Why ecopreneurs need money now to develop cheaper, better and faster climate tech

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett January 26, 2024
Summary:
Ecopreneurs need money now to develop cheaper, better and faster climate tech.

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This year hasn’t had the most auspicious start regarding climate change. First came the news that 2023 was the hottest on record, with average temperatures almost 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. This was swiftly followed by warnings that London is underprepared for the impact of climate change such as severe flooding and extreme heat.

A hot topic then is how to connect ecopreneurs – entrepreneurs developing new ways to address environmental challenges – with early-stage financial investment to rapidly deploy their innovations at scale.

Rebekah Braswell is one such ecopreneur - CEO at Land Life, a nature tech company aiming to restore the world's two billion hectares of degraded land. Land Life uses AI, drones and remote sensors to target land parcels that have both the economic and ecological potential for reforestation. The company has also developed clustering algorithms that assess and ascertain similar planting conditions and locations, which help it derive the best species mix and density. 

This technology makes work on the ground faster and more focused, Braswell explains: 

Everything that we do is to focus on the scale, quality and efficiency of nature restoration. We simply don't have time. The challenge is very big with two billion hectares of degraded land. We are creating a product that is still unfortunately dwindling in supply. So we have to be very creative with both our software and our hardware solutions to get the job done.

As Land Life works to grow from a hundred to thousands to tens of thousands of hectares of restored land, while much of this scaling relies on technology, Braswell said it’s also reliant on the convening power of programs like UpLink. This open innovation platform, launched in 2020 and hosted by the World Economic Forum, Salesforce and Deloitte, is aimed at discovering, connecting and supporting ecopreneurs and entrepreneurs developing products for the new economy. 

Braswell attended Davos last week with UpLink, as a way of integrating businesses like Land Life into critical dialogues and conversations at a much earlier stage. She explained:

We're here representing 10 different pillars. I'm here representing nature, but I also have colleagues here representing oceans, urban transformation, water use, precision agriculture. They have brought us together from across the globe to exchange our own ideas as a community of entrepreneurs in the new economy, and to connect us on forums such as this. It's a great exchange of ideas between new companies and institutional players.

The scale of the climate challenge highlights the urgent need for easier access to funding for ecopreneurs like Braswell. Arun Majumdar, Dean, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Stanford University, says: 

You’ve got a one hundred trillion dollar global economy, eight billion people going to 10 by mid-century, and we need to shift the whole economy, which is largely based on fossil fuels and something that got built up over 150 years, in the next 20 to 30 years. That's the magnitude of the challenge. We need solutions, and the solutions have to be cheaper, better, faster.

Based on previous development, this could prove quite the challenge. Majumdar notes that the first commercial lithium-ion battery came out in the early nineties, and it has taken 30 years to scale that to where we are today and supporting electric vehicles. He adds:

If you think about what solutions are needed to transition the whole economy, there's much more. How do we make zero carbon steel cement? If you don't do that, we are not going to solve the problem. Food is 25% of global emissions; we’ve got to de-carbonize that. Take grid scale storage, we need that.

Ideal

This makes it an ideal time for ecopreneurs trying to help the transition, as there’s so much opportunity for innovation and investment. Majumdar applauds commitments made at COP 28 to transition away from fossil fuel, but noted this transition can’t happen unless we have solutions that are cheaper and better and faster:

That is the opportunity. In fact, I wish I was a graduate student right now, or an undergraduate, because the opportunity is amazing.

However, the climate challenge requires something different to the standard start-up. Majumdar pointed to the success of most academic institutions at cultivating start-ups – Stanford has at least 30 or 40 coming out every year. He adds:

This is not software, this is different. Thinking about scale from the beginning is a very important factor. It's not just a go-to market strategy. It is go-to market and scale in the next 10 years.

For any business or entity to scale across an economy or globally, requires thinking about supply chains, policy barriers, policy levers, markets, whether there’s public acceptance, and any ethical issues or unintended consequences. Majumdar says:

Because we are living in the unintended consequence of the 20th century. We have to look at that comprehensively. This is not just engineering or business or law school. This is the holistic view of thinking about new entrepreneurial activities that not only takes it out of Stanford or any other academic institution, but takes it to scale so that you have a roadmap ahead.

For emerging technologies to have a chance of solving climate problems requires a lot of ready cash and resources. This is where investors like Poman Lo come in. The Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Regal Hotels Group is also Founding Managing Partner of AlphaTrio Capital, an impact fund set up for early-stage disruptive tech companies working to solve the most pressing environmental and social challenges. Lo explains:

Our thesis is very simple: that the next wave of unicorns ought to be Green Tech ventures that help us solve these existential challenges. Technology is disrupting each and every facet of our lives, but it can also help us reduce emissions at scale across even the toughest sectors.

The fund is targeted to three areas: PropTech, cleantech and agri-food tech, and is aiming to fill a gap in Asia for investment in these companies. Lo says:

In Asia, we are unfortunately lagging behind in terms of impact investing. Asia is where the greatest growth is, but it's also accounting for two-thirds of the emissions in the world. Of the total AUM dedicated to impact investing, we only account for 17%. We really have to catch up. There needs to be a sense of urgency in driving capital into this impact space.

That’s the reason behind Lo setting up AlphaTrio Capital as an impact partner, to provide an ecosystem for start-ups to test their solutions, fine-tune their business model, and connect them with all the resources and connections needed to scale and become unicorns. 

Lo notes that harnessing the power of AI is vital to ensure we move very quickly as we’re running out of time to solve these problems. In the PropTech sector, for example, smart energy-saving solutions and smart building management systems can optimize the use of energy in buildings. She explains:

In Asia, because of the weather, buildings can account for up to 50% of emissions because we have to turn on the air con all the time. Because of AI, we can precisely use energy to the best extent and also save on air conditioning. In terms of cleantech, that can also help optimize the use of renewable energy and also precision farming.

Using AI to improve farming practises should be a core focus, as nine million people still die of hunger every year. Due to the impact of biodiversity laws and climate change, global food supply is becoming increasingly jeopardized, Lo observes. 

As the world population soars to 10 billion, we simply have to grow more food by at least maybe 60%. Luckily again, we can leverage AI. We've been investing in precision farming solutions and also alternative protein to feed the world without all the emissions. Through AI, we can grow more food, up to 30%, with the use of less resources like energy and water because we can integrate all the field data with satellite and weather data so that we don't have to use as much water.

While AI is already leading to some climate successes, as outlined above, there’s plenty more scope for future ecopreneurs to develop tech that will further improve areas like nature restoration and food production. Majumdar argues that the next innovation will be around creating a ChatGPT for images:

What you're doing for language, you should be able to do for images. We are going to see AI being driven towards those where you don't have to have the knowledge base of how to program in Python to be able to get to that. That interface is going to be developed so that you can just query images and say, tell me where all the eucalyptus trees are around the world, and what's the height. And you should be able to get that answer from satellite imagery without being able to program. That's coming, that's the future.

Image credit - Pixabay

Disclosure - Braswell, Majumdar and Lo were all speaking on a ‘Mainstreaming Ecopreneurs’ panel at WEF 2024 in Davos.

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