Combating Climate Change with Passion and a Unique Business Model

Axel Reinaud, a former managing director and senior partner in BCG’s Paris office, launched NetZero to deliver carbon removal at scale.

What inspired you to launch a new venture after spending more than two decades at BCG? Do you have any advice for people looking to follow a similar path?

I have been very interested over the last 30 years in the issue of climate change. This interest was ignited when I attended the Rio Conference in 1992, which marked the first official recognition of the reality of climate change (it was still referred to as global warming in those early days). Since then, I have had a mix of fears and hopes about what was happening to our planet because of greenhouse gas emissions. Throughout the years, I’ve followed several initiatives and contributed with time and money to support some of them. This past summer, with so many corporations and states committing to becoming net zero, I thought there was finally hope for true climate action to take place. In parallel, I realized that I had all the pieces in front of me to build a business model that would be able to perform carbon sequestration in a superefficient way. From that point, the decision to take part in this moment for the planet was a no-brainer. BCG had provided me with the skills, the contacts, and the financial security to pursue such a project.

I would advise others to follow their passions and find a way to apply the leverage that BCG can offer, in terms of skills, contacts, and brand equity.

Netzero fights climate change and seeks to offset carbon emissions while driving social impact in developing countries. This, no doubt, comes with unique challenges. Would you explain your model?

NetZero's model is unique in the sense that it optimizes biomass usage, not only to perform carbon sequestration but also to generate useful byproducts.

Our model leverages biochar, a carbon-rich product produced from the pyrolysis of agricultural waste. Biochar is an IPCC-validated solution for fighting climate change; as of today, it is the only readily scalable solution for permanent carbon removal. Biochar is also a powerful soil amendment for agriculture that has been studied for more than 20 years. In tropical areas, where NetZero plans to operate, a one-off application of biochar to soils (at approximately one kilogram per square meter) can increase crop yields by over 25% and help reduce—or fully eliminate—the need for fertilizers. This generates great positive social impact for rural populations.

Our business model combines profitability and scalability:

  • We operate in tropical developing countries to minimize production costs and maximize the generation of carbon credits, thanks to an almost limitless access to suitable biomass.
  • We leverage the most cost-efficient and productive pyrolysis technology available to date to minimize capex and maximize biochar production.
  • We combine biochar production with electricity cogeneration to maximize both revenues and the generation of carbon credits.
  • We deploy an end-to-end industrial model that allows us to optimize costs and ensure rapid scale-up through the replicability of production units.

What is it like transitioning from a large consulting firm to a growing startup, and what are you most excited about in the first year of your new venture?

The transition was actually easier than I expected. Of course, I miss the support, intellectual content, and global reach that BCG provided me. But because I have remained close with many of my former BCG colleagues, I still have tough thought partners who challenge me like they would on a case team. BCG’s MDPs have been super helpful in facilitating contacts with corporations that are interested in NetZero's model.

Being an entrepreneur forces you to focus on what is really important, sometimes with an approach that favors cutting corners in order to accelerate. This is when BCG’s 80/20 approach become super useful. What I find especially exciting in a startup is the ability to have very short feedback loops between analysis, decision, action, and results.

Can you share a meaningful experience—or an influential lesson you learned—at BCG?

Always put people first! The people side has been a real source of pride for me. I have managed to bring together an outstanding team of managers, advisors, and board members to NetZero. Being surrounded by great people who enjoy working together is the key to success, whether at BCG or at a startup. Ultimately, it is the team that will determine the venture’s success.