An Ardor for Arbor

Maddie Hall ’14, recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 for science, uses her interdisciplinary skills to create super trees

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Looking back, Maddie Hall ’14 wishes she’d taken more science at CMC.

That may seem surprising coming from a plant biotech CEO recently named on the 2021 Forbes Under 30: Science list.

But Hall is keenly aware of her uniqueness among the other “scientists” on that Forbes list, nearly all of whom are MDs or PhDs.

Hall has a bachelor of arts in government and psychology. That hasn’t held her back.

“People from CMC do really well in tech because it’s this gritty, merit-based industry where, if you’re really smart, you hustle and you’re scrappy, then you can go really far,” says the Seattle native.

Hall, who turned 29 in April, co-founded Living Carbon with paleobiologist Patrick Mellor in late 2019. The startup is developing genetically engineered pines and poplars that grow much faster, absorb twice the carbon dioxide and produce more durable wood than naturally occurring species. The company will start planting its super saplings later this year. Potential customers range from private forests that feed the lumber industry to powerplants that use trees for mitigation banking to absorb runoff. Living Carbon’s long-term plans involve aggregating carbon credits associated with their trees for additional revenue streams.

Trees hold a special place in Hall’s heart. As a child, she spent vacations at her grandparents’ cabins in Sequim Bay and Mt. Rainier. Her grandmother served on the board of the Seattle Arboretum. Her uncle owns a logging company with a special focus on sustainable reforestation.

Hall might have pursued botany or biology in college if not of a visual impairment that limits her ability to do lab work. Born with a cataract in her left eye, she received corrective surgery in infancy that restored her sight but denied her the benefit of binocular vision.

“Even pipetting is very challenging for me,” she says.

At CMC, she focused on government and finance. Upon graduating, she moved to San Francisco and worked her way up the product management ladder at Zenefits, First Round Capital, OpenAI and Y Combinator (YC).

In 2019, CEO Sam Altman asked her to take a deep dive into the hard science behind carbon-dioxide removal ahead of a CY startup proposal rollout.

She enrolled in online classes and immersed herself in the carbon-capture scholarly literature, “and I just became so enamored with synthetic plant biology,” Hall says.

She began thinking about a career change. “I saw so much really good research being done in labs, and it just wasn’t going anywhere,” she recalls. “No one from tech was leaving to go launch a tree startup. I realized if I didn’t try to do this, I would be unhappy with myself.”

When she and  Mellor turned up as presenters at the Foresight Institute’s 2019 Vision Weekend, the synergy was unmistakable.

Within a couple of months, they had a business plan to profitably remove CO2 from the atmosphere at the billion-ton scale. A month later, they landed their first venture capital backer.

“The next step,” Hall says, “is getting the trees in the ground.”

Field plantings are set to begin later this year, and she expects to have millions of trees pre-ordered by the end of 2022. If all goes well, the first Living Carbon timber harvest will be in 2028.

Though she wishes she’d taken more science courses, Hall recognizes how well her CMC education and connections have served her.

Two of Carbon Life’s early investors—T-Bird Capital partner Miles T. Bird ’13 and Village Global co-founder Ben Casnocha ’11—come from the CMC community.

Hall is already paying forward her debt of gratitude by being an active and enthusiastic alum. She regularly participates in college VC events through the Randall Lewis Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and is, for the second time, a CIE mentor this year. Living Carbon recently hired two CMC student interns.

In 2019, Hall attended her five-year reunion. Undoubtedly the first of many to come.

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