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Climate-conscious venture capitalists are once again placing big bets on clean technology. Can they make money and protect the planet?

绿色钞票 Greenbacks for greenery-书迷号

“TO SOME EXTENT, we try to scare off investors,” admits Mateo Jaramillo, co-founder of Form Energy. The startup is trying to solve one of renewables’ knottiest problems. Solar and wind power are intermittent, so green utility firms must store excess energy and release it when no sun shines or breeze blows. Large lithium-ion batteries can discharge energy for up to four hours. Form Energy, founded in 2017, wants to extend that to days with a different, and undisclosed, battery technology. In May it announced a pilot project with Great River Energy, a Minnesotan utility. So star-studded is its team of founders that a rival’s boss calls it “the Travelling Wilburys of energy storage”, in reference to the 1980s supergroup featuring George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Still, Mr Jaramillo does not expect to start scaling up until 2025.

“在某种程度上,我们是在努力吓跑投资者。”Form Energy的联合创始人马特奥·加拉米洛(Mateo Jaramillo)承认。这家创业公司正试图解决可再生能源最棘手的问题之一。太阳能和风能是间歇性能源,因此绿色电力公司必须存储多余的电能,在没有阳光或不刮风的时候释放它们。大型锂离子电池的放电时间最长四小时。成立于2017年的Form Energy希望用另一种它未透露细节的电池技术把放电时间延长到几天。5月,它宣布与明尼苏达州的电力公司大河能源(Great River Energy)开展试点项目。它的创始人团队大腕云集,一家竞争对手的老板用1980年代由乔治·哈里森和鲍勃·迪伦等人组成的超级乐团作比,称之为“能源储存界的Travelling Wilburys”。不过,加拉米洛预计要到2025年才会开始扩大规模。

The combination of long wait times and unproven technology would give many venture capital (VC) investors the jitters. Most want to see returns in five to seven years. Form Energy has more patient backers. They include Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), a fund set up by Bill Gates and supported by other billionaires; Eni Next, the Italian oil firm’s VC arm; and The Engine, a fund run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This reflects the evolving nature of the green VC ecosystem, which is teeming again after years in relative hibernation.

漫长的等待加上未经验证的技术会让许多风险投资人不安。他们大都希望在五到七年内看到回报。而Form Energy的投资者更有耐心。其中包括由比尔·盖茨设立并获得其他亿万富翁支持的突破能源风投基金(Breakthrough Energy Ventures,以下简称BEV),意大利石油公司埃尼集团(Eni) 的风投部门Eni Next,以及由麻省理工学院管理的基金“引擎”(The Engine)。这反映了绿色风投生态系统不断演变的特性:在经过多年相对蛰伏的状态之后,它又再度焕发生机。

In 2019 investors poured a record $36bn into climate-related technology, up from $17bn in 2015, according to Cleantech Group, a research firm. Half the money flowed into North American startups (see chart 1). China accounted for between 15% and 30%, depending on how the sector is defined, and Europe for another 15%. This should spur innovation and, hopefully, lower the relative price of climate-friendly technology even in the absence of regulations making carbon-heavy ones dearer. And it needs to happen across the board, not just in energy and transport. “When we think about decarbonisation we have to remind ourselves that this is the entire industrial economy”, says Mr Gates.


The International Energy Agency (IEA), a global forecaster, predicts that a quarter of the reductions in emissions needed to put Earth’s climate on a sustainable path by 2070 come from mature technologies, such as hydropower. A further 41% come from relatively new technologies with less than 1% of a given market, such as offshore wind in electricity generation. Technology at the demonstration or prototype stages (battery-powered ships or aircraft, respectively) account for 17% apiece. That presents a huge opportunity for investors—so long as they have a strong stomach.


Green VC has a chequered past. In the late-2000s it experienced a boom and bust cycle in America and, to a lesser extent, Europe. VC funds took a financing model designed for software firms and applied it to companies producing physical products, mostly solar panels and biofuels, that take plenty of time and money to generate revenues. Many companies went bust. Their VC backers lost more than half of the $25bn they had bet. Capital dried up.


