Dr. Elizabeth Gilligan, CEO and co-founder of Material Evolution, on her mission to develop a sustainable alternative to cement

Jun 21, 2022

Concrete is the second most consumed material on the planet after water, with the production of cement, its core component, accounting for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. For perspective, if the cement industry was a country, it would be the third highest emitter globally behind China and the U.S. 

With construction booming and the global cement market forecast to grow at a CAGR of 5.1% between 2021 and 2029, the sector will need to become far more sustainable if it's to play its part in the drive to reach Net Zero by 2050. 

Based in Middlesbrough, England, Liz Gilligan founded Material Evolution with an ambition to “decarbonise the foundation industries [metals, ceramics, glass, chemicals, paper, and cement] through advanced materials”, and is currently focused on creating a sustainable alternative to Ordinary Portland Cement (OPC), the most common type of cement, through the development of geopolymers

‘We did Mentor Madness in a hurricane’

Liz and her team have developed a product which is made almost entirely from industrial waste which is stronger, and more durable, and reduces the carbon consumption of concrete by 85% when compared to equivalent OPC products. 

Although the company is based in the UK, and “began as a side hustle” during her PhD (in sustainable cements) at Queen's University, Belfast, Material Evolution was part of The Heritage Group Accelerator Powered by Techstars in Indiana, in 2020. “We were on a [non-Techstars] program in Belfast, and one of the MDs, who was running the program there, had done a Techstars program in Austin and was raving about it,” Liz recalls. “So he helped us through the application process, and we were accepted. 

“Even though it was peak pandemic at the time, the [program] was still in person. We had to go through Bermuda to get into the U.S., and ended up spending two weeks there. We did Mentor Madness in a hurricane. My co-founder and I took turns standing outside, holding our phones over our heads to get internet reception, while the other one was inside taking part.”

Machine learning

So how does Material Evolution’s technology work? 

The team use machine learning algorithms to help achieve consistency in the materials they use – critical for buildings – and are exploring different forms of industrial waste, including metal, mining, bio and hazardous wastes, and how they can be used to create new cements. 

“The base chemistry is geopolymer technology, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a 3D nanostructure, and it stacks together in a nice crystalline format,” Liz continues. “It creates better and stronger concrete, you don’t get chloride attacks, which are sometimes described as ‘concrete cancer’, you reduce emissions by 85% – because we use a ‘dry grinding’ process, which means we don’t use any heat and use minimal energy – and you can create material that is more fire resistant.” 

Last November, Material Evolution announced that it had raised a $3.4M seed round, comprising $1.7M in seed investment, led by London-based investors Playfair Capital, and $1.7M in grant funding from Innovate UK. “The community at Techstars is probably the best thing about it,” Liz says. “For fundraising it was really helpful. One of the Venture partners at [corporate partner] The Heritage Group introduced us to everyone in our round, and warm introductions are the dream. As a result, we were oversubscribed. We closed our round in six weeks.” 

The investment is mainly being used to build out their materials science team, develop new materials, and scale up production. “We’re already producing 96 tonnes a day, and we're looking to set up a factory this year to produce 150,000 tonnes annually of our material from next year,” Liz says. “So we’re aggressively going after this issue.” 

Among their angel investors were a number of construction firms, which is indicative of an industry that is finally ready to incorporate new technologies when it comes to cement, she says. “There’s an appetite for change; consumer awareness has changed, especially in Europe – you don’t need to convince people that global warming and concrete emissions are a thing. We’re looking at teaming up with a commercial partner to help us to scale, and having that industry network, the people who can vouch for you –  so that you’re not [just a startup] with some cool science which probably can’t deliver  – is helping to build trust.” 

One of our values at Techstars is that we Take actions that better society – Dr. Gilligan and Material Evolution is just one example of how our investment strategy is helping to do that.

About the Author
Maëlle Gavet

Maëlle Gavet is CEO of Techstars. A three-time founder, she has been a senior executive at numerous large tech companies around the world, including Ozon, the Priceline Group, and Compass, and was a Principal at the Boston Consulting Group. Author of the widely-acclaimed book Trampled by Unicorns, Big Tech's Empathy Problem and How to Fix It (Wiley, 2020), she is currently based in New York City.