How does an ex-petrochemical engineer become a foremost expert in CO2 capture and a successful entrepreneur? Winner of the 2022 WaterCampus business challenge Rose Sharifian is about to show just that. “I wanted to change my course for the better, and what is more, what is much-needed research worth if nobody applies it?” NEW-TTT partially finances Sharifian to realize her pursuit of global change.
“90% Of the world’s energy must be sustainable by 2050; that is what world leaders agreed upon. We have achieved less than 30% currently. The plan is a little ambitious if you ask me. Just look at countries like China, Iran, US, and Russia with their massive oil and gas production. It is hard to imagine them switching over rapidly. Even if we reach the 90 % goal for the electric power sector, heavy industry and international transport remain hard-to-abate sectors. Therefore, as a facilitator to reach net-zero, more and more is invested in CO2 capture – goals of which were set at capturing four gigatons a year from 2030 onwards. And more than twice as much by 2050. Guess how much is done now? Hardly anything – a few kilotons. While the technology is here already.” That is the reality we face, according to Rose Sharifian – Wetsus PhD, winner of the WaterCampus business challenge 2022 and now co-founder of SeaO2.
The scientist is determined to change it, though. She rerouted her career for it. “When I was eighteen, I wanted to get into engineering. When asking around in my home country of Iran, which engineer earns the most, I quickly learned that I wanted to be a petrochemical engineer. And so I did. I finished my master’s degree at the TU Delft and worked for a year in consultancy. But soon you discover money isn’t everything.”
“That’s when I discovered Wetsus. I decided to turn my career around and become a sustainable engineer.” Working on electrically charged membranes for oceanic carbon capture, she developed the application of her research: the dissolved carbon in the ocean can be captured and collected by changing its pH using only electricity.
“Capturing carbon dioxide from seawater is easier than doing it from the air. There is more carbon in the sea, and it’s easier to access considering the immense surface of the ocean. And more importantly, we can already start upscaling it now. Which is a necessity. So why not do it myself? It was an easy choice to move into entrepreneurship too. I got approached by Ruben Brands – now co-founder of SeaO2 – interested in setting up a business once he saw a publication of ours. Both my Wetsus and university supervisors are part-time entrepreneurs – including now co-founder of the business David Vermaas, so I was inspired by them and became well informed on the matter thanks to their supervision.”
Now she has shown her worth at the WaterCampus business challenge already. Herein she had to present to business professionals how her technology would conquer the market. “We had workshops, learned to pitch, and a lot of it revolved on answering three deceptively simple questions on your business: What do you want to achieve, why, and how? Though it sounds rather easy to answer, it is not so trivial.” But she managed to do so, and in the end, the jury even cited her way of conveying the message as a reason she won the challenge.
And just participation alone in the challenge was worth the effort for small start-ups. “All groups got to join a CEO diner. CEO’s from other start-ups, and larger companies like Vitens were there. We got to pick who to sit with for each of the three dinner courses. It was an amazing networking experience.”
That has been working marvelously. “Through doing the business challenge and meeting others, we have been able to secure funding from salary to supplies. We got in on the Climate Kick Accelerator, like the business challenge but more for carbon capture, and the NWO’s faculty of impact.”
But also the money from NEW-TTT is being put to good use. “We are currently hiring a place in the Water Application Centre on the WaterCampus. In collaboration with Wetsus and the WAC, we got our required equipment, membranes, and even staff support, so the money is well spent on scaling up.
That will require a few more steps. On the side of science, it’s all about applying the principles to the real world. “Up until now, I’ve only been working with synthetic seawater. We want to get to real-world use, which will require some testing. For instance, as seawater is full of tiny life we don’t want to harm. So, we are working with NIOZ to investigate that. And we must reach a so-called technical readiness level (TRL) of seven or eight for large-scale commercialization. Currently, we are at four. The higher steps include working on location, longer experiments, and a larger scale of the membranes.”
On the side of the business, more has to happen too. Ruben Brands is working a full-time job on that side – setting up the network and settling contracts with big companies, among others.
But that will be no problem, seeing so many people already have put their complete trust in the team. “You will see,” Sharifian mentions adventurously, “just come back later and see.”
Interested to become successful too?
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