How UK tech’s environmental startup scene is growing in stature
Can our most innovative green technology companies make a difference and turn a profit?
For governments and innovators around the globe, tackling climate change has become a leading cause – with many startups also rising to the challenge. Whether it's by improving battery storage technology or using machine learning to monitor emissions, a growing section of the UK tech ecosystem is vying to deliver positive environmental change. Can a new generation of startups really make a difference, though, while also delivering a profit for investors and shareholders?
Independent digital innovation agency, Supercharge, has previously worked with Zenobe, a provider of clean energy battery storage products for electric vehicles and public transport networks. Its UK managing director, Daniel Homoki-Farkas, believes global recent events will drive more early-stage businesses, like Zenobe, to the fore, with Homoki-Farkas pinpointing the electrification of deliveries for e-commerce, and energy storage, as two key growth areas.
“The changes the pandemic has forced upon how we live have opened many people’s eyes to the fragility of the environment, and the damaging effects of human behaviour upon it,” he tells IT Pro. “Individuals and companies, alike, are taking a fresh look at our environment and what new ways of living and doing business are needed not only to preserve it – but to improve it.
A greener class of tech founders
With much of the tech sector adopting sustainability targets, investors in startups are also examining how they can contribute to this wave of change. Since 2012, Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV) has been investing in companies that aim to build solutions to a variety of social and environmental challenges. The firm has awarded funding to 141 organisations that, it says, have positively affected the lives of 17 million people.
BGV's brand and communications manager, Milly Shotter, believes startups aiming to develop technology for the wider good can still be attractive to fund. “Tech startups targeting environmental issues can absolutely serve the common good while making a financial return for investors,” Shotter argues. “In fact, we'd go one step further and say they’ll be some of the most valuable companies of the future. Many of the world's largest asset owners have acknowledged that climate risk is financial risk, and if we don't invest in companies that mitigate this, the repercussions will be felt by all.”
She adds it’s important to BGV that companies have a hypothesis of how they’ll measure and manage the impact they’re hoping to achieve. The approach to investment also depends on whether the technology is innovative in and of itself, or whether it’s a standard use of technology applied to a new market.
"For the former,” she explains, “we'd expect the founders to have strong technical expertise. For the latter, we believe 'technical intuition' is enough, provided they can communicate with developers. Greenwashing is a risk in this space so this helps to avoid that. In the early stages, it can help simplify things by asking what is the one key metric you'll measure?”
One of BGV’s portfolio companies Nuw, a sustainable fashion firm, worked with the London Waste and Recycling Board to develop a carbon calculator that helps them understand how much carbon is saved with each ‘swap’ made through its platform.
Another innovative environmental start-up is Dryad Networks, a for-profit, tech-for-good, business established after co-founder Carsten Brinkschulte saw the devasting impact of the 2019 Australian wildfires. The firm has built a large-scale Internet of Things (IoT) system to detect fires at the smouldering stage, using solar-powered gas sensors, or ‘digital noses’, and gateways attached to trees, alongside a patent-pending distributed mesh architecture. Dryad aims to save one million hectares of forest from burning by 2030, avoid 400 million tonnes of CO2 emissions and save the lives of millions of plants and animals while preventing substantial economic losses.
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Despite the fact so many startups have such worthy goals, Brinkschulte believes the biggest challenge is getting funding. There’s still no better time to launch a venture than now, he insists, adding: "Environmental issues will take priority for the next decade. General awareness of environmental issues and the need to act fast has never been greater, and this pressure for action is fuelling the market for environmental solutions. COP26 should certainly increase visibility for environmental start-ups and also provide a platform for networking and fundraising.”
Mining data for greener outcomes
At Subak, an accelerator that funds and scales environmental non-profits, a huge challenge is acquiring the best data to create the most effective change. "We regularly see difficulties around finding key data sets; connecting disparate information and data quality,” says the firm’s head of technology, Laurence Watson. “Even though there’s more climate data than ever before, it’s not always open, discoverable or well-documented. Work is often duplicated because openness is not the default.”
To combat this, everyone within the Subak network shares their data, tools and learnings to help each other achieve their climate missions faster. For those hoping to launch a company in this space, but perhaps lacking the technical knowledge, Watson adds: "We work with organisations with a clear idea of how they are going to make an impact on climate change using data. The tech capability follows from there, and we focus on helping level them up, and ensure they have the right skills internally. We don't expect incredible technical capability right away – that's where we can help – but we do need to see a great vision and a clear path to impact."
There’s still the thorny matter of tech's own emissions, however. Michelle You, co-founder and CEO of Supercritical, whose software allows companies to measure their climate impact, believes the way forward is for startups to communicate what net-zero actually means to both themselves and their customers.
"We know leading tech companies have already made bold net-zero commitments,” she says. “Tech leaders understand the urgency of climate change and what it means to be an early adopter, so I expect to see more and more tech founders and CEOs using carbon removal technologies as a core pillar of their net-zero strategies."
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