Helping Earth with space age technology

As he walked across the moon, venturing somewhere no human had been before, Neil Armstrong probably didn’t realise how significant his "one giant leap for mankind" proclamation would be. Not only did he usher in a new era in human history, he began the age of space travel, giving hope that mankind could endure using the science needed to keep people alive outside Earth’s atmosphere. 

If this all sounds a little grand, well, it is. But in fact, an epic origin story is exactly how Amsterdam startup Skytree came to be. Its unique technology was originally developed to make longer missions possible by extracting the CO2 exhaled by astronauts in space. Now, Skytree is developing and evolving that technology for commercial use – including indoor air purification, fuel synthesis and farming.

Photo: Skytree CEO Max Beaumont

Connecting with an accelerator in Amsterdam

Skytree is the brainchild of its CEO, Max Beaumont – a half welsh, half English "cultural nomad." He started developing the company’s unique technology while working as a systems engineer at the European Space Agency’s centre in Noordwijk. “We knew we had the air purification technology to keep astronauts alive in the tin can, which is very good at extracting CO2 and water,” he explains. “So, we thought what if we could apply this as a geo-engineering technology to reverse climate change. It’s an extremely ambitious aim, but we secured the funding and that’s how we started out.”

Originally based in Noordwijk, Skytree came to the Dutch capital after joining Startupbootcamp, an accelerator that helps startups grow, develop and scale up. “We had been thinking of moving to Amsterdam before, but when we got on the Startupbootcamp programme in 2014, we made the decision to move to the city,” Beaumont explains. “Getting on the programme was a game changer for us, as within a week of the demo day, we had raised €160,000 of funding.”

Continuing, he says, “Startupbootcamp trains you on a diverse set of skills like business techniques, project management and pitching. They also link you up with external experts. And then at the end of it, you present to around 100-150 investors and get huge exposure.”

A city with filled with investors and talent

Getting accepted by Startupbootcamp wasn’t the only reason Skytree chose Amsterdam as its base. “We also wanted to move to Amsterdam to be closer to investors. Amsterdam also has a great talent pool, it’s very well connected with Schiphol, and it has a great startup and investment scene. We didn’t need to be convinced to move here.”

After proving their idea could work in the Earth’s atmosphere, Beaumont and the Skytree team spent years getting patents and securing funding for research and development. Skytree's solution is effectively a dehumidifier and CO2 extractor in one. Using a special plastic resin which soaks up CO2 and water, it keeps CO2 and humidity at comfortable levels, ensuring the air stays fresh and windows don’t fog. 

Once full, the plastic cartridge is regenerated using heat and hot air to flush out the captured CO2. This process is continuous and repeats multiple times a day until the cartridge needs replacing, which usually occurs after about one year of use.

Photo: Skytree's technology was originally developed to keep astronauts alive for longer in space

Tech that protects health and boosts productivity

Skytree now has a working prototype for indoor-air purification and is partnering with Jaguar Land Rover, along with other multinationals, to help commercialise the technology. “We’re able to maintain the same quality of air while it’s being recirculated in an indoor space, while it’s being rebreathed,” Beaumont explains. 

“By reusing the same air in this way, buildings use a lot less energy, as air coming in from outside doesn’t need to be conditioned – and so it reduces energy costs and operation costs for building operators. It keeps CO2 at safe levels as well, reducing the risk of headaches, nausea and decreased productivity.”

When asked about other smart and sustainable solutions to help climate change, Beaumont cites the electrification of the transport sector and autonomous vehicles as new technologies that can have a massive impact. Beaumont also thinks the world will come to a point when it relies on negative emission technologies (NETS) to extract CO2 from the Earth’s atmosphere and help prevent climate change. “There’s a lot of uses for carbon, and if that carbon just happens to come from CO2 in the air, then even better.”

Changing the world one step at a time

When asked whether he still thinks he can change the world, Beaumont is pragmatic. “I did think that, however, I have become more mature in my thinking. But the techniques that we have developed could have a massive impact on NETS technology, as we license the technology we have developed to others. So that’s exciting for me. We’ve taken the first steps, now we’ll continue to work hard and develop and see what happens.” 

It’s an honest answer from a businessman who’s as genuine as he is determined to make his company a success. It's also worth remembering that sometimes, huge advancements in mankind’s history have started with just a few small steps.

Read more testimonials from Amsterdam's ICT sector.