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Algae-Covered Cities: Merging Nature and the Built Environment – John Bucur

Turning Urban Structures into Algae Farms

Meet John

Podcast Summary

John Bucur, founder and CEO of Airbuild, is getting innovative with algae. His startup aims to integrate nature and the built environment by embedding algae farms into everyday structures. Using novel growth and harvesting methods, Airbuild plans to produce algae for use in sustainable materials and biofuels, while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere at the same time.

In this episode, John talks about how he hopes to revolutionize our relationship to the environment through “nature’s solar panel”:

  • Coming from an advertising background, John needed to build a technical team to handle the engineering aspects of the business. With their help, Airbuild is streamlining inefficiencies in the algae farming process, while simultaneously bringing beauty and greenery back to urban environments.
  • After completing preliminary designs, Airbuild is now in the prototyping phase. During phase one, they plan to embed algae farms into parking structures. Algae will be grown in tubes running along the sides of the structure, known as “artificial trees”. In terms of carbon sequestering, that’s the equivalent of planting 1000 trees in the area of a single parking spot.
  • Airbuild is still in its infancy – the startup is currently seeking seed funding. John describes the challenges of building a company from the ground up, and his hopes to find investors in the startup’s new San Diego home.

To find out more about Airbuild, visit airbuild.energy.

Peter Perri 0:00

We’re live on the Energy Superheroes Podcast with John Bucur. He’s the Founder and CEO of Airbuild, and they grow and sell algae as a sustainable biofuel. That sounds amazing to me. Excited to learn more about it, John, welcome to the podcast.

 

John Bucur 0:15

Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate you guys reaching out. Super cool.

 

Peter Perri 0:19

Absolutely. Well, so John, tell us about Airbuild. I have never heard of growing and selling algae as a sustainable biofuel. But I knew I do know that biofuel in general is really a hot sector of the market right now.

 

John Bucur 0:35

Yeah, so right now, biofuel is pretty much plant based. But actually there are algae biofuel companies that exist. And what they do is they grow algae in a pond, or what’s called a photo bio reactor. After algae is great, because you know, as a plant, it has multiple purposes for creating sustainable materials and biofuels. But in the process of sequesters carbon dioxide, they grow. So there’s a lot of opportunity to be extracted from algae just by itself.

 

Peter Perri 1:08

Very cool. So how long? How long have you guys been at this?

 

John Bucur 1:14

So I wrote down the original idea for what I wanted to do, probably in 2016. So right when I was I’m a young guy, by the way, and I’m non technical. I started. I’m 23 years old, I started school in 2017. But I wrote down the idea in 2016. And I started getting my team about a year and a half ago. I started hiring about two years ago, and I solidified the management team about a year and a half ago. And we’ve been doing R&D since then. And we’re just beginning our raise.

 

Peter Perri 1:44

Amazing. That’s yeah, it’s really cool. I actually was a founder at about your age myself back in the late 90s. Usually don’t talk about this, because this is about energy. But I started my career in the internet business. And we had a digital media company was just one of the top 200 sites on the Internet. And I was about your age.

 

John Bucur 2:03

Me too. That’s how I started off. Oh, awesome. Not even so through college to make a living pretty much. Me and a roommate had an advertising company. And we were in the music industry. So even though I’m an algae, I guess a lot of my experience I’m carrying over is more on the branding and advertising side of things. But algae is something that I’m passionate about. So I was able to fuse both together.

 

Peter Perri 2:30

That’s awesome. But that’s called it. I steal that from a guy named Scott Adams. It’s called a talent stack. Okay, we have different skill sets in different areas. You stack those talents together, and then it makes it allows you to be more successful because you bring a unique perspective to a different industry.

 

John Bucur 2:47

Yeah, it’s really cool. That’s cool that you were in that field as well. Wow.

 

Peter Perri 2:52

Yeah. So well, interesting. Now you, you’re in the energy sector, and of course, it’s very technical. So tell me about how you’re bringing sort of technical experts to bear to be able to make the company successful.

