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Practical Magic

Why corporate partners are essential for Third Derivative, a new climate-tech support network

Berkshire Hathaway, Microsoft, Wells Fargo are among founding partners of the initiative, which received more than 600 applications for its first cohort.

The Antora Energy team in the lab

Antora Energy, one of the Third Derivative startups, in the lab (L. to R: Tarun Narayan, David Bierman, Andrew Ponec, Justin Briggs)

Climate tech is more important than ever, but the systemic challenges entrepreneurs face in shepherding these solutions to commercial success is formidable. Most have incredibly long R&D lead times, while the systems that typically support startups cater to ones promising shorter-term payoffs.

That’s why earlier this year, clean economy nonprofits Rocky Mountain Institute — known for its thought leadership on climate change issues — and New Energy Nexus — with deep bottom-up resources for founders — combined forces to create a joint venture centered on finding and scaling climate-tech startups focused addressing climate change across the electric grid, transportation, buildings, manufacturing and agriculture.

Their mission: create a network of financial, technical and market development resources — including credible and powerful corporate connections — that gets these critically important solutions to commercial scale more quickly. The thesis: The most successful climate-tech startups will be those with early access to economic analysis, policy resources, financing and technical support.

This week, the venture, Third Derivative (D3), is launching with a portfolio of close to 50 startups (both early stage and those closer to commercial readiness) and the support of nine corporate partners and nine venture capital firms. D3 is particularly interested in accelerating solutions for "hard to abate sectors" where there aren’t currently good options for decarbonization, according to its website.

It is incredibly hard for investors to source, vet and execute investments across the many varied climate solution sectors.

Of the 50-ish startup companies announced this week — dubbed "Cohort 417" (for the peak of 417.1 parts per million in atmospheric CO2 concentration recorded in May 2020 — more than two-thirds are led by founders who are women, veterans or people of color, said Third Derivative co-founder and CEO Bryan Hassin. "We went out to meet them where they are," he said.

Both RMI and New Energy Nexus have committed "hundreds" of their market experts to supporting the venture with research, technical expertise and commercialization advice. The organization seeks to bridge knowledge and funding gaps at multiple phases of a startup’s life cycle — moving from basic research into a spinout; product development; demonstrations and market validation efforts; and commercial deployment.

RMI and New Energy Nexus are a powerful combo, but the corporate connections and venture resources make the initiative unique by providing that active perspective far earlier in the innovation process, Hassin said, pointing to his own past career as a climate-tech entrepreneur with a background in nanomaterials, off-grid solar energy and artificial intelligence. "We have a systems-level problem that we’re working on here," he said. "I think we can all agree that more is necessary."

Corporate support equals path to commercialization

D3 certainly packs a punch from day one, with nine corporations lined up as backers that have pledged to provide technical resources and financial support over the next three years. That initial group includes AT&T, BP Ventures, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Engie, Envision Energy, FedEx, Microsoft, Shell and Wells Fargo. Together, these big companies represent almost $3 trillion in market capitalization, although the energy company valuations are particularly subject to fluctuation at this time.

These companies are "incredibly motivated and visionary," Hassin said. They will play a hands-on role in startup mentorship and pilot projects, along with any other businesses that choose to join. But this isn’t just about money. "It doesn’t do any good for them to come in and just write a check," Hassin said.

Nine venture firms — representing more than $2 billion in funding and four continents — also have stepped up to support Third Derivative: CRCM Ventures, Imperative Ventures, Skyview Ventures and Volo Earth Ventures from the U.S.; Chrysalix and Emerald Technology Partners from Europe; Factor[e] and Social Alpha from Africa/India; and Tsing Capital from China.

"It is incredibly hard for investors to source, vet and execute investments across the many varied climate solution sectors," said Jan Van Dokkum, the former Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers partner who became chairman of Imperative in 2019, in a statement. "We see enormous value in Third Derivative applying RMI’s market knowledge and networks to cultivate a pipeline of game-changing climate-tech ventures validated by corporate partners. We are excited to make seed investments in those startups, and our ability to work with them over the duration of the program should dramatically increase their investability by the time they are ready for follow-on funding."

These are big ambitious goals for us, and we feel the sense of urgency to find scalable solutions that can help us meet both of them.

AT&T, which has committed to carbon neutrality by 2035 for its own operations and is also interested in supporting technologies that help its customers work toward similar goals, was intrigued by the "rigor" that Third Derivative is using to evaluate potential portfolio companies and in allowing corporate partners to be part of that process. That was one reason it decided to shell out $900,000 for its first three years in the program, said John Schulz, director of sustainability integration for AT&T. The other motivator: the diversity of perspective the venture offers.

"These are big ambitious goals for us, and we feel the sense of urgency to find scalable solutions that can help us meet both of them," Schulz said.

Aside from financial backing, AT&T is providing technical resources, especially those focused on how the various technologies being pioneered by D3 companies might be integrated with the internet of things — a major business development focus for the telecommunications company. "What are the connectivity solutions that could be the key to unlock success? That’s of particular interest," Schulz said.

A wide range of solutions

D3 actually launched the application process for its first cohort in the spring and received more than 600 applications — many for what Schulz described as "mind-blowing" innovations.

The corporate partners were actively involved with evaluating and recommending selections among the 200 finalists, which represent advances in hardware and business models and, to a lesser extent, software. They also represent countries including India, Indonesia, China and Italy, although the initial selections are weighted to companies from North America. "We were a little overwhelmed by the enthusiasm," Schulz said.

Some companies from the first cohort include:

  • Antora Energy: A Stanford-born effort (also backed by Cyclotron Road) working on ultra-low-cost energy storage that could have applications as wind and solar farms.
  • Blue Frontier: A startup supported by NREL, NYSERDA and others that is using saltwater energy-storage technology to create "hyper-efficient" air conditioners.
  • Frost Methane:  An offsets market being created around methane flaring activities
  • Kanin Energy: A venture focused on turning industrial waste heat into an emissions-free energy source.
  • Membrion: A materials company developing environmentally friendly filtration membranes.
  • SilviaTerra: A forest-mapping startup.
  • TexPower: A small team working on cobalt-free batteries.

Each D3 startup receives a $100,000 convertible note as well as the potential for $250 million in follow-on funding from the venture capital network that’s part of the program. Hassin said the mentorship process initially will last 16 months, but startups will be encouraged to remain connected. What’s more, companies will be added on an ongoing basis: applications will open up again in December. "We think there is value to working with a cohort for a while," he said. 

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the location for CRCM Ventures.

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