“Climate really isn’t a vertical. It’s a new horizontal, in how we rethink and re-tool our businesses,” said Moxxie Ventures general partner Katie Stanton at the 2021 Carta Equity summit. Katie joined Mission One Capital managing partner Kiel Berry, New Enterprise Associates partner Ann Bordetsky, and Overstory chief product officer Fiona Spruill for a panel on investment trends in the climate space. They talked about why they’re bullish on the diversity of talent that’s being attracted to this sector, and how the landscape and technologies driving today’s climate startups make it different from the cleantech 1.0 wave that ended a decade ago. As all four panelists urged founders to enter this well-funded space, Ann said that newcomers to climate tech shouldn’t feel cowed by purists: “The tech industry can drive incremental change, but at a global scale.”
This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Fiona Spruill: Thank you for joining us. We’re thrilled to be talking about climate tech, a subject dear to everyone on this panel. I’m Fiona Spruill, your moderator and chief product officer at Overstory, a seed-stage climate tech company that uses machine learning on satellite imagery to reduce the risk of wildfires. I was previously chief operating officer at Meetup; and before that, an editor at the New York Times. We have a rockstar lineup tonight—literally—so I’d love to start by asking Katie, Ann, and Kiel to introduce themselves.
Kiel Berry: I’m Kiel Berry, founder and managing partner of Mission One Capital. I also built and ran the VC firm for the rock band Linkin Park. I started my career in investment banking, and slowly and happily made my way through entertainment, and now into venture.
Katie Stanton: I’m Katie Stanton, founder and general partner of Moxxie Ventures, an early stage venture firm that backs a range of industries, with a particular passion for climate. We are proud investors in Overstory, which is how I met Fiona. My only rock star moment is that I was friends with Kanye for a day—then we got in a fight. He ghosted me and now it’s not great, but maybe he’ll give me another chance one day.
Ann Bordetsky: Following Linkin Park and Kanye, that’s tough. I’ll be the nerd: I’m Ann Bordetsky, partner at the global venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. We’re investors in Loanpal [now GoodLeap], Opower, Bloom Energy, and many other climate tech startups, so I’m excited to be here. I’m a former operator, a COO, and business development exec who has worked at Uber, Twitter, and Rival. I actually started my career in cleantech 1.0, where I rode the boom and bust cycle through various startups. Before that, I worked on climate and energy policy in D.C. for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the top environmental advocacy groups. So, after starting my career in climate tech, it’s really nice to be boomeranging back as an investor.
Trends in climate tech
Fiona: Thank you, all. I want to start with the exciting trends you’re seeing in climate tech. Katie?
Katie: What I’m most excited about is seeing such great cross-functional talent—investors, operators, founders—all attacking this problem. This is the most urgent problem of our time; here in Colorado, it’s so hot and dry that we’ve had fires in December. It’s also exciting seeing the diversity of talent by gender, race, and location. We’re seeing great startups in Amsterdam, Nairobi, Sweden, and the U.K.
Lastly, seeing diverse solutions to these problems has been exciting, on the question of how we adapt to climate change, and how we mitigate it. Companies like Overstory, using artificial intelligence for vegetation management; and Charm, who have sucked out something like 5,000 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and injected it into the ground so far this year. There’s also Mootral, a supplement for cows that helps them to fart and burp less—I can’t believe I just said those words at a Carta summit, but just to say, there’s not going to be one silver bullet. We’re going to need many creative solutions.
Kiel: I completely agree. Right now, finally, there’s a sense of urgency; people are experiencing climate change personally. Governments, corporations, and the financial sector are hopefully now triangulating around massive change. For example, BlocPower did a deal with Ithaca, New York to green all the buildings in the city. Or the ambitious goals that the current administration has around renewables and getting to net zero by 2050, and having milestones to track toward that. That’s exciting.
To your point about frontier technologies being applied to climate: there’s also the intersectionality of AI and machine learning; as well as smart grids and distributed networks for energy efficiency. There’s also Overstory, as you mentioned, leveraging micro-satellites that now make it cost effective not just to take pictures like a Planet Labs 1.0, but to look at different waves and get different vantage points leveraging Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and other spatial technologies to see the makeup of those images. I think this intersectionality is interesting.
