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17 Dec 2023

Forbes - Bronze Bullets: A Look Inside Europe’s Largest Climatech Hub

Sustainable Ventures Stand: G50
Forbes - Bronze Bullets: A Look Inside Europe’s Largest Climatech Hub

When C02 in the atmosphere interacts with falling rain, the combination creates carbonic acid. Once on the ground, the chemical compound mineralises and the carbon gets stored in the rocks and soil. Thus, nature is working quietly in the background to mitigate the impact of climate change.

If that sounds reassuring, it shouldn’t be. As all the statistics indicate, nature is being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of greenhouse gasses being pumped into the atmosphere. The natural systems can’t handle the scale.

But what if we were able to give nature a hand? U.K.-based climatetech startup UNDO is attempting to do just that. The natural rock weathering process that locks in the carbon normally takes thousands of years. UNDO is speeding that up by spreading crushed Basalt onto farmland. This speeds the breakdown of the rock, also hastening the process of Carbon removal..

But just how much of a difference can this make? Well according to UNDO Senior Account Manager, Stephen Spencer-Chapman, this could be an important technology. “The IPCC says we have to remove between ten to eleven billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year between now and 2050. Rock weathering, if enhanced correctly, can remove four billion of that.”

But can it be scaled? Four tonnes of basalt will remove one metric tonne of carbon dioxide with the weathering taking twenty years. “We spread twenty tonnes per hectare, renewing that every three years. We have a network of 200 farmers that we’re working with,” says Spencer-Chapman. “The farmers get the basalt for free.” And if things go according to plan, they will also see improved crop yields. For its part, UNDO aims to sell carbon credits.


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But here’s the question. We are living through a climate emergency that requires a rapid and respective response. So can relatively small startups such as UNDO do enough to make a difference?

Many Solutions

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It’s a question I put to Andrew Wordsworth, CEO and co-founder of Sustainable Ventures, a company that invests pre-seed in climate tech while also offering co-workspace and programmes to accelerate growth. Its flagship hub is situated in the old London Government building (County Hall) on the South Bank of the Thames.

Founded in 2011, Sustainable Ventures styles itself as Europe’s largest climatetech workspace having taken out a ten-year lease on part of Country Hall. As Wordsworth explains, it currently has around 1,000 members representing roughly 100 businesses, including UNDO. Through investment and acceleration programs it hopes to unleash the power of small companies that can have a positive impact in their respective sectors.

“When the Prince of Wales visited us, he talked about bronze bullets,” Wordsworth recalls. Wordsworth says it’s an analogy that highlights advantages of having a great many companies working on the global heating problem. While there is not yet a silver bullet that will solve the climate problem overnight, a huge amount can be achieved through smaller projects and initiatives that collectively play a part in reducing greenhouse gasses.

Indeed, by spreading greentech investment over a wide range of companies and sectors, Wordsworth argues that you can not only solve problems specific to sectors but also boost the economy.

“If all we do is focus on solar power that creates a limited number of jobs,” he says. “But if you say there is a high-tech industry in greentech, that is something for the UK to capture.”

The opportunity is across multiple sectors. As Wordsworth points out, there is a big focus on innovation in areas such as transport or housing, but all parts of the economy will be required to hit net zero targets. That opens the way for specialist startups to provide sector and company-appropriate solutions.

Attracting Investment

That’s assuming, of course, that investors continue to support a sector that embraces not only software - the happy place for many VCs - but also more capital-intensive hardware. Go back a decade or so and a lot of VCs got their fingers burnt investing in what was then classified as cleantech. Wordsworth says the nature of the opportunity has changed.

“In the first boom VC money was going to project finance and people lost a lot of money,” he says. “We tend not to do big box technology. We focus more on the internet of things or material science.”

And as he sees it, investment today is coming not only from VCs and angels but also from corporations. “The money is there. Corporates are now quite interested. If you get technology to a stage where it is viable, corporations will use their balance sheets to take them and scale them.”

For its part, Sustainable Ventures has made 44 pre-seed investments and helped to secure £110 million in follow-on funding. With 85 percent of its portfolio companies still in operation, it has a track record record of supporting company creation and jobs.

Finding A Niche

Even in well-served industrial sectors - such as the aforementioned transport and housing industries - there are niches that startups can address. Household heating is a case in point. During my visit to the Sustainable Ventures Hub, I met Charlie Beharrell of Heata, a company that is piloting home hot water heating using computer servers as the source.

Server farms generate a huge amount of heat which could be used in homes. It is, however, difficult to get the energy from a centralized data center to the points where heating is required. Heata has developed a distributed system, with the servers located in individual homes working as part of a networked data processing operation. “We can reduce total system energy use by 80 percent and help people in fuel poverty,” says Beharrell. The aim is to hit hundreds of thousands of homes. “But starting small can make a significant difference.”

And businesses are also finding ways to pivot strategically. Rightcharge - also based in County Hall started out by creating a marketplace to help EV buyers find installers for charging equipment, while also helping them to maximize their use of renewable power.

Now they are launching a payments system, which condenses 30 charging networks into one single payments card. In a variation on the theme, businesses will be able to pay for all their charging - home and commercially - through the single card. This is being done in partnership with Octopus Energy, plus various energy suppliers and home charge point companies. This type of collaboration network has taken a while to pull together. As Rightcharge founder, Charlie Cook explains, it’s a strategy that has involved starting with a business plan that is relatively simple to deliver and using it as a launchpad for something more ambitious. He cites the whisky industry as an illustration of the approach.

“If you look at a new whisky distillery. You can’t sell whisky legally for three years and you also want to keep the first batch for longer. So every whisky distillery starts off making gin, which can be sold immediately,” says Rightcharge founder, Charlie Cook.

As I visited the Sustainable Ventures Hub, the negotiators at COP28 were struggling to reach an agreement. A reminder that much of the fight against climate change will be waged on the level of policy-led climate reduction targets and carbon taxes. The impact of individual startups is smaller but collectively they can at least go some way to helping the world meet its net zero objectives.

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