NitroVolt talks sustainability, self sufficiency through green ammonia – AgFunderNews

NitroVolt talks sustainability, self sufficiency through green ammonia – AgFunderNews

Half the world’s food production relies on ammonia, yet the process for making it accounts for 2% of the world’s energy use and spits out around 450 million metric tons of CO2 annually — more than almost any other chemical reaction out there.

Growing consensus is that making ammonia “greener” is one of the most impactful ways to decarbonize agriculture.

Suzanne Zamany Andersen discovered this as a PhD student at the Technical University of Denmark. When she learned that researchers had been trying and struggling to electrify the chemical (and fossil fuel-reliant) process of combining nitrogen and hydrogen to create ammonia, she immediately jumped onboard.

A few years, ago, she decided to turn her efforts into an actual startup, and with the help of Mattia Saccoccio, formed NitroVolt, a company that aims to produce ammonia electrochemically and onsite at farms.

NitroVolt’s technology is a patent-pending lithium-mediated ammonia synthesis reactor it calls “the Nitrolyzer.” Using just air, water and renewable electricity, the containerized system uses electrolysis for the water-splitting process that creates hydrogen, which when combined with nitrogen creates ammonia.

For Zamany Andersen and Saccoccio, CEO and CTO of NitroVolt, respectively, the draw of onsite green ammonia production is sustainability. For farmers laboring under the weight of high fertilizer prices and broken supply chains, the promise of self sufficiency speaks the loudest.

NitroVolt hopes to accommodate both sustainability and self-sufficiency with its system, and has made it a point to keep farmers central to the dialogue around the system.

The Denmark-based company just raised €750,000 ($821,000) in pre-seed funding from Swedish VC BackingMinds and has plans to raise more funding and start testing its system in the near future.

Below, Zamany Andersen (SZA) takes us through her founder’s journey and what’s next for NitroVolt.

From left: Jasenko Hadzic (principal, BackingMinds), Mattia Saccoccio (CTO & co-founder, NitroVolt), Suzanne Zamany Andersen (CEO & co-founder, NitroVolt), Susanne Najafi (founding partner, BackingMinds). Image credit: Minna Yr Johannsdottir

AgFunderNews (AFN): Tell us about your background and how that led to NitroVolt

SZA: It all started in 2017. It was a PhD project here at the Technical University of Denmark. I’m a physics engineer, and I went in and asked, “What’s the hardest project you have?” And they’re like, “Oh, it’s this ammonia thing. We’ve been trying for 15 years and we haven’t been able to do it.” And I was like, “What’s ammonia?”

They explained to me that ammonia is used as a nitrogen-based fertilizer. They wanted to electrify the process, meaning you can [create it for] small-scale production. The reason being, if you can do that, you can bring it out to remote regions of the world that today don’t have access to nitrogen-based fertilizer. If you electrify that process, it can also be sustainable. So I was completely sold because of the humanitarian aspects and the sustainable aspect.

So I jumped on it. I was the first full-time PhD they dared hire on the project at my own insistence, because as a PhD, you typically want results so you can actually publish something and get on with your life.

About a year into [the project], we had a breakthrough, which was fantastic. It was a collaboration with Stanford University. We managed to produce ammonia electrochemically, which is a big step.

Once you have something that works, it’s really just an engineering challenge to make it work better. So the professor in question managed to get a lot more research funding and hire up to 12 PhDs and postdocs to work full time on this. That was when my co-founder Mattia — he’s an energy engineer and he’s worked at BASF on large-scale ammonia production — saw the job ad and he decided to come back to academia.

I call Mattia an engineer with a capital “E” because he’s the problem solver.

We started making the process work better. We hit these metrics of high efficiency, high current density, high ammonia-formation rates.

AFN: How did it go from academic project to tech startup?

SZA: About two and a half years ago, I turned to my co-founder and asked him, “Do you want to do this whole startup thing with me?”

He initially — hesitantly — said yes. Then he said we should go talk to some farmers because we know nothing about fertilizer production. So we went out and visited three Danish farmers, and holy smokes like the whole farming and fertilization and food production system is so incredibly complex. I have so much respect for farmers and growers — that is not an easy job to have.

We visited one farmer who said, “Can you sell me a unit when is it ready?” That’s when we were sold [on the startup idea]. We started doing outreach to a lot of farmers globally to really understand the food production chain. We took this fantastic course called Stanford Climate Ventures. It’s phenomenal and really kick-started our entrepreneurial journey.

We were paired with these students from Stanford who were running circles around us doing market analysis and teaching us. Then Mattia was coupled with his industry mentor who was teaching him how to do techno-economic analysis. So we had a really solid TA [teaching assistant] and we had to do 70 interviews in 70 days. That level of reach really set the tone for the rest of the startup.

We’ve talked now with over 170 people within the nitrogen fertilizer supply chain — customers, policymakers, distributors, farming associations, agronomists, large-scale producers, you name it.

AFN: Why do you think farmers were so sold on the idea initially?

SZA: I remember the first time I talked to farmers and I was like, “It’s sustainable!” But that’s not really the selling point to them. It is to me. It’s the self-sufficiency aspect of it.

When we started talking to farmers, it was right around [the start of the] war in Ukraine, when fertilizer prices globally quadrupled. They haven’t quite come down to pre-war levels, although they’re close, and there are a lot of fluctuations and regional differences and dependencies. [For farmers] it’s that resiliency in the supply chain that’s the selling point of our system. Nitrogen fertilizer is so critical for food production. If that’s something you can produce in-house, that has a lot of value.

AFN: What’s the biggest challenge right now in getting more farmers self sufficient via a system like NitroVolt’s?

SZA: There are a lot of nuances to that. For our system to work, we would like there to be onsite renewable energy generation. If you’re just buying [power] from the grid, it’s not a sustainable product. As I mentioned, for us, sustainability is a key driving force.

So we would like to start with farmers who have onsite solar, for example, or bought shares in a wind park or something. We see that there is a trend towards more and more farmers doing that. Even in Denmark, where our capacity for solar is 12% because we barely see the sun here, farmers are still installing solar because it’s becoming dirt cheap.

AFN: How did the pre-seed round come about?

SZA: We decided to apply for a bunch of nice grants initially. There are a lot of national grants in Denmark. We managed to get around $700,000 in grants here in Denmark.

We also got the Breakthrough Energy Fellowship. It is such a fantastic program. It’s a grant, so there’s some amount of money but I’m not allowed to disclose how much. On top of that, we also get so much support. Every week there’s two meetings going over everything from IP strategy to product-market fit sessions to techno-economic analysis to founder burnout. It’s so incredibly broad and specific at the same time, and helpful as an entrepreneur.

We’re also coupled with these business mentors who are just phenomenal. They each come with a very wide experience within some sector and we can tap into all of them.

AFN: What’s next?

SZA: We’re now fundraising for a seed round, intending to close it later this year. We have runway for another year, so we’re out early, but it’s important to connect with investors and make sure it’s the right type of investor and see what they can help us with.

One of the very important things for us to actually scale is getting the right people in. Mattia and myself, we’re fantastic in the lab as shown by our track record, but we don’t know how to build larger systems. Doing a stack and then doing everything around it takes an experienced chemical engineer. So right now we are also looking for hires. That’s what the funding from BackingMinds has really enabled us to do. It gives us the confidence to ask for, say, a chemical engineer with five years of experience.

We’re still early stage. We’re just moving out of the university now, into the Alfa Laval Innovation Center. We’re intending that the seed round will get us demonstration units for next year. My goal is to build a five-kilo-per-day demo unit that we’ll test out on a farm.