I first met Nick and Viktoria Oseyko in Amsterdam back in 2019. The father and daughter team were attending Climate Launchpad, a competitive pitching event aimed specifically at cleantech startups.
I spent about half an hour with them, talking about their company Carbominer and the technology it was developing. They were full of optimism about the commercial potential of what they had to offer.
Carbominer’s technology was and is aimed at owners and operators of commercial greenhouses. Plants grown indoors are subject to fluctuating levels of CO2 in the air around them. Growers seeking the greatest possible yield add supplementary carbon to boost photosynthesis and promote faster growth. To provide a sustainable source, Carbominer’s machine – now in prototype – extracts carbon from the air outside and feeds it into the greenhouse, with energy efficiency as a key factor. Given the demand for supplementary C02 and its growing abundance in the atmosphere, Nick and Viktoria Oseyko saw clear demand in the marketplace.
They still do, but in the intervening years, Corbominer’s founders have had to deal with setbacks that would be unimaginable for most entrepreneurs. Although sponsored by the European Union, Climate Launchpad – part of a larger Climate KIC initiative – was open to startups from beyond the E.U.’s borders. Carbominer was from Ukraine and since February of this year, the founders have had to keep the business going and attempt to build a European presence in the face of Russia’s assault on their nation’s independence.
So, when I caught up with them this week, I was keen to find out about the challenges of building a business that continues to be plugged into Europe’s startup ecosystem.
Before The Invasion
As Nick Oseyko explains, a lot of progress had been made prior to Russia’s invasion. In January 2020, the company raised a seed round. Further rounds followed and, to date, Carbominer has secured $700,000 from Ukraine’s SMRK VC fund. This funding has enabled the company to hire more people. “In September 2021, we built our first machine,” he adds.
More advances followed. The Ukraine Academy of Science carried out measurements and provided a first validation for the technology. In addition, the company presented its technology in Barcelona and was invited by cement producer, CRH to take part in a pilot in Romania.
The pilot was scheduled for March/April 2022. Then the Russian invasion happened.
The initial impact was the break-up of the team. Kyiv – where Carbominer is based – was under attack and people moved away to other parts of Ukraine and beyond. Today things are better. The withdrawal of Russian troops from the north of the country has enabled work to begin again, but there are still major problems.
The Need To Travel
Perhaps the greatest of these has been a ban on external travel. “CRH wanted the pilot to be in Romania, but we can’t leave Ukraine,” says Nick Oseyko.
There is some hope that things will change. As Viktora Oseyko points out, the national government is making attempts to create a more normal environment for businesses to operate in. “A few days ago there was some news,” she says.”Ministers called on businesses to continue operating. If businesses are to do that, there will be a need to travel abroad.”
So as things stand, Carbominer’s first pilot is expected to take place in the third or fourth quarter of this year. It’s hoped that a second will take place in Austria.
As Nick Oseyko stresses, these pilots are hugely important, not least because they allow for external validation of the technology. In a market where there are competitors, the key metric is the amount of CO2 produced against the electricity needed to deliver it. One key feature of the Carbominer system is that it uses renewable energy and it can work with an intermittent supply. This keeps carbon production costs down.
The ability to travel beyond Ukraine’s borders is important for other reasons too. The country has a rich agricultural economy. “But the climate is ideally suited for open sky agriculture,” says. Nick Oseyko “There aren’t many greenhouses.” For that reason, the main base of potential customers lies elsewhere in Europe, notably Spain and – considerably closer to home – Poland.
There is also a requirement for more investment. “We would like to get a global investor,” says Nick Oseyko. “But although there is a lot of support for Ukraine internationally, for investors, at the moment, there are obvious and serious risks.”
The obstacles faced by Carbominer are shared by other startups in the country, but it does seem that the tech ecosystem is continuing to develop and, if not thrive, certainly survive. Viktoria cites figures suggesting that not one startup in the portfolio of Ukraine’s top ten VCs has closed since the beginning of the war.
And that’s important. Ukraine is very much a part of Europe’s tech startup ecosystem. Its survival is not only important to Ukraine itself but also to Europe as a whole as a source of new thinking and solutions.
For their part, Nick and Viktoria Oseyko are happy – if that’s the right word – to be making progress. “We are very proud to have raised funds, to have built our machine and also got through Covid, “Viktoria Oseyko says.