 

John Bucur 3:08

So what I had to do to understand and I there was a learning curve for me specifically, because I was more on the business side of things and the advertising side of things, I knew that there was going to be a learning curve. So I built a team specifically to fill in my gaps. And then I brought someone on the team to bridge the gap. So what I mean by that is I we wanted to take an engineering perspective, for algae. Currently, algae companies, they are really biologically focused. How can we grow more algae from the genes itself from the DNA of algae, how can we change it to grow more algae, but I’m like that there’s inefficiencies to be found in the way that algae is grown from a farm standpoint. So we can re engineer it. So from that point, I started Airbuild, and I put out applications I started interviewing engineers for a co founder position. The guy I found his name is Himanshu Mohatta. And he’s now a friend of mine after so long doing R&D with him. But we’re, we couldn’t be more different. He’s very technical. And I’m non technical. And it ended eventually came to a point where we had brought another engineer slash MBA on the team, because of his experience in the solar industry at one point, and he’s kind of like a translator in a way. Luckily, luckily, I don’t need a translator as much anymore because you read a lot of engineering books and biology like papers over time, you start to get a hold of it yourself. But in the early stages, that company he was able to communicate what I want, how I want it done, and the vision to our team properly. And it it turned me into a better communicator to be able to do that. And I’m still learning every day. So

 

Peter Perri 4:55

know for sure I got into the energy sector originally in 2009. And then I helped start a company called Power Phase in 2011 makes an upgrade system for gas turbine plants. And really for about the first four years, when the aero thermal engineers were talking about gas turbines, I really didn’t know much. And then like, this is gonna sound a little crass, but one of them said to me, listen, all you have to know is that all a gas turbine does is suck, squeeze, Bang, Blow. And then after I, after I wrap my head around that and understood the principles of how it worked, then I was actually able to get my name on a patent at one point.

 

John Bucur 5:32

Yeah, it gives you intense humility at first to know that you want to do something, and it gives you pain to know that it’s harder to do it because you have to take time to develop the skills. But luckily, I translators by my side, I call them a translator. I also call them my lawyers in a way. Because, because they know how to word everything perfectly in the engineering world. And I feel like I was very blessed with the team that I brought on, even though we had, we ran into a lot of challenges during the R&D. And we’re really exciting. We just brought a new biologist on a team, and he’s more of the gray hair in the room. He’s a much older fella than the rest of us. But he thinks very young. And what we liked about him is he was just as inspired as any person before they start college or what when they’re like, you know, a child like the ideas that you have. So really cool that the team is growing to.

 

Peter Perri 6:28

Awesome. So now you’ve got your team together, you’re developing a product, and you’re going to be taking it to market where are you in the product development lifecycle? And when do you expect to have the product ready for say, commercial sales?

 

John Bucur 6:43

Yeah, so as far as the modeling our product, what our novel difference, because at the end of the day, we produce a sustainable material and a biofuel. But that is an existing product. And I guess what we offer to the industry that is different, is the method in which we grow it. So normal companies, they use a photo bioreactor to grow algae in or they use a pond. But we’re using a new growth method that hasn’t hit the market altogether. And then we’re also doing it in what we are calling like an artificial tree to basically make our environment bioactive. Like how do we put tubes on the side of bridges containing algae, and we have the roadways, the carbon dioxide from the cars underneath getting sequestered by that. So for the engineering challenges, we’ve overcame them. On a modeling standpoint, we’ve already done the designs, and we’ve obtained the patents. This puts us at prototyping. So that’s why we’re beginning our raise now is because we need a prototype of physical model. And what we’re calling it is just phase one. Phase one is a parking structure. And that’s really cool, because people build parking structures to shade cars all the time. So if we can add, they also put solar panels on them. So we know that they’re used to absorb sunlight, we might as well use nature’s solar panel, algae on the top of them. And that will be the test for phase one is can we integrate algae growth on top of a parking structure? And turn it profitable? Interesting. We’re gonna prototype basically a parking spot. And the goal is 1000 trees in a parking spot. Can we make it the equivalent of 1000? Trees?

 

Peter Perri 8:23

Sounds? That sounds really cool. Yeah. So you guys are gonna go to market and do a raise? How much money are you trying to raise? And who do you think is sort of your ideal type of an investor?

 

John Bucur 8:34

We’re raising $950,000 for just the prototyping stage, and we believe that’ll take a year because just algae growth, you want to test it under different weather conditions as well, even though it’s going to be in a controlled environment that it’s grown inside tubes on top of a structure. So our go to market wouldn’t be for a year at least. And it’s for the go to market heart. Sorry. Yeah. It’s like noise. Are you? Is it all good?

 

Peter Perri 9:00

Sounds all good. Don’t worry about it. We, you know, we’ve had barking dogs, we’ve had people walk by none have nothing to worry about.