Now it is flowing again. This time investors are looking at a broader range of clean tech. About half the deals by value go to low-carbon transport, encouraged by Tesla’s credulity-stretching success. In 2004 Elon Musk bought a 14% stake in the electric-car maker for $6.5m. Six years later it went public and is today worth $385bn, more than any other carmaker. Mr Musk’s stake alone is worth perhaps $72bn, just shy of General Motors and Ford combined.


Investments are not confined to Tesla wannabes. Impossible Foods, a $4bn plant-based-protein firm backed by Mr Gates and Google, and Beyond Meat, its listed rival now worth $10bn, have whetted investors’ appetite for agricultural technology. Form Energy and other developers of grid-scale storage are also in demand.

投资对象不仅限于那些想复制特斯拉的成功的公司。投资方包括盖茨和谷歌、估值40亿美元的植物蛋白公司Impossible Foods及其市值已达100亿美元的上市竞争对手Beyond Meat激发了投资者对农业技术的兴趣。Form Energy和其他电网级储能技术开发商也很受欢迎。

So is software. PwC, a consultancy, estimates that of the biggest 5% of early-stage VC deals between 2013 and 2019, one in ten involved pure software firms. Another six in ten involved startups that integrate clever algorithms with clean hardware. The falling cost and commoditisation of things like solar panels or batteries, the price of which has dropped by 82% and 87%, respectively, between 2010 and 2019, allows such firms to offer auxiliary goods and services. Software innovations make it possible to take this cheaper hardware and push it beyond its previous limits, observes Varun Sivaram of Columbia University. Some startups are, for instance, trying to use clever programming to aggregate distributed energy sources, such as rooftop solar panels or batteries, and provide electricity to the grid like a virtual power plant.

还有软件。咨询公司普华永道估计,2013年至2019年间,规模居前5%的早期风投交易中有一成涉及纯软件公司。另有六成涉及将智能算法与环保硬件相结合的创业公司。太阳能电池板或电池等产品的成本不断下降,商品化程度不断提高(它们的价格在2010年至2019年间分别下降了82%和87%),让此类公司可以提供辅助产品和服务。软件创新使得人们有可能利用这些更便宜的硬件并让它们突破以前的极限,哥伦比亚大学的瓦伦·西瓦拉姆(Varun Sivaram)指出。比如,一些创业公司正尝试用巧妙的程序来整合屋顶太阳能电池板或电池等分布式能源,像虚拟发电厂一样向电网供电。

Investors, too, have grown more diverse. VC firms are increasingly rubbing shoulders with governments, corporations, climate-conscious billionaires and private-equity (PE) firms.


In 2015, 24 countries, including America, China and Germany, and the EU pledged to double R&D spending on clean energy over five years. Many will fall short of that goal. But the decline in spending in the mid-2010s appears to have been reversed. Last year taxpayer-funded green-energy R&D around the world rose for the third consecutive year, to a record $25.4bn, accroding to the IEA.


Governments are trying to fill funding gaps at a later stage, too, when deep-pocketed banks are reluctant to hand out $50m for a factory-scale project and less risk-averse VC firms cannot afford to do so, observes Emily Reichert of Greentown Labs, an incubator. Initiatives such as the EU’s long-standing innovation fund and a new scale-up fund within ARPA-E, an American programme for advanced energy technology, aim to help startups escape this “valley of death”.

