This is an excerpt from “Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street, and the Economic Battle to Save Our Planet” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
While government policies and leadership from Washington can help accelerate change, there’s another place that can accelerate change much faster: Silicon Valley.
In 2003, as a national technology reporter for a chain of newspapers, I visited the Mountain View, California campus of Google to meet with cofounder Sergey Brin. At the time, Google was still a private company, though there was widespread speculation that it would launch an initial public offering soon. The moment I pulled into the company parking lot, I got a taste that Google wasn’t a typical company. Covering many of the parking spaces were canopies made from solar panels, something that’s commonplace today but back then was pretty unusual. Even more unusual were the thick power cords hanging down from the panels over nearly every parking space, something that didn’t make sense until Brin and team later explained it to me. At the time, electric vehicles were even more uncommon than solar parking lot canopies (the first Tesla wouldn’t hit the streets for another five years). But Google knew EVs were coming someday soon, and it wanted to be ready. Google also wanted employees and other visitors to think about the possibilities that could come with solar-powered parking lots and cars that you could plug in to refuel.
Two of the forward-thinking people responsible for Google’s early solar deployment were Chris Sacca, who as the company’s corporate counsel and later head of special initiatives was involved in Google’s energy purchase agreements, and Andrew Beebe, who was chief commercial officer at solar company Suntech, which helped Google go solar.
“There really wasn’t any corporate interest until those guys stepped up and said, ‘Please build solar arrays all over our campus,’” Beebe recalled during a GreenBiz VERGE [climate] tech conference in October 2021. “But (Google executives) also said, ‘Set it up so we can have Walmart and Cisco and Microsoft and all of our competitors come over and see what we have done.’ They obviously had a hugely catalytic role in making all this happen.”
Both Beebe and Sacca would go on to become successful venture capitalists, Beebe with Obvious Ventures, the firm that helped launch companies such as Medium, Beyond Meat and electric bus maker Proterra, and Sacca with his firm called Lowercase Capital, which funded companies such as Twitter, Uber and Instagram. For about three years, Sacca also was a “guest shark” on the ABC television show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs bid for the favor — and the funding — of millionaire investors. But it didn’t take long before Sacca was feeling unfulfilled by funding kitchen gadget start-ups on “Shark Tank” or electronic-gaming companies back in Silicon Valley. He, like Beebe, turned his attention almost fully toward clean-energy and climate-related investments.
Sacca and Beebe represent one of the hottest corners of the venture capital business in the 2020s: climate tech. Some of the companies that investors like them are backing today will likely become the Googles of tomorrow. Only instead of changing the way we search for stuff on the Internet, climate tech companies will change the way we source and store our energy, grow our food, and move from point A to point B, whether on land, water, or air. In doing so, they’ll not only transform our economy, but help save the planet.
In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook. That was 30 percent more than in 2020 and more than 2.5 times what it was in 2019. Those big numbers will likely only get bigger as federal, state and international clean climate and clean-energy policies are implemented. Quite simply, government policies and funding help reassure venture capitalists and other private investors to put more of their money at risk.
In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook.
Climate-tech and clean-tech investing is no longer just about solar or wind or even batteries anymore. Those businesses now attract plenty of mainstream investors. They’re almost like investing in restaurants or real estate — they’re too passe for venture capitalists who are more interested in finding more disruptive technologies that can scale quickly and create big returns.
“What we look at every day are energy innovations that are just insane, some of which are doing things that Einstein declared literally would not be possible,” Sacca said at the VERGE conference. “We see stuff happening in synthetic biology, for instance, that’s just nuts.”
Amid the hellish fires in the West, back-to-back hurricanes in the East and scientists everywhere warning that things were only going to get worse, Sacca in August 2021 stepped away from Lowercase Capital, quit “Shark Tank,” and with wife Crystal turned his attention specifically toward figuring out how to fund and support companies trying to do more to address climate change. The couple launched a new investment fund called Lowercarbon Capital. In a matter of days, they raised more than $800 million that Lowercarbon Capital could deploy to try to “un— the planet,” in Sacca’s terms. The fund was so popular, Sacca wrote on Lowercarbon Capital’s blog, that it had to turn investors away. “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt,” he wrote.
Since then, Lowercarbon has invested in companies that capture carbon dioxide and turn it into consumer products, reduce carbon emissions from livestock and fertilizers on the farm, and mine materials that are key to batteries and storage in ways that don’t destroy the environment. One such company is Twelve, a Bay Area start-up that “upcycles” carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide captured from industrial emissions and turns it into everything from jet fuel to sunglasses lenses, replacing fossil fuels and plastic. Another company Sacca was particularly excited about in 2021 was Lilac Solutions, which has raised $150 million to commercialize its lithium-mining technology. Lilac claims it can produce the essential element for batteries 10,000 times faster than conventional methods, using 90 percent less land and water. Lowercarbon Capital has also made numerous major investments in companies at the intersection of agriculture and climate, including start-up Formo, which is following the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger model to make fine European cheeses that don’t require dairy or cows; Entocycle, which has figured out how to speed up the gestation period for black soldier fly larvae which happen to be some of the world’s fastest converters of food waste to protein; and Nitricity, which uses solar-powered modules placed around farms to literally make fertilizer out of thin air by converting and processing nitrates found in the atmosphere.
If garbage-eating fly larvae and fine cheeses bioengineered in a sterile laboratory don’t sound like appealing business models, think again. According to research group Climate Tech VC, food-and-water-related climate tech was the biggest sector for climate venture funding in 2021, followed by mobility, consumer goods, and clean energy. Tech investors’ take on food and agriculture is yielding new high-tech twists in one of the world’s oldest and most established economic sectors. Seattle-based clean-agriculture start-up Nori, for instance, got its start in 2017 when its cofounders entered a hackathon contest for coders to figure out new ways to use blockchain technology for social good. Far from the nearest farm, what they came up with was a way to use blockchain technology to monitor and track low-carbon agriculture practices and then monetize that by selling farm-based carbon-removal offsets.
In doing so, Nori is incentivizing farmers to use more climate-friendly agriculture practices that don’t just reduce carbon emissions but actually increase the ability of soil and crops to store carbon, while also creating a new marketplace for carbon removal and trading. In 2020, Nori raised more than $5 million in seed funding to launch its platform. “We call it climate-smart agriculture — thinking of carbon removal like a crop,” Christophe Jospe, a Nori cofounder, told E2.