 

John Bucur 9:08

Okay, so our go to market is not for a year, at least after prototyping begins. And our go to market fundraise will be around 3 million. If that answers the question. Yeah.

 

Peter Perri 9:21

No, absolutely. So from our standpoint, that sounds like a seed stage round. Yeah. Where are you guys based John.

 

John Bucur 9:31

I just moved out to San Diego. The team is scattered in Oregon and Boston and New York right now but there’ll be moving to San Diego as we started prototyping as well. They’re already looking for like areas out here to come out to and the reason I chose San Diego is because a great focus on algae growth industries blooming over here literally blooming. I am looking for I came here because of the potential to hire amazing talent for when we do finish raising?

 

Peter Perri 10:04

Great, no, that’s good. So I mean, your team is committed if they’re willing to move to a new location in order to see the vision through, I think that’s huge. There’s a lot of venture capital activity, of course in San Diego. And as you mentioned, the bio, the algae industry is big out there. You’ve got la just up the road. And then of course, the valley up in Northern California. So there’s certainly enough capital out there to help you see your vision through. Yeah. When do you actually expect to kick off the series a fundraising? And what’s your, what’s your plan for? Are you going to do a roadshow? Or go to sort of pitch comp? Competitions? Or how are you going to go about it?

 

John Bucur 10:45

Series A probably won’t be for a few years, because we just got to get past a seed. I’ve actually been learning a pitch actively from just some mentors that I have. And I went to climate tech cocktails recently based in Austin, where it was a startup showcase. And they gave me an opportunity to pitch but I’m definitely interested in more like pitch competition and opportunities to do the same.

 

Peter Perri 11:09

Awesome, that sounds good. Hopefully, somebody will see this and reach out to you. We’ve got a few of venture capitalists and funds that are on the watch the show. So hopefully, they’ll come around school. And yeah, I meant I meant seed stage didn’t mean to say series. I know. I know, that’s out there for you. So it doesn’t mean to throw you for a loop there.

 

John Bucur 11:31

Yeah, we take one step. We’re taking one step at a time that but we retain the vision in our minds. That’s that run, but But yeah.

 

Peter Perri 11:40

So are there are there any, like people that you knew from the media, from the music industry, that are in that are sort of interested in in energy tech, clean tech, the energy world? Or is it? Is it a totally separate world for you?

 

John Bucur 11:53

Not, not that I knew personally, but people that I know who knew like it’s, I guess, when you work in LA, and you’re an advertising, it’s always a game of, you know, somebody who knows somebody who worked with this person. And but I guess an admirable effort that I’ve seen in clean tech or climate tech in any sort of way. Or I guess I could call it more clean tech is Jaden Smith, because he’s been outspoken about renewables. Maybe he’s been outspoken in the wrong way. But I think the intentions are good for Jaden Smith Will Smith’s son. I think he’s a pure creative, the ideas that he has for taking the world and renovating it. I think it’s really cool. I think if he had the right people around him to help build a business case for those ideas, that’s what he would need. But Jaden Smith is a really cool person that I could see investing into something like what we’re doing.

 

Peter Perri 12:48

Yeah, it was one of the reasons I made the change to the industry was sort of, you know, you when you’re in digital stuff, it’s great. But being able to affect the physical world is as I think, a whole other order of magnitude greater. And so you see, I think you’re gonna see a lot more entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk, that are focused on affecting the physical world in ways that impacts people’s lives more physically, as opposed to digitally. And I think this next, you know, call it 20 to 30 years of creativity are going to be even more exciting than the last.

 

John Bucur 13:20

No doubt, no doubt about it. Especially because there was a boom with software tech. And investors are always looking for the next software play. And I’ve seen a lot of talk about software, Climate Technology plays. But the the, you can’t just expect the software plays to be the only the only solution there is got to be at the core in the built environment, how things are constructed from the bottom up. So exactly what you said.

 

Peter Perri 13:49

Yeah, very cool. So how many hours are you working? Are you finding some time to relax? Are you just like, head down all the time?

 

John Bucur 13:59

Head down all the time. What I’ve learned about a startup is I think like anybody who starts a startup, they underestimate how much it really is. And I think, I think for me, it’s been a game of balancing. Hey, hold up, guys. I’m gonna I’m in a meeting real quick. Sorry. I’m like on a meeting my bad. I’m sorry about that. I just wanted to, like get quiet first. Because the people around, but can we go? Can we circle back to that question?

