From Dante to Decarbonisation

Having left the world of science at school, I read medieval Italian poetry at university and thought to myself “finally – something I can study with real world application!” I slightly rued my artsy background when I took an MBA which involved some mathematics: the GMAT (“how is one not a prime?”), financial accounting (“how come income statements have expenses?”), Excel modelling (“how the IF does that work?”)… at least I was not being stretched beyond my academic limits in science.

And yet, this would shortly change – I am a glutton for punishment. I started at RIG knowing full well the deep dive into the scientific world this would require. I have tested the upper limits of the initial amnesty I have been afforded on stupid questions, where the clients with whom I am working push the boundaries of my formation in Physics and Chemistry. One company creates micro-grooves in film to use for energy storage & generation (“is a capacitor a kind of dinosaur?”), and another gasifies waste to create heat & electricity (“is syngas different from cosgas and tangas?”) – I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.

That said – having arrived slightly nervous at my new place of work, after a week on the job I am immeasurably calmer. Firstly, the mission, values and vision of RIG are much clearer. Furthermore, my understanding of the science behind the numerous technologies with which we work has developed: I am now beginning to grasp the extent of how much I do not know. Finally, and most importantly, I have been benefitting from collaboration with my colleagues, from MD to intern.

As for my colleagues, I could write about the strength of their characters and their sparkling conversation; however, I will focus on their striking professionalism. The quality and quantity of work they provide to achieve the tangible delivery of value to clients, the depth and breadth of their knowledge within and without the technologies of their practice space – they are practically SMEs in a wide range of fields from CO2 reuse to cadmium removal.

Why am I not concerned about my non-science (nonsense? Ed.) background in this job? Partly meeting Scott Hartley (amongst other accolades, author of The Fuzzy and the Techie – worth a read!) at a poetry competition; Scott is a tech/science venture capitalist based in New York who studied Political Science at Stanford. He reflected on the value added to technical disciplines by ‘artists’ and compounded my belief that, when the machines take over and try to decide whether or not to keep the humans, our main differentiation (and chance of survival) will be our creative verve. But I digress…

The main source of my calm is my five-strong team working on sustainable technologies requiring considerable technical knowledge: all five of us studied humanities at university. RIG is a space where its teams’ members grow and learn exponentially. RIG’s competitive advantage is a proven commercialisation model combined with its people: a good balance of high-level EQ and IQ, and an insatiable hunger for knowledge. Based on the learning curve attested to by my teammates, I look forward to writing my next blog in a more technical than philosophical form.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle…

Getting ready for the waste revolution

Waste. Rubbish. Trash. Whatever you wish to name it, it litters the everyday landscape of our lives. Its ubiquitous presence flickers on the edges of our consciousness whether strolling down London streets, picnicking on beaches, or meandering through national parks. And this is simply the waste we can see. Even ‘pristine’ areas of wilderness have not been left untouched by the ramifications of anthropogenic activities, centuries of burning fossil fuels, and widespread overconsumption. For the sake of brevity, I won’t dive into the widespread destructive environmental and social consequences of waste, but I highly recommend this evocative article to give a flavour.

Waste is a universal issue that matters to every single person and rapid urbanization, population growth, and economic development will cause global waste to increase by 70% over the next 30 years – to a staggering 3.4 billion tonnes of waste generated annually. A huge proportion of this waste is (and is likely to continue to) not be managed in an environmentally safe manner. We live in a throw-away society where our daily actions and purchasing habits have a direct impact on the production, composition, and eventual disposal of waste. Perhaps you swing by Starbucks to buy a take-away coffee for the commute, then grab a quick sandwich from Pret, before discarding the packaging and cup in a bin. Once in the bin, then barely do we think about it again. Out of sight, out of mind.

So, what is waste? Where does it come from? What is the solution (or solutions) to this pressing global problem?

The UN describes waste as “materials that are not prime products for which the generator has no further use in terms”. Put simply, waste is unwanted or unusable materials. However, the change in mindset from ‘waste’ to ‘valuable resource’ is gaining momentum. The key is to treat waste as a resource that’s just out of place and as an untapped store of energy. I have to confess that before working in this space – whilst I knew that waste was an issue and that cutting down on consumption was vital- I had no idea the potential that ‘waste’ has.