Then, like Katie mentioned, there are traditional venture capitalists going into the space, whether as part of their overall fund or dedicated funds. Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures wrote about how climate will be to this decade what the cloud was to the last, and how they’re putting their money where their mouth is with a dedicated fund in the space. This is telling. There are also new funds building specifically around climate, like my own, to focus on this space and think generationally.
Ann: This is the thing about climate tech, by the way—it’s like being a kid in a candy store. There’s so many amazing things going on. There are two other things that get me really excited, and that are important trends for climate tech investing and entrepreneurship. One is, to Kiel’s point, that the capital is showing up. Venture invested $32 billion globally in climate tech startups in 2021 alone. Most of that is in the growth stage, but new funds are forming and there is dedicated capital emerging for climate tech, so we’re seeing an early ecosystem emerge for pre-seed and seed stage climate tech companies that are developing new ideas across sectors where climate is relevant.
The other thing I get excited about is that Gen Z consumers are great for climate tech. They really care about sustainability, and are growing up with awareness and a sense of urgency about being part of the solution. So on the consumer side, there is a lot of demand for sustainable products and commerce, and that’s reflected in the startups that we’re seeing now.
Lessons learned from cleantech 1.0
Fiona: Every couple of months the momentum seems to grow, and I get so excited about it. But there are still some skeptics, especially in the VC world. Some of that may come from being burned in the cleantech bust. Ann, can you talk about lessons learned, and what’s hopefully different this time?
Ann: When we started to see the new wave of climate tech founders a couple years ago, I asked myself this, because I had been burned by the cleantech 1.0 wave, though more as a startup employee than as an investor. So I’ve asked myself this: What’s different this time around? Is it really real? And I think things are different. Many of today’s founders aren’t even old enough to remember the cleantech 1.0 era, which was focused on commercializing technologies that required project finance, more than venture capital.
During that time, about $25 billion of venture capital went into cleantech, and investors lost about half of that. 90% of companies failed, and while the mortality rate for startups is generally high, that was a bit of a bubble. There were high prices for oil; and solar and batteries hadn’t yet matured and come down enough in cost to make those technologies commercially viable without government incentives. There was a post-recession stimulus juicing the industry, and that was not sustainable. So there was a bubble—and frankly, a lot of capital went into capital-intensive, important, but difficult-to-scale solutions that were ultimately not a great fit for the venture industry. This time, things are different.
A couple of things changed venture investing in this space. One is, we have all the building blocks of software: many of the technologies that can be deployed to reduce emissions are now much more commercially viable from a cost perspective. We have a different set of entrepreneurs who are bringing their expertise from building and creating hyperscale companies like Uber, Airbnb, Slack, and Stripe. They’re bringing financial tech (fintech) expertise and are designing more scalable business models and products from the get-go. The other thing is that there’s a lot of capital and a lot of interest. We’re seeing massive new environmental, social, and governance (ESG) funds get created. There’s also the carbon trading that is taking place—in Europe, carbon is priced at 85 euros, right?
So many things are happening in the broader market landscape that drive capital toward opportunities that are more scalable, capital efficient, and venture friendly than some of the startups in that first era. I don’t think that consumers are going to give up, as there’s a real sense of urgency now that people have experienced the undeniable risk and costs of climate change. So I don’t think of this as a bubble, but as the beginning of a new normal for climate tech.
Kiel: That is something that I thought about the cleantech 1.0 boom, as I started to think about my thesis: what is venture’s role in the climate tech space? To your point, you mentioned that venture went into projects that may have been better suited for project finance, government research and development (R&D), or large capital expenditure (CapEx) spending—or those that had different time horizons and return profiles than traditional venture.
