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Sustainable Food, From Thin Air

In a bid to slow the effects of damaging climate change, Dr. Lisa Dyson is changing the way we make sustainable food, using ingredients found in the air we breathe.

On the heels of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating hurricanes in American history, Dr. Lisa Dyson began thinking about climate change and its impact on the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters. As one of the many volunteers working to help the people of New Orleans, she wondered if anything could be done to slow the detrimental impact of climate change.

"Food production is one of the largest contributors to climate change," Dyson said. “As a scientist and a businesswoman, I leaned on my background and knowledge to come up with a way to make food more sustainable."

And it's an impressive background: Dyson has degrees in mathematics and physics from Brandeis and a PhD from MIT's Center of Theoretical Physics. Passionate and determined to help find sustainable solutions for climate control, she started experimenting with ways to reduce the impact of mass food production by transforming carbon dioxide—a major greenhouse gas—into something we can eat.

Inspired by NASA technology originally designed for lengthy space travel, Dyson co-founded Kiverdi, Inc., a company that rethinks how to make products more sustainably through carbon transformation.

Using the knowledge she built at Kiverdi, “Creating food seemed like a natural next step," she recalled.

 

Food production

Dyson developed a way to grow protein without using traditional agriculture. Instead, her process ferments cultures that convert elements of the air into food much more rapidly than plants. Her new product, which she named “Air Protein," could produce food without using valuable farmland or animals, making it possible to solve some of the food production problems of the future.

"One great outcome would be if we can inspire others in the meat industry to seek more sustainable solutions," said Dyson. “Air Protein will help to show that tasty, healthy food can be made without using large tracts of land or reducing our rainforests."

Dyson then turned her attention to her next challenge: Securing the capital she needed to help her new company succeed. For a Black woman in STEM, raising capital can be challenging: In 2018, less than two percent of venture capital went to women, with significantly less to Black women like Dyson.

Fred Royall, Head of Diverse Business at JPMorgan Chase, was immediately inspired by Dyson and her passion for Air Protein, as well as the potential it represented. J.P. Morgan supported a fundraising strategy to access the capital Air Protein needed to move forward.

"There was just something about Lisa—and her idea—that stood out," said Royall.

With a strong team assembled—including Royall, a sustainability partner and an investment banking team—Dyson was able to secure one of the largest Series A financing rounds received by a Black founder in 2020. Series A investments typically follow money raised for product development and can bring investments of tens of millions of dollars. J.P. Morgan was able to connect Air Protein to its eventual lead investor on a $30-million raise, placing Air Protein's valuation at over $100 million.

Partnering with Dyson on Air Protein is part of J.P. Morgan’s efforts to advance sustainable development and climate action. But the Air Protein and J.P. Morgan partnership went beyond funding support. Dyson was looking for a partner who could also help with strategy.

"J.P. Morgan was very helpful in providing business insights based on strong analytics," Dyson says. That resonated with me and was invaluable as we built our projections and plotted our future milestones."

Those future milestones include a continued collective movement across the world toward sustainability.

"I am pleased that, collectively, we are becoming more conscious of the impact of our actions," she added. “We have to do more, though, so I am always inspired when I see signs that we are moving in the right direction."

Dyson has three pieces of advice for young women in STEM:

  1. If you're looking to start a business, take time to learn about business, not just your own industry: “While it's important to learn science, math and the technical fields, understanding how businesses operate gives you more of an advantage as an entrepreneur.
  2. Use a scientific approach to problem-solving: “Whether in business or other areas of life, approach problems like you would a scientific challenge: identify the problem, create a hypothesis and test it, using data as your guide."
  3. Focus on the positive impact of your work: “The fact that the world is becoming more mindful about where products ultimately end up is wonderful.

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