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Corporates and Start-ups

Published on: Dec. 18, 2023, 12:52 p.m.
War against time
  • Brisil’s green or Bio-Silica helps brands better service customer demands with lower carbon emissions

By Starlene Sharma and Anirban Mukherjee of BCG

Wars, times when human race faces its worst crisis, are also when strategies for resource usage are at its sharpest. To take a leaf out of maritime strategies in such times, large battleships work in tandem with nimble footed destroyers to manoeuvre complex and uncertain geographies.

The climate challenge is a war against time – one that humanity cannot afford to lose.

As large industries look to transition to a green economy and innovators build the transformative technologies, there are lessons from rules of the water that can guide corporates and start-ups in building symbiotic relationships that can accelerate the transition.

 Let’s sample some facts

Typical transitions that happen at a global scale – like adoption of fossil fuels over mechanical energy (1 AD to 1900 AD), even adoption of hydrocarbon over coal (1800s to 2000s) – happen over many decades, if not hundreds of years. That too when the new technology is more efficient and cost effective than the incumbent. 

The current transition can afford no such luxury. For mitigation alone, India needs over $2 trillion in new investments in low carbon technologies to meet its NDC targets, with comparable investments in adaptation and resilience. Important to note is that such investments are required in technologies that aren’t fully proven, in markets that are untested, and at costs that, in some cases, are today prohibitive. 

This change has to be led by governments and large corporations who, to a cynic, are the antithesis of speed and innovation.  

While speed and agility are often not in the DNA of large corporates, necessity is the mother of invention. A generation of entrepreneurs is taking up the challenge, but this is only a partial solution. Climate technologies, even once technically proven have historically had long commercialization cycles. 

The role of large established companies in driving the green transition and the accelerating adoption and dispersion of the clean technologies is undeniable. This is especially important in the current context, where the primary customers are not the masses, but the corporates themselves.

The technologies that will drive the transition include capital equipment, new materials, production system retrofits, hard infrastructure, and other products that impact business viability (think large scale electrolysers producing hydrogen or new materials like green silica making everyday products cleaner and healthier). Asset light digital ventures (apps like Uber), may deliver incremental climate benefit and software might eat the world… but it can’t eat carbon). 

As we look towards achieving the green transition and India’s economic promise, the secret sauce may well lie in the symbiotic relationships between climate startups and corporations. Hence the need for corporations to embrace startups and deploy innovative models while retaining the scale of impact. 

The managing director of a multinational’s corporate venture capital practice recently explained that its investments are meant to dramatically accelerate the company’s internal innovation cycles, noting “startups do in six months what can take us five years due to internal processes and approvals” and even the ones that do not become suitable acquisitions, “better help us service our customer demands.”

  • Laurus Lead Acid batteries made with Cancrie Carbon: improving the efficacy of batteries

As large industry looks to transition to a green economy and innovators think to build the technologies that can transform, there is a clear and present argument to be made for large corporations to adopt start-ups like never before.  Corporates looking to leverage startups to strengthen business operations can accelerate the rate innovations become viable through: 

Product Adoption or Distribution

Demonstration or Co-development

Investment 

Product adoption or distribution

Corporates have the benefit of size, scale and well established supply and distribution channels. As consumer and business demand increasingly requires access to green products, adoption and distribution of green technologies can keep corporates aligned with customer and shareholder requirements. 

EESL has been an early leader in evaluating and adopting climate technologies to be distributed through its various energy efficiency schemes. Startups have benefited from EESL partnership in areas including street lights and smart meters. Under its leadership the company is poised to launch a platform to screen and support distribution of a much wider selection of energy efficient technologies. One exciting feature of the platform is a partnership with SIDBI to facilitate lending for capital intensive purchases. In 2024, EESL will launch a new innovation challenge to source a first group of startups to include on the platform. 

Producers of consumer goods, have increased requirements to meet net-zero targets while maintaining product quality and safety. Chemicals can be particularly difficult to replace for greener alternatives, especially since brands often do not produce the chemicals used in their products and replacement often leads to long product redevelopment cycles and safety testing.

