Berlin - Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag want to make the world a better place. They met at architecture school in London and started their first company, Elegant Embellishments, together in 2006. They designed building panels coated with a pigment containing titanium dioxide that neutralises common air pollutants by converting them into carbon dioxide and water. The panels have already been installed on several buildings around the world, most notably the Manuel Gea Gonzalez Hospital in Mexico City.
“It’s reducing the pollution of about 1,000 cars a day,” Dring says from the offices of their newest company, Made of Air (MOA), in Kreuzberg. The white office has turn-of-the-century Berlin Altbau charm even though it's right across the street from publisher Axel Spinger’s new Rem Koolhaas building, around the corner from Berliner Zeitung’s offices.
But as the pair worked to expand their environmental panels to better combat climate change, they realised they had a significant flaw – the panels could only be made from virgin plastic. “And there weren’t any green solutions for that,” Dring says.
So Dring and Schwaag went looking for a better way to make the panels.
“It also forced us to look at the built environment and think about the scale of that and all the material going into our cities, how our cities are going to grow in the next 30 years especially, and to really try to rethink on the material level,” Dring says. Then the pair got ambitious – they didn’t want to just create construction materials that were carbon neutral, they wanted them to be carbon negative.
They landed on a material called biochar, which they mix with bioplastics, or plant-based plastics, to create their own new material that can be used like plastic for a variety of applications from retail to industrial to automotive.
“It really means taking biomass, putting it in an oxygen-low oven and baking it at a really high temperature,” she says. On the table is a tiny glass dish full of the char. It looks a lot like ash and is already used in agriculture as a sort of fertiliser and in filtering wastewater.
Although the pair started out with architectural panels, their search for the perfect material caused them to rethink their focus and in 2016 they launched Made of Air, which now delivers pellets of their unique material to companies who make things from it. Last year H&M signed on to produce sunglasses made from MOA pellets and Audi is installing facade panels made from the material on some of its dealerships.
And they aren't alone in thinking their idea has a future so bright it needs H&M shades. MOA in October was one of 19 companies that received a total of $7 million in funding from Hawaii and California-based environmental incubator Elemental Excelerator – Steve Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs heads its board.
The investor said it picked companies that had already raised an average of $7 million and were seen boosting sales tenfold in just the next two years.
MOA is currently in the process of raising more funds for expansion. The firm has a staff of 10 but that could grow to 30 by the end of the year – and possibly more in the future. Dring and Schwaag are in talks about opening a factory in Brandenburg but have ambitions beyond. The idea is to have a network of plants that rely on their technology but use locally available biomass.
“We convert wood waste from sawmills into char,” Dring says. “As we start to regionalise, we'll look at different biomass streams and then we'll have to really make assessments about if it's an agricultural product, can it hold up if we scale it in a big way?”
The pair have been working in Berlin, at least part time, since 2008.
“The tech industry hadn’t really arrived yet. So it was a good place to have a young company and kind of incubate and develop and then, yeah, we sort of grew up with the city,” says Schwaag. “Now it’s a big attractor for talent and for partnerships.”
But what’s the name about? Part of the company’s goal is to help reverse the destructive effects of our carbon economy on the climate. The biochar in their material binds carbon – the carbon found in plant matter that was previously in CO2 in the air. Those products will hold onto that carbon throughout their (hopefully) decades-long life and then be buried in the ground, from where much of the CO2 in our atmosphere originated as crude oil and other fossil resources.
“We have to pivot toward materials and ask industry to operate differently,” Schwaag says. “It’s the last frontier for climate change.”