It takes a village to succeed in climate tech

It takes a village to succeed in climate tech
Ben Soltoff
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 02:00

Solving climate change depends, to some extent, on technological innovation.

The world’s leading climate authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published a landmark 2018 report highlighting the urgency of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The report outlines four potential pathways for reaching that goal. The pathways are vastly different, but one thing they have in common is a central role for new technologies, all of which fall under the growing category known as climate tech .

Relying on emissions-reducing technology isn’t the same as blind techno-optimism . New technology needs to complement existing solutions, deployed immediately. But the IPCC pathways make clear that the route to mitigation goes through innovation.

So, what does it take to turn a societal need into a functional reality? Scientific breakthroughs are only part of the challenge. After that, there’s a long road before solutions can be implemented at scale. They require funding through multiple stages of development, facing many financial and operational risks along the way.

There’s a parallel here with the response to COVID-19. Even if a working vaccine is developed, it must go through trials to determine efficacy and the logistical challenge of distribution to billions of people. But a key difference is that effective climate solutions are more varied than a single vaccine and usually more complex.

At a webinar last week hosted by Yale, Stanford and other groups, Jigar Shah, co-founder of clean energy financier Generate Capital , noted that climate technologies, unlike medical breakthroughs, must compete with systems already in place.  

"In the biotech industry, which I think folks herald as a well-functioning market, once companies reach a certain validation of their technology and approach, there's a payoff there," he said. "And in [climate tech], there really isn't one [in the same way], largely because there are a lot of incumbent technologies that provide electricity, energy, water, food, land and materials."


The period when a new technology is costly to develop but too early-stage to produce commercial revenue is often called the "Valley of Death" because even promising technologies often fail during this period. Success requires the collaboration of a wide set of partners and investors.

As an Environmental Innovation Fellow at Yale, I’ve helped compile insights for investors on overcoming the unique barriers faced by nascent climate technology. Fortunately, many investors are already tackling this challenge.  

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