孵化器Greentown Labs的艾米丽·赖希特(Emily Reichert)指出,各国政府也在试图填补清洁能源项目后期的资金缺口。到了这个阶段,财力雄厚的银行不愿为工厂级的项目提供5000万美元之多的贷款,而风险厌恶程度较低的风投公司又拿不出这么多钱。欧盟创立已久的创新基金,以及美国先进能源技术计划ARPA-E下设的新的扩大基金,都致力于帮助创业公司走出这个被称为“死亡谷”的阶段。

Corporations, for their part, are on the lookout for new technologies to help them decarbonise or cut energy costs. According to Cleantech Group, big business is involved in about a quarter of deals, up from 16% in 2010. They either invest through their VC arms or by providing capital directly. Oil majors including ExxonMobil have created a clean-investment fund (though it pales in comparison to their oily capital spending). Energy Impact Partners is trying to set one up on behalf of two dozen utilities, such as Southern Company, an American one, and Britain’s National Grid. This year non-energy firms have announced around $5bn-worth of climate VC. Amazon, an e-commerce empire, has backed five firms, including Rivian, an electric-van startup, and Redwood Materials, a battery-recycling firm. Microsoft, a software colossus, Unilever, a consumer-goods giant, and IKEA, a furniture-maker, have also loosened their purse strings.

企业这一边则正在寻找新技术来帮助自己脱碳或削减能源成本。根据美国清洁技术集团的数据,大企业参与了大约四分之一的风投交易,2010年这一比例为16%。它们要么通过自己的风投部门投资,要么直接提供资本。包括埃克森美孚在内的石油巨头成立了一只清洁投资基金(尽管与它们的石油资本支出相比还是小巫见大巫)。Energy Impact Partners正尝试代表美国的南方电力公司(Southern Company)和英国国家电网公司(National Grid)等约20家电力公司设立一只基金。今年,非能源公司已经公布了价值约50亿美元的气候风投。电子商务帝国亚马逊投资了五家公司,包括电动货车创业公司Rivian和电池回收公司Redwood Materials。软件巨头微软、消费品巨头联合利华和家具制造商宜家也都松开了钱袋子。

High net-zero worth

So have rich individuals, who, like corporate VC funds, tend to represent more patient capital. Family offices participate in around 8-10% of deals, up from 4% in 2010. Many act in concert, as with Mr Gates’s BEV. Launched in 2015, the $1bn vehicle invests only in startups with the potential to cut annual greenhouse-gas emissions by at least the equivalent of half a gigatonne of CO2—some 1% of the world’s total. Mr Gates has enlisted about 20 fellow plutocrats, among them the richest men in America (Jeff Bezos), China (Jack Ma) and India (Mukesh Ambani). The fund is backing 40 firms and will last for 20 years.

富有的个人也在投资清洁技术,他们和企业风投基金一样,一般代表的是更有耐心的资本。家族办公室参与了大约8%至10%的交易,2010年的比例为4%。很多家族办公室是共同行动,就像盖茨的BEV那样。这个10亿美元的投资基金于2015年推出,仅投资有潜力每年把温室气体排放量减少至少五亿吨二氧化碳当量(约为全球总量的1%)的创业公司。盖茨联合了包括美国的杰夫·贝索斯、中国的马云和印度的穆克什·安巴尼(Mukesh Ambani)等各地首富在内的20位富豪。该基金正在投资40家公司,投资年限为20年。

Régine Clément, who heads Clean, Renewable and Environmental Opportunities (CREO), a network of 200 or so family offices, says that many families are trying to be “catalytic”. Some support risky prospects and when a product is established, as is happening with low-carbon protein, they take their capital and move to the next nascent market. The Emerson Collective, a foundation founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the ex-wife of Steve Jobs, Apple’s late boss, has invested in perhaps a dozen climate-tech startups through an incubator. Mr Gates has separately founded TerraPower, a company developing advanced nuclear reactors, and invested in Carbon Engineering, a firm that builds machines which suck carbon dioxide from the air.

