Altrove raises €3.7M for to develop rare earth alternatives

Altrove develops sustainable alternatives to critical earth materials, bring the gap between prediction and industrial applications.
Altrove raises €3.7M for to develop rare earth alternatives

Deeptech startup Altrove has raised €3.7 million in a Pre-Seed funding round led by Contrarian Ventures, alongside Emblem and strong angel investors like Thomas Clozel (CEO Owkin), Julien Chaumond (CTO HuggingFace) and Nikolaj Deichmann (3Shape). 

Altrove addresses the critical challenge of achieving climate goals while securing geopolitical autonomy and economic competitiveness by developing alternatives to essential materials, starting with those containing rare earth elements (REE). 

The company was founded in early 2024 by Cambridge alumnus Dr. Joonatan Laulainen and second-time founder Thibaud Martin at Entrepreneur First. 

I spoke to Altrove CEO Thibaud Martin, to find out more. 

Going beyond the capabilities of AI-powered materials prediction 

Martin explained that, unlike recent AI materials startups, Altrove does not stop at predicting what new materials could exist but focuses on finding the optimal recipe to manufacture alternative materials at scale. 

The company has developed a proprietary characterisation technology to iteratively learn from each experiment, accelerating the discovery process up to 100 times. 

According to Martin, the company's work has a lot of parallels with the use of AI in drug discovery:

"We cut through the noise of all of these predicted materials, determine the recipes needed to make them, and determine which ones could be interesting for specific industrial applications"

"Our job is in the lab doing a lot of experiments, really fast, really high throughput and then actually making the material and giving it to the R&D so they can implement it in their device.

The company uses an automated lab to experiment to determine the optimal combination of ingredients to make things that replace existing elements like gallium, germanium, cobalt, and nickel.

Dependence on critical raw materials may soon replace today's dependence on oil

According to the EU (Study for Critical Materials, 2023): "OECD forecasts that global materials demand will more than double from 79 billion tonnes today to 167 billion tonnes in 2060. Global competition for resources will become fierce in the coming decade." 

European demand for REEs is projected to increase five-fold by 2030, driven by the rapid growth of key transition technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicle (EV) batteries, which heavily depend on magnets. 

Further, China's dominance in the rare earth supply chain, encompassing mining, processing, and magnet manufacturing, creates a vulnerability for Western countries. This dependence exposes them to potential disruptions, price fluctuations, and unsustainable mining practices in China. 

China recently banned the export of rare earth processing technologies in late 2023.

Sectors such as EV battery manufacturing as well aware of the challenges of REEs. 

As Martin notes, "the West as a whole doesn't produce these materials." 

For example, cobalt mining is associated with habitat destruction, soil and water contamination, human rights abuses, and unsafe working conditions.  In response companies use cobalt-free lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries in most of their vehicles,

But as Martin explains: 

"Removing Cobalt from batteries, as in the case of Tesla, has tradeoffs. The batteries are heavier, with reduced energy density and decreased longevity. We're specifically trying to target industries where there is no alternative to REEs."

An example is permanent magnets that produce their own persistent magnetic field without requiring an external power source and are used to transform mechanical energy into electrical energy. 

You can find them in electric vehicles, radars, phones, and headsets. They are very rich in neodymium, a rare earth mineral controlled 98 per cent by China. 

According to Martin:

"While neodymium exists in lesser quantities in Australia and Japan, from a price stand perspective, if you go from mining to extracting and refining, only China can sell it at a price point where many industries can use it. 

So our customers tell us they would like alternatives because, from a geopolitical standpoint, a regulatory standpoint, a sustainability standpoint, and many other standpoints, there are many reasons not to source everything out of these countries."

From predictions to recipes

Recent breakthroughs in AI-driven material discovery by major players such as DeepMind have predicted approx. 400,000 new stable inorganic materials, along with research projects by Microsoft, IBM or ETH Zurich. 

While these projects focus on foundational models and predicting what materials could exist, they do not address how to actually make them and turn them into reality. 

Altrove finds the optimal methods to produce relevant materials at an industrial scale. Specifically Altrove develops AI models coupled with an automated synthesis lab to accelerate the discovery process up to 100 times. It invented a proprietary technology at characterisation to iteratively learn from each experiment. 

The company has already begun collaboration with the sourcing, manufacturing, and R&D departments of customers in the automotive, defence and electronics sectors, among other industries. 

Altrove is also working to replace piezoelectric materials used in sensors, touchscreens, energy harvesting, and many other industrial and customer technologies. 

Martin explained:

"These are formula-driven materials. This makes it possible to scale. If you're making a magnet for instance, if it works at 10 grams, it's going to work the same over 1000 times."

When it comes to funding, Martin admits,

"We're ticking a lot of boxes in Europe: AI, sustainability, sovereignty, reindustrialisation. And it's not just it's not just Europe as well. Like if you're when we're talking to American customers, yes, they don't have the critical materials act, but all of the other challenges." 

Rokas Peciulaitis, Founding Partner at Contrarian Ventures who led funding, shared: 

"A key driver for our investment in Altrove is the team's exceptional blend of industrial expertise and technological excellence. Having conducted over 100 customer interviews with leading component developers across Europe, they have developed a solution that truly bridges the gap between AI material discovery and industrial applications."

The funding will accelerate the development of their core technology, currently focusing on substitutes for rare-earth compounds used in transition technologies, electric vehicles, and advanced electronics. 

Lead image: CTO Joonatan Laulainen, PhD and CEO Thibaud Martin. 

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