Recognized by Loreal, Proctor & Gamble and Decathlon, Brisil is a startup that produces green or Bio-Silica. It leveraged early adoption by mid-sized companies to scale its sales to several global FMCGs, apparel and sporting goods brands. The true test of such innovation is to be able to seamlessly integrate into existing processes and products, helping brands better service customer demands with dramatically lower carbon emissions. 

 Access to corporate labs and/or a sandbox for Techno Commercial Validation

Part of the long commercialisation process for new low carbon technologies is the ability to demonstrate techno-commercial viability of first of a kind technologies. The benefit to corporates can include early access to cutting edge technologies that solve real business concerns, joint development of industry specific IP (competitive advantage over competition), investment preference and as technologies are proved, preferred market financing terms. 

  • Brisil silica: global brands vouch for it

To capitalize on such opportunities, the Indian Oil Corporation runs an annual innovation challenge for identifying and supporting startups working towards a Net Zero future. In one such instance, IOCL has partnered with Greengine Environmental Technologies Private Limited, a Kanpur-based startup that captures carbon dioxide from industrial flue gases using their unique microalgae-based technology and converts it into biomaterials. Their first carbon capture plant is announced to come up at IOCL’s Mathura refinery and is expected to go live by February 2024. 

Such corporate associations lead to similar opportunities for the startup to partner with other industries. Greengine, for instance, is set to achieve its yearly target of minimum 1 million tonnes of CO2 in next three years. As part of its innovation drive, IOCL has expanded its pool of investment across multiple technology types like Hybrid energy (H2E power systems), Agri waste based fuel (Amol Carbons), Bio Inspired air purifier (GermSafe) and many others. 

Other examples include Laurus, a leading battery manufacturer, and Cancrie, an early stage start up, collaborating to show how new technologies developed by startups can dramatically improve product quality and the co-development processes for new material integration. Cancrie, a startup developing specialized and advanced carbons to dramatically improve the efficacy of batteries and energy storage devices – increasing storage capacity, charge duration and battery life – provided lab results and material samples to Laurus.

Following commercial testing and validation, Laurus and the startup then worked together to optimize integration of Cancrie Carbons in a line of Laurus batteries that offers better margins to the manufacturer, a better product for customers and reduces corporate reliance on materials from sometimes unreliable global supply chains. Laurus has indicated interest in working with the startup to accelerate advanced batteries and co-develop other green materials for battery manufacturing. 

Investment 

Companies in the US and Europe frequently invest – sometimes directly, sometimes through aligned specialist funds – in technologies that directly integrate into company operations or product offerings and other times in adjacent offerings to add to customer value proposition.

Companies including ABB, BP and Shell have established dedicated VC teams in India to invest in leading climate technologies, while companies like Bosch, Cummins, and Engie are early entrants evaluating India’s climate startups. 

  • Cancrie carbon Lead Acid battery

A look at the investment portfolio of Shell alone shows the depth and breadth of technologies across innovation in storage (Aquion Energy), solar steam generators (Glasspoint Solar), data repositories (TIBCO), Utility analytics solutions (Sense Labs), Bio Plastics (Avantium) and many others. Such interplay across technologies not only allows for integration opportunities for the investor, but also provides significant access to scale to innovators. 

Firms that invest through funds are able to benefit from the market insights of sector specialists. Such arrangements can be through a company specific portfolio in which the corporate retains investment approval or through participation in a fund to diversify risk, but with co-investment or follow-on investment rights. 

Assessments put cumulative investment in nascent and new technology ventures by large energy companies across robotics, clean energy, alternative fuels and battery storage to exceed $15 billion in 2021. The scale is expected to only increase, and create a need to act for others. 

There are a lot of reasons corporates may fear working with startups – work with startups can be risky, early work may be more costly, startups work differently, and sometimes they just seem like they’re from a different planet. Similarly, many startups fear corporate partners may steal IP, force unviable pricing or just be too slow. 

These fears are not entirely unfounded but can be navigated. For corporates to achieve maximum benefit from working with or investing in startups, the ground work on strategy, governance, internal capabilities, resource allocation needs to be thought through carefully. 

Wars have brought innovation and industry together in accelerated commercialisation of technologies like the radar and jet engines. Startups and corporates can leverage the climate emergency to accelerate and embrace innovation at warp speed. The climate change is a clarion call for the Goliaths to, for once, embrace the Davids, for the survival of the planet.

(Views expressed are personal)

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