What are the biggest opportunities in cleantech and why aren’t there more clean air innovators?
Author Paul Finch, Co-Founder, Breathable Cities (Growth Studio)
On the face of it, identifying the biggest opportunities in clean tech seems a really easy question but on reflection, the answer turns into a much larger and more complex response.
As a co-founder of Growth Studio, we focus exclusively on technologies that protect and preserve the planet. We spend our days advising corporates, governments, investors, and, of course, startups about what opportunities lie ahead for their respective worlds and priorities.
So naturally my immediate first thought defaults to identifying opportunities in investments and returns.
And then turn to cleantech impact and sector growth in general.
But actually, it might be more interesting to shine a light on what still remains untapped opportunity?
In terms of sector growth, cleantech growth is dominated by the ’traditional’ giants; renewable energy and energy storage, electric vehicles, smart grid and the circular economy.
Looking strictly at investment, a recent report commissioned by our client Amazon, “Sustainable Europe: The road to net zero” looked instead at how VCs invested their hard-earned dollars into clean and green tech in 2022.
Quoting HolonIQ they calculated that the biggest investment bucks that year went into Storage ($18.4bn), Mobility ($11.4bn), Agritech and food ($9.5bn), Renewables (8bn), and circular economy ($6.2bn) respectively.
But when we talk about opportunity, the choking, spluttering asthma-ridden elephant in the room has to be air quality.
Because here’s the opportunity; every year between 7 and 9 million deaths are attributed globally to air pollution. Over 600,000 children die prematurely, and in the UK alone we lose 43,000 people annually because the air that we breathe causes such health impacts that it simply kills us.
Air quality is also a social justice issue; if you’re poor, you are 2.5x more likely to have COPD, and nearly twice as likely to develop lung cancer compared to someone from the least deprived section of society. Black? You’re 2.5 times more likely to breathe illegal levels of air pollution. A mother from a deprived background? Your child’s birth weight is likely to be – on average – 56g lighter, and suffer a litany of health issues compared to a child born in an area with better air quality.
Air quality impacts us all, but some more than others. “Solving” air quality means more people live longer, and in greater health, which arguably is a basic human right.
If you think about it from a cold, clinical and capital perspective, reducing air pollution exposure reduces the burden on our health services, improves GDP and general productivity.
So what’s the opportunity? Simply put, air quality is an unresolved global health crisis. It affects every person, in every city in the world, every single day.
While more focus and investment is on cleantech, the air that we breathe isn’t necessarily becoming cleaner. By way of example, the rise of EVs increases the concentration of airborne pollutants from tyres (on account of heavier vehicles). So we are in effect reducing exhaust emissions but replacing them with an alternative poison.
Our most recent accelerator, Breathable Cities, was the first of its kind; an accelerator focusing exclusively on supporting technologies and innovators reducing air pollution in cities. It had bigger ambitions than just supporting startups; we wanted to really understand the sector and brought together a cabal of policy-makers, investors, academics, corporates to really understand – and help – the systemic problems in the sector.
The size of the problem is HUGE; global, epic, massive. But the number of startups attacking the problem is … well, meagre. In all our research we found under 300 seed and pre-seed startups across the entire UK who had appropriate solutions to clean our air; tiny numbers compared to the human, health and economic scale at hand. Investment into air quality startups has been challenging (read more about this topic here.).
With more emphasis going into regulating air pollution in cities across the UK, and indeed the world; from introducing clean air zones (from LTNs to ULEX) to European policy reducing exhaust emissions, the opportunity, for me, lies in supporting and investing in startups combating the problem.
Few other sectors have the balance between a big problem, regulation demanding change, and relatively few people trying to combat it (for now). And the cherry on the cake? A technology tackling air pollution in your local city will likely work in every city in the world, is inherently recession-proof, and has a clear, measurable impact on health and GDP.
So look beyond the traditional crowded space in clean tech, and come the innovators, pioneers and founders solving a problem affecting us all, because there is plenty of untapped opportunity for makers, creators and investors.