Why you should invest in cement

TL;DR: The cement industry generates 8% of global CO2 emissions. We’ve invested in founders Liz, Sam and Kieran at Material Evolution, a sustainable materials and technology company that is manufacturing cement with 85% less CO2 emissions whilst also being stronger and more durable.

In September 2021, we led Material Evolution’s seed round of $3.4m, alongside At One Ventures, SkyRiver Ventures and The Heritage Group.

Our Managing Partner Chris first came across Material Evolution through an introduction from Ginger at The Heritage Group (thank you again Ginger🙌).

It was summer 2021 and Playfair was unwinding after our busy first half-year, yet something about the founders caught our attention. As the investment process evolved, the team were continuously impressed by Forbes 30 Under 30 PhD CEO and founder Liz Gilligan, and co-founders Sam Clark and Kieran Gilligan who together held 20+ years experience in project management/regulation and construction respectively. Above all else, we were surprised and excited about their passion for cement.

And the more we got to know them, the more we felt they were onto something….

Why cement?

After water, cement is the most widely used substance on Earth. Around 4 billion tonnes is produced annually and the cement industry is estimated to be worth $463B by 2026.

Cement has become one of the most popular construction materials on earth; making the modern world possible. It can be produced in large volumes, can be stored in ordinary atmosphere without deterioration, can withstand compressive stress and is comparatively cheap. The list is endless. Widespread use of cement has enabled infrastructure that has allowed millions to work and live in safety.

There’s one big drawback.

4 billion tonnes of cement in turn produces 3.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. This accounts for 8% of global CO2 emissions.

8%.

That’s more than:

  • Commercial buildings (6.6%)
  • Livestock & Manure (5.8%)
  • Chemical & petrochemical (3.6%)
  • Aviation and shipping (3.6%)

In fact, 3.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emission is equal to the carbon footprint of 900 million people.

To make matters worse, cement is thirsty; the industry consumes 10% of industrial water use. Resource extraction of sand, gravel and crushed stone — materials that are used to bulk cement — is responsible for 80%+ of biodiversity loss due to the impact on oxygen production, water purification and pollution. Additionally, there are negative environmental effects from transportation of materials between quarries and factories.

Combining all of these environmental factors = one sad 🌎

Material Evolution’s founding team had experienced — and, by chance, contributed to — this problem through working in the construction industry. They decided that change was needed. And it’s not just them.

The market

For years, heavy industry has had a dirty past. Money is a major motivator in sticking to the status quo, particularly in an industry selling undifferentiated products where prices are highly competitive. Cement companies have invested significant capex into factories, machinery and quarries. Change from within and at scale is difficult and daunting. And not just that. The cement industry is monopolised by a handful of £10B+ market cap conglomerates which are cautious about novel materials and technologies. What’s the incentive to change?

The UK has committed to a net-zero target by 2050. To meet this, the government has adopted an emissions trading scheme whereby the government sets a cap on the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions a business can produce. Let’s call this the carrot.

Next, we anticipate regulatory pressure through carbon tax pricing; the stick. Perhaps something similar to the EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) which would apply a carbon price to materials imported. Soon, cement producers and buyers will be penalised for producing and using ‘dirty’ cement.

Reductions in emissions at the scale we’re talking about will require the widespread adoption of alternative materials.

We have seen technological advancements over the past years. For example, use of clinker — the most CO2-intensive ingredient in cement production — has been progressively reduced. 42% of fuel demand has been replaced with waste-derived alternatives. The cement giant Cemex launched a novel cement product that reduces CO2 emissions by 15–20%. And many startups are changing raw materials, changing the process or ‘curing’ CO2 as a solution. Solidia, for example, manipulates cement chemistry to significantly lower the kiln temperature required to produce clinker, thereafter curing the concrete with waste CO2 instead of water.

These approaches give glimmers of hope albeit often still resulting in the mining of virgin materials or limited CO2 savings. Hence, more research and capital is desperately needed in this industry to bring change.

There is no silver bullet to a 100+ year problem.

In comes Material Evolution

Material Evolution creates sustainable alternatives to Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC), using geopolymer technology. It has developed a product that is made from 95% industrial waste which is stronger, more durable, cheaper and reduces the carbon consumption of concrete by 85%, when compared to equivalent OPC products.

During our investment process in the summer of 2021, we wanted to understand how Material Evolution was differentiated from the other up-and-coming CementTech(TM) startups. Several factors immediately stood out to us:

  • Material Evolution uses waste materials from other industries as raw inputs for the cement ‘recipe’. It does not mine, extract or process virgin materials (e.g. iron, lime, clay) which otherwise lead to greenhouse gas emissions, water stress and loss of biodiversity.
  • Many startups use carbon capture, a method that captures and stores CO2 after it has already been produced, on which scientific and public opinion remains divided. Material Evolution focuses on reducing production of CO2 at inception by 85% i.e. during the cement manufacturing process.
  • Material Evolution has a unique manufacturing process which means very low capex and ongoing spend is required, compared with the complex and expensive processes that others use that can slow scalability.

Finally, Material Evolution is not simply a cement manufacturing company. After all, we are technology investors! The company uses AI and machine learning to collect data on every cement mix and build proprietary algorithms. These will enable the team to maintain material consistency and repeatability, identify new raw materials and optimise the cement ‘recipe’.

Having successfully tested their materials at Google’s San Jose campus and raised $3.4m, Material Evolution is ready to scale production, enhance its AI/ML algorithms and expand the team both locally in Middlesbrough and remotely across the globe!

Sustainable cement is coming to a place near you…

If Material Evolution’s mission speaks to you, come join us on the journey — we’re hiring!

If you’re a founder fundraising for your business, you can submit your deck on our website.

You can follow all of us on the Playfair Capital team on LinkedIn, Twitter, Forbes, Vimeo and here on Medium.

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