 

Peter Perri 14:34

Absolutely. Yeah. Just Tell. Tell. Tell me about your workload as a startup founder.

 

John Bucur 14:40

Oh, it’s not stop you because you on not only do you have to do work as a startup for your startup, you have to find a way to survive while you don’t have investors. So I do multiple things to survive. I like I work a job I also do Uber Eats on the side. I chose not to get a full time job so that I have more time to dedicate to the startup Um, but even the other day, I was like at work and I was passing out. And I was like, I called my mom, I said, What’s going on, she’s like, You need to go get a massage. And but, and then last night, I walked into my apartment, and my roommate, who doesn’t really know what I do, you know, we just do our own things. My roommate, and his friends were there. And they were in the living room, and one of the friends was pitching a startup to them. And I got so excited. I was like, Guys, this is so cool. Whatever you’re doing, I don’t even know what you’re doing. But just do it. I’ll let you know this. It’s a game of stamina, because a lot of startups fail. And I think it really comes down to who just stops, who stops doing what, what needs to be done, because I’ve been reaching out to investors for like, six months now. But it’s hard for me to figure out the best way to communicate it. So naturally, there’s a lot of failure at the beginning, right? So I wasn’t telling people that we’re trying to bring nature in the built environment together. At first, I was creating more of a of a business sense. And because of that, it looks great on paper, but it’s not a very inspiring business. So I had to go back to the roots of what inspired me. And the workload became easier after that. Because I loved about it. Yeah, so there’s so

 

Peter Perri 16:17

many pictures, and so many companies that it’s very difficult to differentiate yourself. And, really, if you can inspire some emotions, that goes back to your storytelling that you that you learn in the entertainment industry, if you can inspire some emotions, and people remember you, if you love what you’re doing you it’s easier for the workload.

 

John Bucur 16:37

I guess they’re like bringing pastries to the shop,

 

Peter Perri 16:45

I’m glad that you got stuff going on. Because, you know, that’s that that really shows the audience what it truly is to be an entrepreneur, because you have to be able to be flexible, and deal with those early days when you don’t have everything all set up. And don’t get me wrong, the office and the money and all that stuff will come down the road. Don’t get me

 

John Bucur 17:07

wrong, though. My mom, she called me last week, she said you got you should go to the beach. And I took the investor meeting at the beach. And, but he was like, he was like mad. He was like big respect to you. Like, honestly take care of take care of yourself. I was like, I’m at the beach working. But you know, we have the option to work anywhere we want. Now. That’s what technology has given us. So I think like, it’s huge that it’s it’s bigger opportunities for everybody. Because of that. I can work wherever,

 

Peter Perri 17:36

For sure. Having that flexibility is is an excellent thing. So you mentioned you mentioned your mom, how is your family supported you in this in this effort to sort of, you know, go go down this journey,

 

John Bucur 17:50

I think, oh my gosh, I couldn’t even describe it. Like my family is in a completely different field than me as far as what they do for work and how, how they make a living, but so they don’t really understand the startup world like that. But I guess it’s words of encouragement in every way. It’s words of encouragement, and I can thank my parents for the sensitivity. My sensitivity growing up because I think that’s like who I am is my sensitivity. I think my dad showed me Battlestar Galactica at an early age. And there’s a race in Battlestar Galactica called the Cylons. And it’s literally the humanoids mixed with the machines that they’re working in. So the ships that are made of the same material as these humanoids, and it was like human and machine together. And I think like ever since then, my dad made me a nerd about certain things that allowed me to want to bring human nature together in different ways. That’s like a lot.

 

Peter Perri 18:53

No, it definitely makes sense. I mean, I always say, if you want to understand somebody have to go back to their childhood, because how people are raised has a big impact on their personality and who they are. And so I can, I can definitely relate to that. I have a son who’s in college at UCF. And he’s a he’s a digital media game design major, and a computer science minor. So I always encouraged him to do technical stuff, because I was I was always that non technical guy. And I said, if you could have the leadership and the technical in one package, that’s a winning combination. So I pushed him down, we we watched the Star Wars and did all that sort of stuff when he was real small. And I think it fostered a love and technology for him.

