2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Ki Hydrogen, London Business School

Ki Hydrogen

London Business School

Industry: ClimateTech / Energy

Founding Student Name(s): Koji Muto

Brief Description of Solution: Ki Hydrogen is a deep-tech climate venture producing green hydrogen and green chemicals from waste biomass. The solution uses 75% less energy compared with the next best available technology, offering the potential to significantly disrupt a projected $278 billion global hydrogen market.

Funding Dollars: $1 million

What led you to launch this venture? Having worked in the energy industry, I was convinced that significant reductions in energy sector emissions would require breakthrough innovations in the physical space. In the process, it would create new ways to produce carbon-free energy that is cost competitive, if not cheaper, than fossil-fuel equivalents.

I saw first-hand the potential of hydrogen, having developed the UK’s largest hydrogen project worth $800 million as a senior engineer at ExxonMobil. However, it was based on old, dirty technology that would lead to even more emissions when looking at the whole value chain.

I knew there had to be a clean way to produce hydrogen that didn’t cost the earth. That is when I met my co-founders Dr. Michael Stanton and Dr. Carl Banbury in the Carbon13 climate venture-builder in Cambridge. Michael had researched this novel waste-to-hydrogen technology and Carl had 10 years of startup experience commercializing emerging technologies. It was a match made in climate heaven.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? We have now closed our $1 million pre-seed round with four institutional investors, ranging from seasoned climate-tech investors to corporate venture capital. Despite coming into one of the worst fundraising environments in recent history, four separate institutions did their due diligence and all arrived independently at the same answer: Ki Hydrogen has a game-changing hydrogen technology, with the right team behind it – a venture worth backing.

What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced in creating your company and how did you solve it? The most significant challenge I faced when creating my company was timing. I was still in the 2nd year of my MBA when I met my co-founders and had the opportunity to start this venture. It was certainly challenging to juggle priorities. In hindsight, I do feel it was valuable to still be embedded in the LBS ecosystem while I developed my startup. Peers and faculty were more than understanding and helpful as I practiced my pitches and homed in on a business model. There was also the additional perk of still being eligible for student competitions. We were global finalists for the LBS CleanTech Challenge, MIT Climate & Energy Prize, and SMU Global Business Plan Competition. At SMU we were thrilled to have won the S$20,000 Innovation Prize.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? My peers and network were indispensable in supporting me through my entrepreneurship journey. They were early sounding boards as I progressed through various venture ideas. They provided insightful advice on joining the Carbon13 program and advice about how to form a strong founding team. Once I started Ki Hydrogen, they were able to make key introductions to industrial partners and investors. Sometimes entrepreneurship is viewed as a lonely journey, but it doesn’t have to be with a supportive network.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? The founder who inspired me to start my own entrepreneurial journey was Rene Haas. Rene is the co-founder and CEO of NeoCarbon, a Berlin-based startup reversing climate change by removing carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere.

I was the first hire at NeoCarbon while I was still finishing up the first year of my MBA, and then joined full-time for a summer internship. Rene didn’t have a background in direct air capture technology, but he decided he wanted to dedicate himself to tackling the climate crisis and went all in on exploring every angle he could to make a difference. Rene came across this exciting climate technology with his co-founder Silvain, and together they quickly scaled up to a team of 10+ members, raised over $1.25 million dollars, and built a fully functioning prototype.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? The most valuable MBA class in building my startup was Financing the Entrepreneurial Business, which was taught by Professors Gary Dushnitsky and Luisa Alemany. I took this class just as I started fundraising, so I was able to apply the learnings directly into my discussions with investors.

The biggest lesson I gained is how to prepare myself for negotiations. While founders typically get tunnel-visioned on valuation and dilution, there are a whole range of critical terms that are important for negotiation, such as liquidation preferences, anti-dilution provisions, ESOP, board composition, and tag/drag along rights. I was in a much better negotiating position by ensuring I fully understood these terms and their long-term impacts on operation and further fundraising.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? The professor who made the most significant contribution to my plans is Professor of Decision Sciences, Management Sciences and Operations Derek Bunn. He is the chairman of the UK Government Panel of Technical Experts for the Electricity Market and served as a special advisor to the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change. Derek teaches the Energy Markets: Transitions to Sustainability elective at LBS and I am lucky to have him on our Board of Advisors. Derek provided invaluable insights into the UK energy markets, both from an industry and regulatory perspective. These markets can often be opaque in terms of understanding the drivers behind the decision makers, so these learnings were crucial as the UK is the first energy market we will be entering.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? London is a brilliant ecosystem for startups. In addition to being home to dozens, if not hundreds of venture capital offices, the surrounding schools such as Cambridge, Oxford, and Imperial provide world-class technical talent. I met my Chief Technical Officer in Cambridge, where he did his PhD, and we are renting state-of-the-art lab facilities at Imperial College. London has historically been a clear leader in growing successful startups among the European cities, and that has led to the mature and supportive ecosystem it hosts today.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? My long-term goal with my startup is to eliminate 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year by producing the world’s cheapest green hydrogen and green chemicals. That is equivalent to half of London’s annual emissions. In the process, we will grow into a multi-billion-dollar venture tackling the projected $278 billion hydrogen market as we intrinsically tie our financial success with our positive climate impact.

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