Technology and Market Evolution

Manu Pillai
6 min readApr 7, 2024


We started our journey in climate action by looking at soil carbon and farming. This made sense — we already had an extensive background in AgTech and knew a number of farmers we deeply respected. These were people going beyond farming to land stewardship. They had an enduring, visible and demonstrated respect for the land. (One land steward from California who is also a good friend, came to my hometown in rural India, and had tea with my mother and I before we returned to the US. As it turns out, this was also the last tea I had with my mother.)

As we investigated, we found a lot of hand-wringing, pedantic analyses and protocol writers who had clearly never been on a farm. And they were all in the self appointed carbon deities. So we looked at the USDA protocols and found them much better. But, not one corporate entity — who use USDA standards for the products they buy — would use USDA methodology for soil carbon. We were able to access 4 of the world’s top 20 agri-food companies and several regional players, so this was not a random event. Real effort was put into this. From my other postings you know how seriously I take customer needs and market entry. It was clear there was no real customer interest here for real protocols. They all wanted the halo of the carbon deities — which we could not provide.

As a simple example of sketchy methodologies is using satellite imaging to measure soil carbon that is usually several centimeters deep in the soil. Satellite imaging is compromised by tree cover in the growing season, leaves and debris post harvest and snow or rain/weeds in between. Anyone who has actually farmed or been on farms knows using remote sensing for *deep* soil analysis is bullshit. That’s why farmers still take soil samples, and why the USDA protocol is sampling based. Sampling improvements may help here in the long term. But don’t get stupid — remote sensing has many good uses, for example disease detection or surface level moisture — but deep soil carbon is not one.

About this time, the doubt and waste in the other methods was apparent, and others were starting to notice as well. Credit buyers started to get picky. I attended a session at Stanford’s Climate School later, and listened to a number of experts highlight serious misgivings and inconsistency in soil carbon — the influencers had finally caught up with me and a few others. And this doubt was proven right, at Southpole and Verra as the tip of the iceberg. In the meantime, real work with teams at Regen and other more real organizations was being relegated to the back.

I also interviewed other agencies, where the staff flat out admitted that once a project was “approved” there were no follow on checks, and that further, they did not know anything about protocols — a project developer would prepare the documents for them to rubber stamp. This is not the way we run things, nor should others. Theres a real climate problem to solve, and real money is being spent.

The only way soil carbon could work under these conditions was and still is via biochar, which we support. But we are not, and will not be a biochar company; there are at least 10 new biochar companies per day, all are generally good, and all cannot scale for similar reasons, which is why there are so many.

Additionally, all these pathways could be financed only through carbon credits. I felt, and still feel strongly that carbon credit are a fundamental waste of corporate and taxpayer funds. We will not make a change, until the new option has better value than the old.

There is a lot of juju around carbon credits. Terms like durability and additionality abound. But really, only one thing matters — did you impact the rate of increase of GHGs in our atmosphere or not?

Going back to first principles, its apparent that the GHG pollution problem we have is from the use of fossil fuels, where the rate at which CO2 and other gases are produced exceeds the rate at which the planet can handle the inflow. So, to take the overflowing bathtub analogy, before wasting dry towels to soak up the overflow, turn off the tap. Basically, replace fossil fuels as fast as possible, with the most economic solution to each use case.

All the other stuff is just a nice way of making work for accountants and lawyers, and creating a new class of financial instruments that would make Enron blush with envy.

If you need forensic grade accounting to prove you are making a difference, you are likely not.

Further, a fundamental requirement for me was that anything we did, needed to make a minimum of 5% impact on GHG emission levels from our direct work, by 2040 or earlier.

So we pivoted.

We continued our focus on farmers and expanded to look at dairy farms, treating effluent and waste gases. We ran tests, and spend months on this. Eventually it came down to a few things:

  1. Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) generate a massive climate and environmental mess, and extend beyond dairies. (Here’s a link to my map of Califoria CAFO’s as of 2022) In contrast, there are pasture dairies in California and across the world that operate profitably without this mess.
  2. CAFO systems are industrial farming systems. Over time, the incentive for CAFOs has gone up, in particular as a result of California’s LCFS (Low Carbon Fuel Standard) that pays a hefty price for Renewable Natural Gas (AKA methane) derived from manure pits from dairies and pig farms. Even chicken farms are now getting into the action. ( Note however that the majority of bovine emissions are from the front-end of cattle, not the back-end, so the core issue to solve is the bovine headcount problem. This has massive cultural issues. Start by cutting back on meat and dairy — I’m not saying you have to go vegan; just cut back a little. Then, if you can, go vegetarian / vegan. Take a first step. )
  3. Not all dairy farmers are motivated by LCFS, but they need to participate to keep up with those that are. And you can see and sense the difference. It is always easy to spot the farmers and the bean counters, and when they become one, it is not good for the environment.
  4. Effluent treatment has to remove nitrates, phosphates and potassium — the mirror image of NPK fertilizer. (See other posts on agriculture / farming and fertilizer.) So, to remove these require a serious amount of engineering and energy. To all intents, you need to boil off the water to concentrate the salts. But, you can’t do that at scale — you’d dim the lights in the country if you did that at scale. So you can deploy worms and other things. But these are not scalable across the world.
  5. In nature, methanotrophs in soil live on airborne methane and convert back to CO2, helping us complete the carbon cycle. They are probably the worlds most effective methane clean up crew. But, CAFO’s overload the system. So, the LCFS system actually helps to mess up the planet even more. It is a perverse incentive.
  6. We did a deep dive on every way we could think off — from using dry manure for energy, to generating hydrogen, to generating carbon monoxide from biochar in parallel to go with reforming the methane to make hydrogen to form syngas to make methanol and more. None could succeed without subsidies.
  7. This energy efficiency problem is still a problem for pretty much all the bio-methanol and e-methanol startups and established operations we see. They need tax credits and other wealth-transfer schemes to exist.
  8. Removing the perverse incentive would enable real farmers to succeed; milk from less stressed cows tastes better to begin with. You can see the well earned pride in a farmer that enables this. (The dairy- industrialists know this and now focus on cheese and yoghurt as a way to bypass the taste issue. I’m sure you can figure out a workaround here …)

So, we moved on and pivoted hard once more to focus making affordable renewable fuel. We picked methanol as a robust molecule; you can use it as a fuel, or as feedstock to several chemical processes or as feedstock to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)

And we found a radically new way of making methanol — using a fusion of biology and hard engineering to develop microbial methanol for the marine industry.

Our technology leverages methanotrophs (mentioned earlier), around which we’ve wrapped some precision engineering, resulting in the lowest cost, lowest carbon-intensity methanol production possible.

We attended marine focused conferences, and followed up with shipping companies, fuel blenders and chemical companies. We were also fortunate to get funded by SOSV, which gave us access to IndieBio NY and HAX in NJ, enabling us to make rapid progress and expand our team.

And here we are …



Manu Pillai

Interests: IoT, Climate. Skills: Startups, AgTech, Edge, NPI, Systems, Mfg @manurpillai