 

John Bucur 19:36

I think when you see shows like Star Wars and Star Trek and like stuff like that, like that’s what I grew up on also. And people can make fun of it. But the thing is, at the end of the day, they showed what a new world can look like. So when you see what the future could look like if things go correctly, and people all come online, bright minds together to work together and create something beautiful the world could look like that one day And that Star Trek was like a huge staple in my life growing up. And it’s why I studied astrophysics when I first started college. So I’m non technical when it comes to biology, but I had a bit of a physics background, and I switched to business because I realized this is going to be better for sustainability purposes. This I want to study sustainability. And my dad uses like, inspired me a lot to go switch even though I don’t know what I was thinking. But it worked out perfectly. Just how everything’s supposed to.

 

Peter Perri 20:31

So yeah, for sure that may, that that makes a ton of sense. Yeah. And yeah, those worlds I liked. I also give, I’ll give a shout out to the movie Meet the Robinsons, great movie for founders. So it’s an animated show, but like, shows the future and also our legs moving forward thing if you just practice that. And you might have to pivot at one way or the other. But as long as you keep moving forward, you’ll be successful eventually.

 

John Bucur 20:58

Yeah, I don’t know. We’ve me and my team, I’ve had so many roadblocks by now. That I just feel like if we just keep continuing to go over them, and having the same decision making process for roadblocks and the same mentality through them. We could be good. And we need to spread it through anybody that we hire through the top down approach from the culture of that company. I feel like that’ll that’s what will save us from like, startups. Because we’re still in early stages. You know, we’re very early stages. Yeah. Toughness,

 

Peter Perri 21:35

you find the right investor that really knows the industry. Well. I think it’s really worth its weight in gold that’s worth more than the money. Yeah, definitely. So well, good stuff. John, is there anything I should ask you that I didn’t ask you?

 

John Bucur 21:53

Um, no, no, like, you pretty much hit the nail on the head of what I’m trying to talk about. I just want to talk about bringing human and nature back together, figuring out a way to make it attractive to investors. And we can make cities look so beautiful if we bring greenery back in cities and make the air clean. And we can make a fuel out of it, which is even better. So

 

Peter Perri 22:14

for sure. People have tell people how to get in touch with you. So that way, if there’s investors out there that want to reach out, they know how to reach you.

 

John Bucur 22:25

Yeah, check out our website, airbuild dot energy. My email is John@airbuild.energy, so my people can email me. My LinkedIn is John William Bucur. So just like how my name is spelled, but with William in the middle. And the company is called Airbuild. Just to clarify, it’s one word. I don’t know how I got the trademark for it. It was kind of a miracle. But yeah. But yeah, I mean, I think everybody’s like everybody who’s in the startup space. They always have a million trademarks that they’ve already filed and domain names that they’ve bought just for the future. But But yeah, so that’s how you guys can get in touch with me.

 

Peter Perri 23:05

And it’s absolutely hard to get to get one we I got really lucky when I got energy dot media. It was I was surprised that it was available. So one word. Yeah. It’s a good thing. But yeah, these these new domain extensions. So it’s air Bill dot, dot energy. Yeah, air Bill dot energy. I love the new extensions, because it makes it more names available for people to be able to register.

 

John Bucur 23:34

Yeah, and you already know what the company is about, just from the end part of it. Pretty cool.

 

Peter Perri 23:39

Exactly. So well, awesome. We’ve had John Bucur on energy superheroes, he’s definitely got a vision to change, change the future. And his company is called Airbuild, check it out. It’s airbuild dot energy. They grow and sell algae as a sustainable biofuel in a really unique and novel way. And they’re working on raising their Series A round of funding, John, it’s been a foot or excuse me, seriously, I keep saying I keep wanting to make you guys later stage CIA around. So I’m already I’m already picturing you guys as further along. I think that’s what I think that was that’s what the issue is. So I know they’re there. They’re raising their seed stage funding. And make sure you reach out to John, if you’re interested. John, thanks for being on.

 

John Bucur 24:30

Thank you so much for inviting me and reaching out. You guys are cool. I think what what you’re doing specifically, like someone needed to do it. Because in the industry with investment and startups, if you’re not in the Bay Area, it’s really hard to get connected. So it’s people like you who give people like me opportunity to come out of Phoenix, Arizona, and they moved to California. They need to make connections and it’s hard. So you while you’re doing it means something. So thank you

 

Peter Perri 25:00

Yeah John I appreciate that appreciate it very much thanks for being on

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