SL: There is a positive and supportive management style in the U.S. It feels like anything is possible with enough hard work. It's a great motivator when you work 12 hour days. The difference in France is that we can be perhaps more austere in our research. The study can be less sensational and more geared towards the intricacies of the science. I appreciate this, approach too because in these intricacies are the secrets to a true understanding of technology. Stanford has an exceptional combination of academic and entrepreneurial atmospheres; the best of both worlds. It was particularly inspiring to work next to people who understood their science from its smallest scientific detail to the "big picture" potential of its technological application.
Additionally, Stanford's network and reputation were able to give us more credibility and opened many doors for us. We met many French and American entrepreneurs who helped us contextualize our technology through many fruitful interactions.
And finally, alongside this fantastic community, we had a great time on the Campus, there has been a lot of investment in the University and it shows. There are many highly advanced resources available: you really feel like you are working on the cutting edge of human understanding. That is an ambiance that you don't find easily.
In France, researchers are doing some incredible things with less money, and it is a shame that the same level of investment is not available to complement our research.
" I WOULD SAY THAT YOU GO FROM RESEARCHER TO ENTREPRENEUR WHEN YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH'S APPLICATION. "
FTSF: How do you go from researcher to entrepreneur?
SL: First of all, I would say that you go from researcher to entrepreneur when you are passionate about your research application. David and I have consistently sought to optimize the performance of our technology because we have always had its scale-up in the back of our minds. And then, I would say that what really helped me to set up this project was the training at HEC Challenge +, which I followed in parallel with the second year of my thesis.
It is an absolutely exceptional support program that helps start-ups to change the paradigm by placing customer needs at the center of the entrepreneurial approach rather than it being a “techno push” approach, which is often our approach as a researcher.
FTSF: As we know, Ecology in California is a major issue for the future. Dioxycle must necessarily echo many companies and researchers here. How and where do you see the next step for Dioxycle?
SL: Silicon Valley is a land of tremendous opportunity. We have been inspired by so many entrepreneurs and innovators in this region. Among them, I would like to cite in particular Luc Julia and Sebastien Boyer who not only inspired me by their vision but also by how generous they are with their time and advice despite their incredibly busy agenda. It is really inspiring to see how humble, accessible, and eager to discover and help young projects, they remain.
We have also joined the silicon-valley-based Alchemist Accelerator incubator, which is ranked in the 10 best entrepreneurial support programs and has just opened a European track.
The incorporation of Dioxycle is carried out in France, and we are happy to launch this adventure in Europe, where we have been trained and to which we owe a lot. For me, there are also more and more opportunities and dynamism in Europe, especially on the subjects of the energy transition, and the electricity is particularly decarbonized in France, making it an ideal land for CO2 electrolysis technology. Yet, we acknowledge that CO2 knows no borders, and with this in mind, we are keen to develop our company within a double European /American culture, which has brought us so much.
And who knows, we will possibly come back to tread again on the beaches of California if this entrepreneurial journey goes well!
The future is open!
" YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO KNOW THE LIMITS OF THE POSSIBLE. NOT TO LIMIT YOU, BUT TO ALLOW YOU TO TRY THE IMPOSSIBLE IN THE BEST CONDITIONS."
FTSF: We often deplore the lack of women in the startup world but also in the scientific community. How do you see the situation of female entrepreneurship? Any advice for women who are reluctant to get started?
SL: Today, only 29% of researchers in the world are women and, only 3% of the Nobel Prizes have been awarded to them. It is an unfortunate statistic. Creativity needs diversity and, talent is everywhere, be it questions of diversity of gender, origins, culture. Today, many actions are carried out to fight against conscious demonstrations against sexism or the difference in wages. And to me, the last battle is undoubtedly unconscious biases and perhaps even more paradoxically to fight against many women's own impostor syndrome.
If I had one piece of advice to give to young girls while waiting for the world to change, young girls who would feel this feeling of being an impostor, it would be the following: always try, try anyway, try even if things seem impossible to you. Romain Gary said: "You always have to know the limits of the possible. Not to limit you, but to allow you to try the impossible in the best conditions.” With this in mind, we will perhaps surprise ourselves one morning as we stand in front of the achievement we always thought of as impossible. And if the impossible thing we try remains impossible, at least we will have no regrets.
FTSF: What will be the key milestones for Dioxycle in the next 12 months?
SL: We are currently working on our prototyping phase, developing our POC (Proof of concept), which is an electrolyzer capable of converting several dozen kilograms of CO2 into valuable chemical products. It is a big milestone showing that our catalysts and our technology can scale up to a pre-industrial scale. Then, thanks to this validation, the idea is to sign prototyping studies and co-construct the offer with each industrial customer according to their specificity of factory smokes
FTSF: If French Tech were a fairy, what would you ask her?
SL: I would ask two things. The first is to continue to promote and support start-ups and their energy transition projects, to help address the environmental emergency.
And the second thing would be to tell the CNRS to pay its researchers better and to allow them access to their labs (nights and weekends included) so that this change can come from France.
It only remains for us to wish a lot of success to Sarah, David and all the Dioxycle team!