So that’s one thing. But also, it’s not completely fair to say it was a complete bust. Obviously there were a lot of winners, like Kleiner Perkins’ portfolio. Right now, I’m reading John Doerr’s book “Speed & Scale,” which just came out. He talks about Proterra, which is now a public company of around $2 billion; Beyond Meat, which is upwards of $5 billion; QuantumScape, at $11 billion; ChargePoint, at $6.5 billion; and of course Nest, which was acquired by Google. There were still a lot of winners—but to your point, the time horizon and return profile looked different. But people are now leveraging their learnings from the software world. Frontier technologies that have been used in the general market are now being applied to climate tech. So I think we’re going to see a much different return profile and time horizon.
Katie: I would add two other things. One, which I don’t think has been mentioned, is that the whole foundational tech such as solar, wind, and storage are so much more competitive now on a cost basis, versus fossil fuel. So if you make things easier, faster, and cheaper, you make it easier for people to do the right thing. And that is profoundly different than it was for cleantech 1.0.
My second observation is that we don’t look at climate like we used to. When I was an operator at Google and Twitter, way back, we would have a “mobile team” or “international team,” but at some point everything was mobile, and everything was international. Climate really isn’t a vertical— it’s a new horizontal, in how we rethink and re-tool our businesses. Trying to find the Stripes of climate that can power all the things that we do in an easier, faster, more sustainable way, is going to be not just the right thing to do, but quite profitable.
The role of government funding and venture capital
Fiona: Let’s stay on the topic of funding for a minute. Just this week, BlocPower, a hot climate tech startup, received a $5.5 million dollar grant from Jeff Bezos’ climate fund. Do you think that this approach, where startups are getting a mix of grants and VC funding, is going to be the norm going forward?
Kiel: I definitely think so. Looking at the trajectory of a climate tech startup, in the beginning the spending is really around R&D, whether it is with the Department of Energy, American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funds to develop things in the lab to see what commercial scalability or the go to market strategy might look like. That’s deep tech that is going to take a lot of years, and you need very patient capital. Then, when it comes to commercialization and scaling, maybe that’s where venture starts to be in play at the early and growth stages. Like Anne mentioned, there’s a lot of growth stage capital—series B and above—to allow for that kind of larger growth opportunity.
And maybe as it gets to a certain scale, depending on the type of startup there could be a blending of government incentives, loan guarantees, tax credits, and project- or infrastructure-related financing to create a blended cap table. Instead of using extremely expensive VC-related funding, there could be non-dilutive capital or loans that help companies through their life cycle.
Ann: That’s well said. First of all, non-dilutive capital is great for founders. If you can get it, take it—why not? And yes, take the government funding, especially if you have a lot of R&D risk that you need to remove before venture and other investors are willing to come in. My only caution—and this is the one of the lessons from 10 years ago—is to not design a business model that is fundamentally dependent on government support. That rarely works out well. Founders need to strike a balance between being opportunistic, while building a business model that doesn’t create the risk of requiring sustained government funding. But Tesla, famously, got made by a government loan guarantee, which gave Tesla about $450 million of really cheap capital to build the company. And that’s a big part of the success story that we probably don’t remember today, now that it has a trillion-dollar market cap.
Katie: Who wants to remind Elon?
Ann: In terms of the political environment and policy proposals that we’re seeing now: On the one hand, it’s great to focus on climate, to have more directed funding, especially absent a carbon price. But it worries me that we are going to see the same flash of capital and government funding come in, and if that’s not directed at the right business models, it could also destroy some companies along the way.
The regulatory landscape and how companies are moving ahead
Fiona: Let’s stay on the government theme for a minute and talk about how the regulatory landscape is going to help or hinder progress. Living in Amsterdam, and being in touch with the European climate tech startups, it seems that the regulatory landscape here is a bit more favorable, but I’d love to hear your perspectives. Katie, you definitely spent time in government.
Katie: The good news is that we have an administration that is embracing this challenge and recognizes the urgency. And the Paris Agreement is great, but it’s kindergarten. We need bolder regulation and standards. It’s good that we have an administration pushing in the right direction, but it is absolutely going to take us working with the local, state, national—and to some extent, the global—regulatory environments to push these things forward. Local is probably even better, as well as the private sector, which is where we’re going to see all the innovation. There’s no silver bullet. It’s a little too late, but it’s good.
