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  • Writer's pictureAnna Reid

Nature is the mentor: Dr Chris Oze's pivot from academia to the start-up world

To most people, a rock is a rock. We see a solid chunk of hard material and likely think of roads, mountains, or coastlines. 


Not Dr Chris Oze. Chris sees stories of the past, he sees elemental building blocks of the Earth, he sees a series of interactions and reactions over immense timescales. And in olivine, a rock that’s rich in magnesium, Chris sees our future. 


That is a future where the atmosphere no longer has too much carbon dioxide and our essential industries operate without emissions.


Chris Oze takes a selfie while on a trip in the Mt Aspiring National Park.
Dr Chris Oze’s love for geology extends well beyond the science lab. A keen mountaineer, his move to New Zealand has given him new experiences to get out and feel the awe of nature on its grandest scale. Photo: Chris Oze.

“It's incredible to think that with this rock, this olivine that’s found on every continent on the planet, we could permanently lock away every last drop of the excess CO2 in our atmosphere. I know this can be a big part of the answer to our problems with CO2.”

To make that future become reality, Chris pivoted away from his successful academic career and shifted his family and life across the world to Christchurch, New Zealand to found cleantech startup Aspiring Materials. How that happened was a series of purposeful decisions and some chance encounters.


The future began a long time ago.


Chris has always been inspired by nature and driven by curiosity. 


As a child he grew up roaming around Washington, an area in the United States where the natural environments are clearly shaped by Earth’s growing pains. High mountains, volcanoes and deep valleys set the backdrop for Chris’ discovery of geology. 


“While some families vacation in theme parks, my family frequented gem and mineral conventions, collected rocks and shells from mist-shrouded shores and sought lucky stones...sometimes I think I was destined to be a geologist.”

He met that destiny head on, diving into an academic career and gaining his PhD. in geochemistry and biogeochemistry from Stanford University, California in 2003. These early days of Chris’ academic career allowed him the space to research how life today is fundamentally shaped by what has happened in the past.


Like geology, our past can inform our future


It was during his PhD that Chris met Professor Robert (Bob) Coleman. Bob is significant as he ignited Chris’ research into the relationship between ancient ‘ultramafic’ olivine-rich rocks and carbon dioxide. 


Close up of a small piece of olivine-rich rock on a chemistry lab bench
Olivine-rich rock. Aspiring Materials uses this type of ultramafic rock to extract magnesium, the mineral capable of bonding with carbon dioxide under the right conditions.
“Bob Coleman’s name is synonymous with olivine-rich rocks in the world of geology. He was the one who most clearly defined where olivine-rich rocks come from. He and I would go out on field trips to study these outcrops and he said to me one day ‘I figured out what these rocks are. Now you need to figure out what to do with them’. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but that really stuck with me.”

Chris took that thread and ran with it and what to do with olivine became much clearer over the coming years. 



Patience is not always a virtue


By the time of his tenure as lecturer in geology at the University of Canterbury in 2010, Chris was interrogating how olivine-rich rocks absorb carbon dioxide. The problem was, it was happening way too slowly for his patience.


“It always sort of bugged me, why couldn’t we figure out how to do this faster, using the same rock? I knew, if we could take a lesson from what these rocks were showing us, we could speed it up for human time, in a way that can help us to get beyond this crisis we find ourselves in”

It was at this time Chris met Dr Allan Scott, another significant person that would shape the next phase of his journey to developing the technology Aspiring Materials uses today. 


A chance encounter leads to breakthrough science


The best stories always have a chance encounter and a twist. For Chris, his story was a beer with Allan, a dad he met through his kids’ preschool. A random quip about Mars being the only place to get a good night’s sleep turned into years of research into how to create aggregate for cement on the Red Planet. Magnesium-rich rocks, it turns out, are also on Mars. And if humans ever get there, they’ll need a way to construct places to live in. 


Together, Chris and Allan published papers in a variety of science and engineering journals about how to create Martian concrete. 


It’s an exciting concept, but for Chris, Bob Coleman echoed in his mind. Chris and Allan’s research had inadvertently shown that olivine-rich rock can lower CO2 emissions in the cement industry, a huge industrial global problem.


That’s the moment Chris’ objective about what to do with olivine pivoted to become what Bob had foreseen all those years ago: how to use olivine here on Earth.


It’s all connected


How this series of purposeful decisions and chance encounters have paved the way for what Aspiring Materials does today is not lost on Chris. 


Working at the forefront of biogeochemistry research, he has always been deeply aware of the interconnections between Earth’s systems and us. He is well aware that it is incredibly important that what we choose to do does not create future harms. 


“As a geologist, I think in big timescales. That approach is core to the R&D we do at Aspiring Materials, recognising our efforts have to take into account the bigger picture over time; and the connections we make with this technology can have a ripple effect across entire industries.”

Academia fostered Chris' research. 

Now his start-up is the platform to take it to the world.


Academia has allowed Chris to share his love of geology with eager students across the US and NZ. It also taught him to first prove the science before telling the world about it, a value that can sometimes be under-rated in start-ups.  

Dr Chris Oze examines olivine rock while being filmed by Gareth Moon
Gareth Moon from Ethik Studio films Chris in the lab at the University of Canterbury. Part of his move to the start-up world means Chris can share his research with a broader audience.

But Chris Oze's pivot from academia to the start-up world has given him the platform he needs to take this future-altering technology to scale. The changing nature of the cleantech industry appeals to his need to keep learning, keep discovering and stay curious.


“As an academic, you're programmed to do research and publish papers. But, with this discovery, I didn’t want to wait for someone else to do something with it, there’s no time for that. I knew I had to do it myself. Now I get to see this research become reality. The best part is that this isn’t about me. It isn’t even about my team. It’s about what we can do together, all of us, to change the trajectory we are on as a planet. We’ve proven our science works, we’re able to safely capture CO2 and lock it away forever. But our job isn’t done and I love that because I get to keep researching, keep discovering and keep demonstrating how nature provides the playbook for innovation.”

 

Chris Oze is co-founder and principal scientist at Aspiring Materials. His dedication to researching and developing a process to capture and permanently store carbon dioxide using magnesium hydroxide extracted from olvine-rich rocks, is now a commercially scalable solution for global industrial decarbonisation.

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