在全球有约200个成员的家族办公室网络“清洁、可再生和环境机遇”(CREO)的负责人雷吉娜·克莱门特(Régine Clément)说,许多家族都在试图发挥“催化”作用。其中一些投资有风险的项目,在新产品成熟之后(比如低碳蛋白质),它们就会带着自己的资金转战下一个新生市场。由苹果公司已故老板史蒂夫·乔布斯的遗孀劳伦娜·鲍威尔·乔布斯(Laurene Powell Jobs)创立的基金会Emerson Collective已通过一个孵化器投资了大概十几家气候科技创业公司。盖茨另外还出资成立了开发先进核反应堆的公司TerraPower,并投资了生产从空气中吸收二氧化碳的设备的Carbon Engineering。

Green innovators are also attracting innovative financing methods. PE firms like Spring Lane Capital and Generate Capital are using new funding models to help startups escape valleys of death. In 2019 Generate lent $100m to Plugpower to install its hydrogen-powered forklift trucks in warehouses of Amazon and Walmart. The retailers pay Plugpower for the service, and it uses the proceeds to repay the loan. Specialised insurance firms, such as New Energy Risk, an affiliate of AXA, a giant insurer, help financiers manage the risk.

绿色创新者也正在吸引创新的融资方式。像Spring Lane Capital和Generate Capital这样的私募股权公司正在利用新的融资模式来帮助创业公司走出死亡谷。2019年,Plugpower从Generate获得了一亿美元的债务融资,在亚马逊和沃尔玛的仓库中安装它的氢动力叉车。这两家零售商就这项服务向Plugpower付费,后者用收益来偿还债务。大型保险公司安盛(AXA)的子公司New Energy Risk等专门的保险公司可以帮助金融家管理风险。

In September QuantumScape, a battery startup which counts Mr Gates and Volkswagen among its investors, said it planned to list through a reverse merger with a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) of the sort that have been all the rage on Wall Street this year. SPACs allow startups to negotiate the purchase price directly. Deals are faster and more predictable. So are exits, which may encourage climate-tech VCs to support more startups.


Many are already heartened by the rapid rise of green stocks. In the past year the S&P clean-energy index, which tracks around 30 firms, outperformed the S&P 500 index of big American companies (see chart 2). Liqian Ma, of Cambridge Associates, a consultancy, notes that between 2014 and 2018 green VC investments around the world generated annual returns of 20%. That is double what typical VC firms manage, and a vast improvement over the mid-2000s, when the average green VC lost money.

许多风投公司已经因绿色股票的迅速增长受到鼓舞。在过去的一年中,追踪约30家公司的标普全球清洁能源指数的表现优于追踪美国大企业的标普500指数(见图表2)。咨询公司康桥汇世(Cambridge Associates)的马里千指出,2014年至2018年间,全球绿色风投的年收益率为20%。这是一般风投公司收益率的两倍,比起十几年前绿色风投公司普遍亏损的状况有了很大的改善。

Deep decarbonisation will mean changing heavy industries, too, says Mr Sivaram of Columbia. For that, says Mike Perry, the chief technology officer of VIONX Energy, “You need someone with deep pockets.” His company, which makes large-scale flow batteries and has struggled to get financing to build its fourth plant, is now going through a restructuring process. “This is not-for-the-faint-of-heart investing,” Mr Perry concedes.

深度脱碳意味着重工业也会发生变化,哥伦比亚大学的西瓦拉姆说。要实现这样的变化,VIONX Energy的首席技术官麦克·佩里(Mike Perry)说:“需要有雄厚资金的人。”他的公司生产大型液流电池,一直难以筹到资金来建设第四家工厂,目前公司正在重组。“神经脆弱的人可做不了这样的投资。”佩里承认。

Part of the problem is that, as Mr Gates explains, “the demand side for innovation is missing.” That is particularly the case for high-emitting products bought by businesses, such as cement (which accounts for around 8% of global greenhouse-gas emissions) and steel (7-9%). Unlike software, which is easy to differentiate from rivals, “green steel is not going to be any better than steel,” notes Mr Gates. “So there is no market for early innovation.”


Targeted government procurement could boost green products, as happened when the Pentagon enlisted Silicon Valley to make computers. In the private sector Mr Gates is planning a fund that uses auctions to buy clean tech with the lowest price. This, he argues, will stimulate demand and lower costs. With ideas like this the latest green-VC boom may protect the planet—and avoid another bust. ■