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Who’s on the Right Side of History: Government or Cleantech Startups?

Adam Woodhall headshotWords by Adam Woodhall
Leadership & Transparency
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Woon Tan co-authored this story 

The second Cleantech Venture Day, held last week in London, brought together high-profile keynote speakers, game-changing clean technology companies and impact investors from across Europe. Inspiration, networking and education were the names of the game. And the organizers, U.K. network organization Cambridge Cleantech and the Nordic Innovation Accelerator, certainly delivered on their promise.

The opening keynote from Craig Bennett, CEO of Friends Of The Earth, an international network of environmental organizations, brought an activist energy to the proceedings. This complemented the rest of the day's lively pitches and keynotes, emceed by the effervescent Hugh Parnell, chairman of Cambridge Cleantech.

U.K. moves backward on cleantech: Seven government fails


Mr. Bennett gave an impassioned speech about why we can’t rely on governments to address climate change, citing a “bonfire of policies” that support clean technology and the low-carbon economy in the U.K. Here are seven examples of how he believes the U.K. government in particular has underperformed:

  1. The U.K. government recently eliminated the Zero Carbon Home Standards and Green Deal, which will lock current and future generations into higher energy bills.

  2. It opted to privatize the Green Investment Bank, leaving a huge question mark around how the government can promote low-carbon innovation.

  3. Renewable energy subsidies are chopping and changing in a chaotic manner, leading to thousands of jobs lost in the renewables industry.

  4. The U.K. government supported the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Adding a third runway at Heathrow will result in additional carbon pollution equivalent to Croatia’s.

  5. Fracking policies create a whole new vested interest and fossil fuel infrastructure, which will get in the way of cleantech growth and also forcing fracking on local communities.

  6. Cuts to electric vehicle grants, plus the freezing of the Fuel Duty Accelerator, take away nudges for consumer behavior change.

  7. The U.K.'s 25-pence tax on disposable coffee cups turned into a whole load of froth, despite the Treasury receiving an unprecedented hundreds of thousands of public responses in support of the "latte levy."

Companies step in to fill the void: Seven cleantech startup wins


It wasn’t all negative from Craig Bennett, though. Despite his frustrations with the U.K. government, he believes now is the most exciting time to be a sustainable innovator and said cleantech startups are on the “right side of history."

The two dozen startup founders pitching for investments at the event served as excellent examples of this. To give a flavor of how they're striving to change our world for the better, here are a select few:


  1. Solar Polar creates solar-thermal-powered air conditioning and refrigeration for food storage. Its technology addresses the issue of food waste, where 50 percent of food in sun belt regions rots before reaching the market.

  2. Quant believes the big opportunity in smart energy lies in the residential rooftop solar and energy storage markets—and it's developing artificial intelligence tools to allow energy customers to rapidly adapt to fluctuations in energy usage and rates.

  3. Wimao designs and manufactures ecological materials and biocomposite products made of recycled materials utilizing mixed and difficult-to-sort waste items.

  4. Cheeky Panda is disrupting the tissue market with sustainable, skin-friendly products made from bamboo, the world’s fastest growing plant. The company is building a strong consumer brand, with ambitious plans to break into the U.S. market.

  5. Origen Power is developing a process that uses natural gas to generate electricity in a way that removes carbon dioxide from the air. The team's initial vision is to support the transformation of the U.K. lime industry from being a big net producer of CO2, to being a significant net storer of the greenhouse gas.

  6. Hydraloop is a smart, innovative and certified domestic grey water recycling system that saves water and energy by recycling 85 percent of domestic water without the use of filters, membranes or chemicals.

  7. Zero Hertz Energy is a Finnish company specializing in delivering low-voltage direct current technology and services for utility power distribution.

At the end of the day of pitches, Zero Hertz Energy was announced the winner of the Smart Grid Innovation challenge by Jaakko Isotalo, manager of fund and dealflow for Grid VC, who when explaining the judges choice stated, “Their technology makes it possible to scale up micro production, storage and self-sufficiency of distribution networks.”

Riding the waves of social change


In closing his keynote, Craig Bennett shared that when looking at history—whether it's the abolition of slavery or the women's suffrage movement—social change takes time. “William Wilberforce did not wake up one day and decide to campaign against slavery," Mr. Bennett observed. "It takes many years of building up of public awareness—and then getting a surge of support and then a push back, and then a surge of support and then a push back.”

Mr. Bennett continued, “The pro-slavery movement only formed when the anti-slavery movement started doing really well. Our job in pushing for change can’t be to resist those waves, as they are fundamental to how change happens. Our job is to make sure every time a wave comes up, it goes higher than before and each time it goes out, it doesn’t go out as much as before, until finally we get to low tide.”

Just like the historic movements of the past, clean growth—exemplified by the rich ecosystem of clean technology startups growing in Europe—is clearly on the right side of history.

Co-author Woo Tan is the founder of Podcast Publishing Help, where he works with sustainability thought leaders and environmental impact entrepreneurs who are building personal or business brands through launching and growing their podcasts.

Image credit: Giulia Legora/Cambridge Cleantech

Adam Woodhall headshotAdam Woodhall

Adam is an entrepreneur, writer, coach, connector and consultant. He is the founder of <a href="http://www.inspiring-sustainability.com">Rocket Works</a>, a growth consultancy focused on sustainable startups.

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