Kiel: The government has both carrot and stick ways to play. And governments are coming together, at least with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, and top-level agreements at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). Even though some of the language there got moved around, that’s the first layer. What comes next is how that gets implemented. There are also market-driven approaches; in addition to carbon pricing, which could help bring down the green premium, what we’ve seen the EU do around cap and trade could be interesting in our markets.
Cap and trade means that there’s a cap on the amount of emissions that certain companies or industries can have. Going above those caps requires buying costly allowances, which impacts business models; and those who are able to keep their emissions lower get allowances to use down the line or sell back in a market-based trading system. This kind of market-driven approach feeds into financial incentives at the large corporate level, and I think this is how we can actually see change. The government has to help enable some of that—or let’s say, that’s what the government can do.
Fiona: Ann, anything you want to add, given your policy experience?
Ann: I would second Katie’s point. Tax incentives and money are great, but consistent policy is better. Because ultimately—and you appreciate this if you’ve ever tried to build a company—you need a predictable policy environment to make long-term investment decisions, whatever that may be for your business. When DC and global policy makers are in a volatile place, it’s really hard for companies to commit into a long-term strategy. This is trending positive, but it has been volatile for the last decade and still is.
I commend the companies that have come out with their own net zero commitments. The 200 big corporations—about 25% of the Fortune 2000—that have come out with net zero commitments are showing real corporate leadership. They do have to back it up, but in this volatile political environment, I think it’s a huge positive that companies are stepping up to lead in this way and creating private markets, absent more stringent policy.
Kiel: That’s an interesting point. Some in the private sector, whether it’s the over 200 that signed up to the climate pledge, the Amazon climate project, or others—are starting to step in where they think the government should be playing. It’s good that the private sector may not be waiting. Some of them, like Stripe, are voluntarily funding carbon capture technology, offsets, or even the tech companies that track emissions and put in the infrastructure needed to measure it. You can’t change what you can’t measure. Starting to do that voluntarily without a regulatory framework is amazing. But getting broader adoption outside of that tip of the spear is more difficult.
Crypto and climate
Fiona: Let’s switch gears to crypto for a minute. It’s fair to say that crypto and climate are the two areas of tech that are on fire right now. I don’t want to debate if crypto is good for the climate, right here and now. But rather: you all are talking to tons of people in both worlds, so what are you seeing in terms of the talent flowing into climate and crypto right now?
Ann: I love this question because I see this every day. I don’t know if Kiel and Katie would agree, but to me it’s been interesting in the last two years to watch some of the best talent in tech pick one sector or the other. And I think part of it is that people are craving purpose and there’s a sense of urgency around climate. If you live in the Bay Area, it’s been so present in our day to day lives with the wildfires that people woke up and asked, how can I be part of the solution? Founders who previously built ad tech or social media companies are now pivoting into climate. That’s great for the space because they’re bringing a fresh perspective and a different toolkit than what has been in this place before.
But there’s also a huge talent suck into crypto. I play in that space also, so I can’t pit them against each other, but I think it’s interesting that climate and crypto are the big talent pools right now in tech. So if you’re a mission-driven company, you can attract phenomenal talent; and if you’re in a new frontier, like Web3, you can attract great talent that way. But I wonder if the Web3 wave hadn’t happened as fast as it is, would more people be going to climate? I don’t know, but it’s good to be building a climate tech company right now because they’re hiring incredible talent more easily than most other startups.
Katie: We joked prior to this call that maybe we should rebrand climate tech to Climate3 or some other hipper, catchier name. Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, has said that the next 1000 unicorns will be involved in climate tech, and I believe that. There may also be a bunch of unicorns in crypto. Even though they’re both very challenging categories, and one’s more pervasive than the other, one thing they have in common is there’s so much optimism for solutions. That’s great as a VC; you look for great founders in big markets, and both of these categories have that.
The second commonality I’ve seen is in diversity by gender, race, and location. In terms of location, you can’t ignore Miami. I was there last week—I had two Ubers, one with an iDoge license plate, and another with Dogecoin trading on his dashboard. The city is bananas.
