Companion planting: The value in connecting net zero start-ups

Cecilia Keating
clock • 4 min read
Companion planting: The value in connecting net zero start-ups

Green start-ups Piclo and Above reflect on the benefits of getting together twice a year with the rest of the Clean Growth Fund's portfolio firms

Venture capital can have a decidedly mixed reputation, fuelled by a stereotype of money-fixated investors that exert pressure on founders to deliver quick returns at the expense of establishing sustainable business practices.

But the Clean Growth Fund is aiming to prove such characterisations wrong. The venture capital firm is not only focused exclusively on early-stage companies geared at decarbonising the economy, but it also provides ongoing mentorship and advice to the businesses it invests in. All the companies it backs are offered support from the company's sister company, clean technology consultancy firm Carbon Limiting Technologies, and invited to take part in twice yearly portfolio days, where firms can learn from each other, discuss joint challenges in an informal setting, and hear from influential guest speakers from the green business community.

Will Hitchcock, co-founder of Above, a Clean Growth Fund portfolio company that has developed technology to monitor the performance of solar assets, said the portfolio days were a valuable opportunity to mingle with other green companies at a similar stage of development.

"Networking within the solar industry happens aplenty, because there are so many conferences going on everywhere," he told BusinessGreen. "But actually, networking with companies at this kind of early stage of scale up or start-up is something that isn't massively prevalent. You've got to seek it out."

As it approaches its third birthday this May, the Clean Growth Fund, which is backed by public and private funders, has now invested in 10 start-ups, all of which are actively working to advance the transition to a low-carbon economy. This means the bi-yearly 'portfolio days' are getting bigger, with more opportunities for firms to network and share ideas with likeminded entrepreneurs.

Hitchcock predicted the Clean Growth Fund's portfolio days' value would grow as the investor added more companies to its roster. "The more companies that are represented, the more diverse it becomes," he said.

The most recent get together, held last November, had a focus on international expansion, with the CEO of Whitefox Technologies Gillian Harrison taking the stage to share insights from the biofuel technology firm's US launch. The speaker at the previous event was Phil Caldwell, CEO at leading clean energy technology developer Ceres Power, who set out how the firm had grown from a start up to a business with 500 staff and a £32m turnover.

James Johnston, CEO and co-founder of flexibility marketplace firm Piclo, another Clean Growth Fund portfolio company, said the recent session on tackling new markets had been highly relevant for his company, which has recently launched in the US and is eyeing expansion in Asia.

"Getting a bit more structure around the sort of things to look out for, the pitfalls and challenges, and hearing stories about entering new territories from people further down the line from us, who have done this in other start-ups or scale-ups, or even big business - that was very useful," he told BusinessGreen. "It has actually helped direct some of our thinking, mainly around risk."

There is inherent value in events where the audience is limited to like-minded entrepreneurs, Johnston added. "It opens up a sort of warts-and-all type of approach of talking about the real challenges and things they wouldn't tell a journalist, for example, but would tell another entrepreneur," he said. "When it comes to myself, when I'm invited to speak to earlier stage businesses about my story and talk about real challenges, that sort on in-person, controlled environment is very powerful."

The Clean Growth Fund's model of bringing its portfolio companies together comes at a time when the clean tech start-up community needs all the help they can get. As Above's Hitchcock noted, early stage firms in the UK face a tough cocktail of challenges at the moment as they battle inflationary headwinds, mass supply chain disruption, and the on-going fallout from the pandemic, the energy supply crunch, and Britain's divorce from the EU.

"We have gone through such a profound shift in the whole working environment with Covid, technology and Brexit," he said. "Coping with these new challenges is new because they are happening for the first time now."

As such, he argued there was now particular value in "sharing stories and experiences with hiring, growing, training, dealing with remote working". "Building a fast-growing company when you have lots of people who aren't in the office is really hard," he added.

Indeed, as all companies focused on the net zero transition grapple with a daunting operating environment, there is inherent value in forums where companies from across the decarbonisation spectrum can compare notes. And such gathering are arguably even more important for those companies just starting out. Clean Growth Fund's approach is clearly one that more venture capital firms would do well to emulate.

This article is sponsored by the Clean Growth Fund.

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