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Knoxville’s Holocene tackles CO2 removal

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of posts about companies LaunchTN has supported through the SBIR/STTR Matching Fund. 

Companies from Apple to Ford and Microsoft to United Airlines have made commitments to deliver a net-zero future, meaning they are seeking to reduce emissions where possible, and neutralize the rest with carbon dioxide removal. 

Governments are signing up to the very same task – as recently demonstrated at the COP28 global climate conference in Dubai.

Knoxville-based company, Holocene, is helping companies and governments deliver on that ambition.

The company removes carbon dioxide from the air, works with partners to store it underground and then sells the environmental benefit of having removed the CO2. 

“I knew that this was something I wanted to help fix,” Holocene Co-founder & CEO Anca Timofte said. “A lot of institutions are saying that we need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Annual emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased each decade to about 36.6 billion in 2022, according to Global Carbon Budget 2022.

“We are past the point where decarbonization — stopping emissions — is enough,” she said. “We can not stop emissions tomorrow. We see what we do as cleaning up the remaining emissions that we can not clean up with renewables, with electrification of vehicles — all of that.” 

In addition to companies that have made carbon neutral promises, the U.S. government is making carbon reduction and removal a priority, Timofte said, who had a chance to join the dialogue at COP28 in Dubai.

Through the Inflation Reduction Act, the government is directing federal spending toward the reduction of carbon emissions. 

“They established carbon management and carbon removal as a new sector of the economy,” Timofte said. “It’s more than just a couple of well-intentioned people wanting to remove some carbon dioxide. This is going to be as big of an industry as oil and gas.”

First sale
In September, Frontier — a coalition of companies that aims to accelerate the development of carbon removal technologies by guaranteeing future demand for them — facilitated carbon removal purchases from 12 companies, including Holocene. 

That represents Holocene’s first carbon removal purchase agreement, which is a big deal because Frontier is highly selective, Timofte said.

“We had to go through an entire process of being vetted — numerous interviews and independent expert reviews, 40+ page applications, and more,” she said. 

Holocene is currently building a facility that can remove 10 tons of carbon dioxide a year from the air. The facility should be up and running in Knoxville early next year.

“This is the first integrated prototype,” she said. “This is the first one we’ve built that showcases all the technology.”

And the company already has its eyes on something bigger. 

Holocene is planning to build a facility that’s 100 times bigger than the first one. The second facility will have a machine that can remove 1,000-2,000 tons of CO2 a year.

A growing team in Tennessee
Holocene moved to Tennessee from Palo Alto, California in October 2022. 

The move made sense, because — in addition to getting into the Innovation Crossroads program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the company got lab space through the University of Tennessee’s Spark Innovation Center. 

“We wouldn’t have moved without having found space first,” Timofte said. 

Access to affordable lab space can be an entrepreneur’s biggest challenge, she said. 

But beyond the lab space, Holocene has also found expertise and support in East Tennessee. 

When Holocene landed a grant of $1.92M from the Department of Energy to advance carbon management technologies, LaunchTN matched it with $100,000. 

Holocene also participated in LaunchTN’s internship program, which helped the company pay for student help. 

“The whole ecosystem has been really, really supportive,” she said. 

With that support, Holocene has found fast growth. 

In September 2022, Timofte was a team of one and now the company has more than 10 employees, including two co-founders Tobias Rüesch and Keeton Ross. 

“We grew our team immensely; we have now secured through grants more than $5.5 million; we’ve had our first sales already; we’re building this test facility. What we are most proud of is that we are moving very fast. We are working so hard and I hope it shows. We’ve been able to achieve a lot in only one year.”  

If you want to learn more about Holocene, check out their website or reach out to the team at contact@theholocene.co

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