Skip to main content

More than money: How corporations can really help climate tech startups

Investing in climate funds is great. But it’s not the only way to add value.

Helping Hands

Image via Shutterstock/Metamorworks

European climate tech funds raised $2.6 billion in 2021 — an amount double that of the year before. Among those that helped to derive that record figure were a range of corporations. 

Credit Suisse backed 2150’s inaugural urban sustainability fund, which invests in startups changing the way cities are "designed, constructed and powered." Aviva chose U.K. government-backed Clean Growth Fund, a supporter of U.K. cleantech ventures. Microsoft, on the other hand, put money into Earthshot Ventures, an investor in green hardware and software startups.

Few would argue that corporations investing in (potentially) strategic startups isn’t a shrewd business move. But venture capital is a long-term game. Any capital committed by such companies may not be invested for up to five years and returned (if at all) for eight to 12. 

Thankfully, there are other, non-financial ways large companies can support climate tech startups, giving and receiving great value in the process. But how can companies find relevant startups (without the help of dedicated, external fund managers), and what mutually beneficial value can they offer when they do? After speaking to a number of founders and industry figures, I recommend considering the following two approaches.

Partnering with an incubator or accelerator

Take Founders Factory, for instance.

Launched in London, in 2015, it now describes itself as "the world's leading venture studio and accelerator." Eighteen months ago, it partnered with Slovakian pre/seed fund G-Force to launch a "Sustainability Seed" program. That program helps "stellar founders who are helping accelerate our world to a net-zero future" through six months of "world-class operational support."

Both Founders Factory and G-Force are part of the Founders Forum Group, a global community that, among other things, brings together hundreds of corporations from across the world. Companies include French cosmetics giant L’Oreal, American healthcare multinational Johnson & Johnson and German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom.

Founders Factory has connected many corporations in the Founders Forum network to climate startups in its Sustainability Seed program. British consumer goods multinational Reckitt Benckiser is one such example. Kyle Grant and Tom de Wilton founded sustainable laundry startup Oxwash in 2018. In a quote on Founders Factory’s website, they say they received mentorship from "some of the best minds" at Reckitt Benckiser when they went through the program in 2020.

Founders Factory team sitting in office and standing

The team at Founders Factory. Courtesy of Founders Factory

That led to a number of mutually beneficial collaborations. In November 2020, Reckitt Benckiser invested in the startup’s $2.1 million seed round through its recently launched venture arm, RB Ventures. Five months later, it announced a strategic partnership that saw Oxwash use Vanish sustainable formula in its "London state-of-the-art washing facilities." Vanish is a brand of stain-removing products owned by Reckitt Benckiser.

The futures of Oxwash and Reckitt are still interlinked today. Will Brackwell, chief of staff at Oxwash, said Fabrice Beaulieu, the multinational’s chief marketing, sustainability and corporate affairs officer, sits on its board "to help guide our strategy." Oxwash also works closely with Paola Arbelaez, global category director for Vanish, on "research and development, consumer insights and sustainability."

Louis Warner, COO at Founders Factory, said that the organization is "always open to working with corporates who share our mission of being the world’s best partner for founders."

Encouraging employees to become startup advisers

The approach above involves a formal relationship between company and accelerator, but it isn’t the only way for corporations to offer expertise to startups and founders.

Company employees often have incredible knowledge of the industry they work in, its pain points and the measures needed to address them. What’s more, many people are already helping to fight the climate crisis, outside of office hours.

Zinc, a London-based social impact venture builder, can attest to that.

Its latest cohort of 70 founders are building business to business solutions aimed at transforming "the industries that have the most impact on our environmental crisis," such as trucking, construction and farming.

In addition to Zinc’s program team, founders are supported by a network of over 100 visiting fellows, of which I am one. Many are experienced decision-makers at corporations such as accounting software provider Xero, professional services firm PwC and technology company Meta. 

According to Julia Ross, venture builder program director, fellows volunteer their "time, energy and social networks" — offering advice and connecting founders to potential clients, suppliers and helpful colleagues at fortnightly office hours.

Ross stressed that fellows all have different reasons for getting involved.

But, for corporations, one would imagine the benefits are threefold. Fellows with corporate jobs meet startups in the program before most even know of their existence. They’re then able to help maximize those startups’ odds of success and build relationships that may prove mutually beneficial for years to come (think: Oxwash and RB).

There are no right or wrong ways for established companies to provide non-financial support to emerging climate ventures. Each startup is different, and the list of potential advantages for both sides is endless. Some startups may see relationships with corporations as a foundation for strategic partnerships, others may benefit from introductions to suppliers.

The important thing, regardless of the form of support, is for large corporations to make it into the room with strategically aligned startups and ask how exactly they can be helpful. Their participation can provide invaluable market guidance, while introducing their own teams to companies that could easily become valued suppliers or partners, in the future.

More on this topic