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Vaulterra's Fast Rise

Patrick Giavelli leverages Northwestern’s academic, research, and entrepreneurial resources to steer the founding and development of a promising green tech company.

Patrick Giavelli walked into NUvention: Energy last January with high hopes, eager to create a lively, scalable solution to address climate change. 

Less than a year later, Giavelli is on his way to accomplishing his goal.

Leveraging Northwestern’s vast array of academic, research, and entrepreneurial resources, Giavelli, a student in the Segal Design Institute’s Master of Science in Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program, has pushed Vaulterra from a novel idea hatched in NUvention: Energy into an attention-grabbing startup with compelling marketplace prospects.

Vaulterra permanently captures carbon dioxide using a soil conditioner made of basalt. The conditioner also improves crop yields and enhances soil fertility. 

“We believe we have something special and different and something that can make a real difference in this world,” Giavelli said.  


A noble plan

In the opening weeks of NUvention: Energy — a course offered by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in which interdisciplinary student teams move new ideas through the innovation cycle — Giavelli and his teammates immediately targeted a carbon removal business as their end goal, intrigued by an up-and-coming space with heightened promise for environmental sustainability.

While the group started by exploring regenerative agriculture, they stumbled upon enhanced rock weathering (ERW) and were immediately intrigued by a solution offering permanence and scalability.

Giavelli and his team – environmental engineer Elliott Woodward (MS MEM ’23), undergraduate industrial engineering student Aino Alkio, and undergraduate economics student Ensar Biscevic – then began searching for researchers with interest and experience in ERW. It turns out Andrew Jacobson, a professor in Northwestern’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, had been studying chemical weathering in locations around the globe for more than 25 years.

Giavelli approached Jacobson and pitched the initial plan for a business using ERW to support the environment and farmers. Jacobson was receptive to the idea, excited by a practical way to put his research into a commercial project and the decarbonization industry’s fast ascent.

“It’s my job to have lofty expectations and aim for rigor, quality, and transparency in basic science,” Jacobson said. “I am excited to contribute my knowledge and expertise to the burgeoning decarbonization sector.”


Creating a business

Throughout NUvention: Energy, Giavelli and his teammates sharpened their business idea, collaborating, problem solving, and strategizing with support from instructors Mark Werwath and Ian Wiese, the latter an energy entrepreneur whose counsel and encouragement proved vital to Vaulterra’s early development.

Giavelli and his team created an ecosystem map, identifying main stakeholders involved in the project and bringing clarity to a complex picture only swirling around their minds. They also interviewed about 100 stakeholders, including farmers, to understand current challenges, potential solutions, and hurdles to adoption, such as concerns about new soil conditioners and the trustworthiness of the carbon credit market.

Vaulterra’s rapid momentum impressed Werwath, who has seen numerous compelling businesses emerge from NUvention: Energy over the last decade.

“This was something more complex and complicated than the traditional project and a real holistic solution,” said Werwath, clinical professor and Farley Center faculty member.

After completing NUvention: Energy and incorporating as a company, Vaulterra entered VentureCat, Northwestern’s annual student startup competition. The company earned second place in the competition’s Energy and Sustainability track.

Throughout the entire process, Giavelli consistently leveraged his Segal education to inform and drive Vaulterra’s development. Human-centered design, he said, has been central to understanding the tensions an audience faces and developing thoughtful and relevant solutions to address pain points. That focus has helped him create the underpinnings of Vaulterra’s business, one that links the farmer, the environment, and the financial in a complex, mutually beneficial service.

“My EDI studies helped me launch a business I believe in and something I believe can have a positive impact on the world,” said Giavelli, who is on pace to complete his EDI studies this spring. 


Preparing for the future

Over recent months, the Vaulterra team, now led by Giavelli and Woodward with Jacobson serving as a technical adviser, has been devoted to developing the business and validating the science in tandem, a necessary play to bolster the idea’s commercialization prospects.

Giavelli has worked with Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Donald Pritzker Entrepreneurship Law Center to draft key legal documents, met with the University’s Innovation and New Ventures Office to understand the tech-transfer journey, and taken up residency at The Garage, the University’s extracurricular community and physical space for student startups, where he’s receiving entrepreneurship training and mentorship to strengthen Vaulterra’s business model and ready for investor meetings.

On the scientific side, the upstart company captured a piece of the $1.7 million in seed funding Northwestern’s Paula M. Trienens Institute for Sustainability and Energy recently issued to evaluate ERW’s carbon capture potential. The funding is helping Vaulterra test and validate its decarbonization system alongside collaborators from the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“We’re using everything available to us at Northwestern to create a foundation from which Vaulterra can grow,” Giavelli said. “Vaulterra has a bright future and I’m excited to see where we can take the company.”


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