The demand for energy will continue to rise in the future and waste is a readily available fuel that can contribute to this urgent need. Various national and international legislation, such as the EU Waste Framework Directive (WFD – 2008/98/EC) are seeking to incentivise the diversion of waste from disposal in landfill. Across Europe, there is growing recognition of the climate change benefits to be realised from increased recycling, reuse, and reduction of waste.  Furthermore, the UK is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and supplying 15% of its energy demands from renewable sources by 2020. These requirements are driving the need for technology solutions, which enable residual wastes to be used as cost-effective, low carbon, and indigenous energy resources.

Action and investment are needed to promote and support this transformation, and to stimulate technological innovations in this space. One example of how the waste revolution may be achieved is through integrated energy from waste facilities which are scaled to local communities. These facilities will maximise the resource efficiency of waste conversion to heat and power enabling significant economic and environmental benefits. I am working with a company which is an exciting example of this, addressing the twinned challenges mentioned above – those of waste disposal and energy supply – at the same time.

The conversion of plastics to fuels is another vector which can contribute to this and is gaining traction. Rising public consciousness and awareness of the prolific environmental damage caused by single-use plastics and insufficient recycling have led to alternative disposal methods. Through my work at RIG, I have come to realise that the largest problems we face can also be the greatest market opportunities. Waste can be reclaimed and then converted back into virgin plastics (100% circular) or market-competitive end-of-life fuels. Some reports posit that plastic-to-fuel facilities in the US alone would create nearly 39,000 jobs and almost $9 billion in economic output, making the global market potential of such an industry huge. ReNew is commencing construction of a chemical recycling plant in Teesside, UK. Nexus Fuels, Handerek Technology, and multiple other companies around the world are doing similar things.

It is also important to bring the waste hierarchy to the forefront of any discussion concerning waste. The aim of the waste hierarchy is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste. The 3R – reduce, re-use, recycle – movement is progressing steadily across the world and goes hand in hand with the waste hierarchy.

In this regard, pollution prevention innovations such as Marinatex have the potential to radically reduce the sources of waste throughout supply chains in multiple industries. In the last few years, movements towards zero waste by large corporates with clout and influence are a positive sign and a step in the right direction.

It may be unexpected to some that it is not multi-national companies with humongous R&D budgets that are coming up with solutions. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that they will not- but that start-ups are well positioned to do this. I have come across many early stage companies that are dedicated and committed to tackling the waste problem. They are flexible, they have blue-sky thinking, they spot the gaps in the market, they take risks, and they dream of a better future. The problem with such early stage companies is that they may not get there. There could be a game changing technology that can enable this shift, but if a start-up pursues the wrong market, if they run out of funding just before the leap from commercial demonstration to commercialisation – then this too is a waste. This is where RIG have cultivated expertise. From my own personal experience, I have spent months validating and analysing the appropriate markets for a given technology where the value propositions will resonate the most, and where there is the best chance of a company ‘crossing the chasm’.

It is vital that individuals, companies, and governments tackle the pressing waste management issue. This could be small personal changes like swapping to a reusable coffee cup (prevention), a company minimising the overall creation of waste resulting from an inefficient design, or a local municipality expanding their recycling facilities. We all have responsibility to reduce our ecological footprint.

Control your digital presence and harness the vitality of web-based communication

A big part of my job is to bridge the gap between our portfolio companies and the markets they serve. I speak with potential customers on a daily basis about a particular novel technology and the possible value it can unlock; I have found that a large part of successful commercialisation and deal making is in the effective presentation and communication of the product, solution, or service. If it is worth putting in days of preparation around the narrative and framing for a particular meeting that could lead to a million-pound deal, does the same principle not apply to the preparation and maintenance of a company’s communication platforms? Communication platforms are a way of ‘pitching’ to potential customers, partners, or investors as the public image of the company before a face-to-face meeting. I have found, judging by feedback from market validation of some of RIG’s portfolio of clients, that many early stage companies do not pay enough attention to their digital communication which is the most easily accessible expression of their value proposition. This ultimately leads to missing out on deals because the potential value of their technology is not conveyed through clear communication.

Early stage companies are often so focused on lead generation and outbound communication that they forget the importance of the website. A company’s website is a simple, yet extremely effective, tool to build the right narrative – about the technology and about the company itself.

Another considerable part of my remit is to research and find early stage companies with novel, innovative technologies in emerging areas with whom we can engage. There are some extremely exciting technologies that promise to solve critical sustainability challenges; however, this is not always effectively communicated via their websites. Far too often I come across a website that is either a labyrinth of pages with text that requires a code-breaker, or a basic website with outdated information and ‘news’ items.

