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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Recession resilient’ climate startups shine in tech downturn


Julia Collins, founder of Planet FWD and Moonshot Snacks, in San Francisco, Jan. 26, 2023. Tech workers and investors are flocking to start-ups that aim to combat climate change.


By ERIN GRIFFITH


When Arebeth Pease was laid off from the tech startup MasterClass last year, she could have had her pick of jobs. But so many tech companies’ missions rang hollow, she said, and many were creating more problems than they were fixing.


Pease, 42, was drawn instead to Span, a startup that makes smart home electrical panels and is among a class of fast-growing companies aiming to combat climate change. She joined Span in September as an operations manager, with the startup’s focus on slowing the effects of climate change as the main selling point.


“We’re actually doing work that matters,” she said.


As tech companies slash perks and cut jobs, the downturn has spurred a wake-up call among many workers, causing them to question whether their company’s role in society — selling ads or selling stuff, often — was actually making the world a better place. The result? More are now flocking to climate startups, just as investors pour money into the field.


Last year, climate startups in the United States raised nearly $20 billion, topping 2021’s high of $18 billion and nearly tripling 2020’s $7 billion, according to Crunchbase, a data provider. At least 83 climate-focused companies around the world are worth more than $1 billion, according to HolonIQ, a research firm.


Despite worries of a recession, enthusiasm about climate startups is undimmed. Laurence D. Fink, CEO of the investment firm BlackRock, recently declared that 1,000 more $1 billion so-called climate unicorns were on the way.


“There is no line of business that will not be impacted by climate,” said Chris Sacca, one of the founders of Lowercarbon Capital, a climate-focused venture capital firm, at a conference run by Axios in October. “That’s also the opportunity.”


The momentum and excitement, investors said, are different from the cleantech boom of the mid-2000s, when investors poured money into a cohort of clean energy companies that were reliant on government subsidies. Many of those startups eventually went under.


“There were a lot of lessons learned from the first cleantech wave,” said Ben Marcus, an investor at the venture capital firm UP.Partners. “Investors are not just looking to invest in science projects but in real companies.”


Now broader economic trends have coalesced to bolster the market. The cost of renewable energy has fallen over the past decade. The Securities and Exchange Commission last year proposed a rule that would require companies to report their emissions, creating demand for tools to measure them. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, dedicated $370 billion to climate-related spending.


Large corporations have also elevated climate-focused initiatives to the boardroom, with 91% of the global economy now covered by “net zero” pledges of some sort, according to Net Zero Tracker, a nonprofit site.


Climate tech is “one of the few bright spots in the economy and one of the few industries that tend to be extremely recession-resilient,” said Rick Zullo, an investor at the venture capital firm Equal Ventures.


At least 135 funds focused on climate investing, with $94 billion under management, have been created since 2021, according to the newsletter Climate Tech VC. The largest tech investment firms — including Sequoia Capital, Khosla Ventures, General Atlantic and TPG — have increased their investments in climate-tech companies, as have corporate investors such as Salesforce and United Airlines.


Lila Preston, an investor at Generation Investment Management, the investment firm that Al Gore helped found in 2004, said the momentum was welcome and “absolutely needed.”


“You want the very best investors around the table with you when you are disrupting industries,” she said.


Still, with Silicon Valley-style growth comes Silicon Valley-style hype. Many in the industry are wary of the risks of too much money flowing into climate startups at inflated valuations. Some fear that the excitement will lead to more “greenwashing” — when businesses make “green” marketing a priority over actual impact — and infighting over which solution is best, ultimately damaging the industry’s credibility.


But the stakes are too high to be cynical, climate entrepreneurs and investors said.


Many tech workers have gone through a similar climate awakening. Olya Irzak, one of the founders of Frost Methane Labs, which helps reduce methane seeps from coal mines and other natural sources, has mentored people who want to work at climate companies for almost a decade. But during the pandemic, more people began reaching out to her and taking an interest in her annual list of climate startups, she said.


“People were sitting at home a lot, asking a lot of hard questions,” Irzak said. “That was when the tech talent pool started shifting really dramatically.”


One effort, Climate Draft, aims to help climate startups find advisers, investors and employees from the tech industry. More than 3,000 recently laid-off tech workers have signed up to learn about jobs at climate companies, the company said. Another online community, Work on Climate, has ballooned to 16,000 members since it began in 2020. People use it to network and learn about jobs.


“Rebuilding every single industry we have is going to require the participation of everybody who is in the workforce,” said Eugene Kirpichov, a former engineer at Google who helped found Work on Climate.


Diego Saez Gil, a founder of Pachama, a company that funds reforestation and sells carbon credits, said he had recently hired people from Meta, Google, Amazon, Airbnb and Tesla, with some even taking pay cuts to join. That’s a change from his past startups, where he found it tough to recruit people from big tech companies who would take pay cuts.


“The people coming to climate are missionaries,” he said. “They had some kind of awakening. They came to realize, ‘The planet is falling apart, and I’m working on making people click on ads.’”


That was what happened to Bryan Nella, 47, an account manager who has worked in tech for more than two decades. When pandemic shutdowns briefly cleared the skies of plane and car pollution, he reflected on his impact on society and the environment.


Last year, Nella joined SemiCab, a startup that helps trucking companies eliminate miles driven with no cargo. He usually ignored calls from recruiters, he said, but felt inspired by SemiCab’s mission to reduce trucking emissions.

“There’s a lot more to feel good about,” he said.

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