The third commonality is meritocracy. It’s not as if founders have their PhDs in crypto at this point. Anyone can begin again, or start fresh and learn, and that takes so much courage. That’s awesome, and it’s been interesting seeing people who are ready to lean in, work hard, and build something meaningful.
Kiel: I think that’s super. Climate can be very heavy in terms of deep tech and science, but I’m seeing a couple of things that have given me optimism and confidence. First, many traditional VCs are deciding to pivot or completely change what they’re focused on. Whether it was the IPCC report, COP26, or a girl who skipped school and decided to stand up for what she believed in—a lot of people saw their children in Greta and decided that this is important. The movements of crypto and climate have similarities in that everyone’s behind it. Everyone’s really supportive, and to your point, people realize that we’re in the early days of what will be a massive shift and change. Excitement is driving both sectors.
To your point, you can talk about crypto being applied to carbon credits and tracking attribution, and there’s a lot of overlap. But in general, both the sectors are going to be really where all the excitement goes. Alexis Ohanian just tweeted that he’s focused on culture, crypto, and climate as his triple c’s. People are realizing that there’s a lot of alpha there too, as well as impact.
Getting into climate
Fiona: I just saw that True, a top tech recruiting firm, just acquired a climate tech recruiting firm to double down in this area. This made me so excited because when I was looking to move into pre-climate tech in 2019, recruiters would ask, “You want to leave tech and go work on the environment?” It wasn’t clicking yet. So it’s amazing to see the difference. On the flip side, there are still real barriers and I hear it all the time from people who want to make the jump, but they aren’t quite ready.
Let’s talk about those barriers, especially when it comes to women and minorities. Katie?
Katie: I’m seeing a ton of diversity in the climate pipeline. I should be keeping better stats, but out of the four deals we’ve done so far, three have female founders, and one is a person of color. A dataset of four is not great but we’ve also talked to a lot of other founders. It’s still predominantly white and male, but it’s better than what I’ve seen, and certainly better than fintech and enterprise. I’ve seen so many funds and so much capital dedicated to female founders, person of color founders, or climate.
That is great, and one thing that I love about the crew on this panel, and about many of our other climate investors, is that it’s so collaborative. For all of our conversations, and I’m sure it’s the same for Kiel and Ann, we may say “if it’s not us, we know three other VCs that you should talk to.” So if you’re a founder trying to raise money, talk to any of us. The network is so rich. For example, there’s the podcast My Climate Journey, which is how I found Fiona—a warm, amazing person. Props to Jason Jacobs. And Terra.do created a climate school. I felt like such a dum-dum when I wanted to do climate, and I called up the team and said, can you get me from an eighth to an 11th-grade level? Everyone’s so warm and embracing about it. So don’t be shy—reach out and talk to people in this space.
Kiel: Wow, it’s so interesting how you met. My Climate Journey was also one of my first entry points into climate. I thought, here’s a guy who says he’s not from the space, who is going to take you along his journey as he learns and speaks to people who’ve dedicated their lives to this. Through his eyes over the past couple years, we’ve learned through that process.
I think we’re going to see a lot of diverse founding teams in this space because the populations that are most affected by climate are those from the developing world and those in minority groups. Those are the people who are going to be really butting up against the problem. So I’m optimistic on climate, versus the general market, where there are obviously disparities.
Ann: One of the things that I think is true for crypto and climate, is that they’re similar in this way that keeps people out, which is less about diversity and more about an acronym soup. The acronyms and industry speak can be really intimidating and off-putting. I would encourage anyone who is interested in climate to see past that. Find an idea or segment that resonates with you. That could be food, circular economy, fashion, electrification of cars—just find what resonates with you on a personal level and go deep there. There’s almost no “me too, me three” ideas in climate. There could be thousands more startups in the space because there’s a lot of unmet needs. There’s a lot of opportunities for people who are willing to look.