A website is perhaps the most frequented platform and means of sourcing information: it should be a platform that a company uses to communicate who they are; it should be the keystone of its digital identity. Two of the main causes of page visits are online searches and direct stakeholder engagement. Either it is because an online search has led them to your website, or it is because you have approached a stakeholder, who will revisit the website. I am certain that, every time you have effectively engaged with a potential lead, they will have visited your website at some point. Thus, every aspect of it – the colour scheme, graphics, language, even layout – conveys a message about the company and builds an image. Your company image is only as strong as you communicate it on the website; it does not matter if you have the better, faster, stronger technology. If you are unable to convey why your technology’s advancements or innovation will result in added value for your partner or customer, or the end consumer, then it is unlikely that the technology will be adopted in the first place. Ultimately, this image will form the foundation of your brand.

That said, not all early stage companies will have the resources available to design a swanky, slick website – and given the nature of early stage companies, they will doubtless want to change the content as they constantly iterate, fail fast, and pivot. Therefore, when I have led and overseen website redesigns, I have tried to stick to 4 key guidelines: clarity, conciseness, consistency, and currency.

  1. Be clear. Typically, innovation companies have a unique product, solution, or service that is differentiated by IP. If the technology is not easily grasped, it becomes infinitely more difficult to commercialise. Diagrams, animation, or videos are often more effective than written word.
  2. Be concise. Every word on a website is important and should be used for a reason and avoid over-complication. A website should not publish every detail of a company’s history: there should be enough detail to communicate the core values, mission and vision of the company.
  3. Be consistent. Strive for uniformity in colour, words, and style. This not only consolidates the information and conveys professionalism, but it shows an awareness of strategic brand management; once the product/service is adopted and imitated, the effective use of its brand is one of a company’s main sources of differentiation and defensibility.
  4. Be current. Content is critical. In the first place, up-to-date content shows progression by acting as a log of the development of the company. Your company is only as up-to-date as you publish. Secondly, it highlights the achievements and milestones of the company. Target audiences will not be informed of any developments (e.g. your latest product offering, award, successful test etc.) unless you tell them. Emerging technology companies are judged based on the traction they achieve, and that can only be recognised by generating awareness – keep your news ‘new’.

Whether you are trying to generate leads, fundraise, hire, or simply raise awareness, I can guarantee that people will frequent your company’s website. It is the main platform where your company is presented over which you have control, and it is critical in the development path for early stage companies. Present your company as you want – no one else will do this for you.

A final week at RIG

Six weeks working at RIG have flown by, which I imagine is unusual for a first experience of professional life. My introduction to the work environment has given me a new range of knowledge, from making use of excel keyboard shortcuts, through to understanding how to use the office buzzer. I also learned how to write as fast as humanly possible while making call notes verbatim. LinkedIn and CrunchBase have become loves of mine. I was eventually prompted to take the plunge and create my own LinkedIn account. The things I have learned have not just been work-related; working at RIG has also given me the opportunity to get to know Holborn better. I have now perfected the art of efficient commuting. I am well-versed on knowing exactly which tube carriage to choose, making my commute as fast as possible.

I was struck during my work by the diversity of early-stage UK-based technology companies and it has been really exciting to see companies that have the potential to transform certain industries in the future. Even now, I have turned on notifications on my home computer for news about the 3D printing industry. A highlight for me has been taking part in company calls, where I have had the chance to hear experts in their field describe what their company does. Near the end of my internship, I introduced a call with a client whom I had initially contacted – this was extremely rewarding.

The market validation work I have been doing has certainly given a new-found relevance to my Natural Sciences degree. Reading about agricultural technology companies that are transforming crop yields or solving human health problems has given me a different outlook to my plant sciences lectures at university last year. This commercial insight will stay with me.

On top of widening my awareness of the scientific world, I have learned a lot throughout my internship about how venture capital works. I now know much more about the arena of CVCs and family offices and I have gone from never having read an annual report in my life to using figures such as net, operating and gross profit. I can proudly say that I now know what acronyms like EBITDA and GAAP mean. I have been struck by how international venture capital investment is, with venture capital firms rarely being restricted to investments in one country.

In the context of the climate strike which took place in London last week, hearing the team describe some of their circular economy and decarbonisation-focused clients has given me a lot of hope for a future. I learned about a lot of very cutting-edge companies, who are driven by renewable energy technology and motivated to find new ways to reuse waste.

Companies with novel and exciting scientific technologies have a truly global reach and there are lots of people in the team with the ability to speak foreign languages. This has prompted me to finally sign up to take German language lessons next year; a skill which I am sure will be valuable in the future.

I am really grateful to the RIG team for being so kind to me – it has been a great six weeks!