The other dynamic that I find fascinating is that you have purists in each space who are all or nothing, and then you have pragmatists who just want to make something people want to use, something relevant for everyday consumers. And I think you need both. Don’t let the purists, who want the world to change immediately, keep you out. I think that most of the positive climate impact that we can have as the tech industry is in creating incremental change at scale, globally.
Kiel: For people who are trying to get into this space, I’d like to share some rudimentary resources that I’ve used. In terms of reading, there’s John Doerr’s “Speed and Scale,” and Bill Gates’ “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.” Those are easy to digest. There’s also “The Future We Choose” by Christiana Figueres, who helped to negotiate the Paris climate agreement. I love diving into all of this, and it’s amazing how these resources have lowered the barrier and dispeled a lot of myths.
Subscribe to My Climate Journey—his approach to interviewing is great. I’ll also shout out Climate Tech VC, and how Sophie [Purdom] and Kim [Zou] are going deep into the stats. There’s also Terra.do, and On Deck also has a climate vertical as well. Work on Climate is another ecosystem with a great community. If you’re a founder ready to start something, there are a lot of incubators and accelerators for climate tech.
I’ll let Katie talk about Climate Draft, but I think their work is amazing. There’s a stat that the founder of Terra.do just mentioned to me, which is that there are 20 million people who have the understanding around climate tech right now, but we’re going to need 100 million. There’s a huge gap in terms of the number of people that have to get up to speed if we’re going to actually get to net zero. So organizations like Climate Draft are targeting people to bring their skill sets to the table, regardless of what sectors they’re from, because companies need things other than just solving for the technical risk. There’s a ton of resources that I’m happy to share if people want to reach out.
Fiona: I swear that Jason Jacobs is not sponsoring this panel, but that’s actually how I found Overstory.
Fiona: It’s an incredible community. And I worked at Meetup for almost five years, which of course is all about building communities, but I didn’t truly get the value of what a community can give to you until My Climate Journey. It’s been so important for so many people because they do feel intimidated. Katie, you mentioned getting up to the 11th grade, which I think is a great way to think about it. I hear so many people who start by thinking they literally need to go get a master’s degree—which is great if that’s what you want to do, but there’s so much that people can do without needing to know everything.
Katie: That’s true, and I would add that this is especially true for women and people of color, in terms of feeling a need to prove ourselves, and feeling like we have to be experts before we can do anything. So, let us tell all of you: you’ve got this. If you have passion and interest, we need that. I’m hearing from endowments, universities, and larger foundations that they have a directive to withdraw from fossil fuel investment and to reinvest in climate solutions. So the capital is going to keep coming and it’s going to be even more important. And the situation is really dire—not to be sad but rather, to be happy and optimistic. We need all of you who are listening today. We encourage you to do this, and we’re happy to have those conversations if you want to get in touch.
Ann: You can find all of us on Twitter—just DM if you’re impatient to get in touch with us.
Fiona: Great. What are your parting words to inspire people to come over to climate tech?
Ann: Having spent part of my career focused exclusively on climate and energy, I can say that there’s nothing better than waking up every day and feeling like you’re doing something urgent and important. You’re taking responsibility as an individual to have a meaningful impact on the world. You can push through a lot of challenges with that sense of mission. If you’ve never had a career experience like that, if you feel a little “meh” about whatever you’re doing in tech, just know that climate is a rich arena where you can meet the most interesting people you will ever come across. Insanely smart, diverse backgrounds, and it’s incredibly interdisciplinary. You can have a very interesting career in climate using your tech skills, and you’re going to feel good about it.
Kiel: There’s the saying that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” So we need founders to create these companies. And the second best way is to fund it. We need people to invest in startups and build this ecosystem, in order to see the future that we want for ourselves, our children, and humankind.
Fiona: Thank you all. This was inspiring to me, even though I think about climate every day. I get excited every day seeing the caliber of candidates that we’re talking to at Overstory—and we are hiring, by the way, so please go to overstory.com/careers. I’m going to go to bed because it’s one o’clock in the morning now, but thank you again.
Ann: Thank you, Fiona.
Katie: Thank you.
Kiel: Thank you, and bye.