Climate Change Alliances: A Vibrant Ecosystem
The world we live in is still the world of fossil fuels—and one that is getting hotter, seemingly by the day. So how do we get out of this heat trap? What will bring us to a better, more sustainable planet?
There are no easy answers, but one critical aspect of the overall solution is partnering. That was made abundantly clear by the stellar participants in an ASAP Webinar held in late July called “Climate Tech Alliances, Startups, and Acquisitions.” The panel discussion was moderated by Ben Gomes-Casseres, Peter A. Petri Professor of Business and Society at Brandeis University, with panelists Brea Dutt, senior product manager for Sense; Alistair Pim, vice president for innovation and partnerships at the Northeast Clean Energy Council (NECEC); and Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage.
Gomes-Casseres headed up a research team that did a study called “Climate Innovation in the Northeast, 2000–2020,” and both he and Pim were interviewed for our cover story in the Q2 2021 Strategic Alliance Quarterly, “The New Imperative: Business Responds to Climate Change.” They said it two years ago and they and their fellow panelists Dutt and Aggarwal are saying it now: Innovation around climate tech solutions is a business and planetary imperative, and it won’t happen—certainly not at the scale required—without a heavy dose of partnering.
Alliances Taking Off
In introducing the panel, Gomes-Casseres noted that he’s been an ASAP member and booster for quite some time, having attended the 1999 Global Alliance Summit. He said that ASAP had become “quite a powerhouse” and a resource that is “useful for everyone in the profession.”
As for the topic at hand, Gomes-Casseres said that not only is climate change at the top of the headlines, but that climate tech in particular is an area “where alliances are really taking off.” Given that state of affairs, he said, partnerships will be critical to success, and professional alliance management skills will be needed to optimize them.
Why are partnerships needed? As most of us know, it’s difficult if not impossible to go it alone any longer in almost any industry—but in addition, the fossil fuel economy is so firmly entrenched in the way we work and live every day. As the status quo, it’s “not a clean slate,” said Gomes-Casseres, and thus shifting away from it will require some doing, involving “a combination of companies and organizations” on many levels, from startups to big companies to government to coalitions and consumers.
Building Community Around People, Partners, and the Planet
Pim said that in many ways he’s spent his whole career in partnerships, most notably his years at Schneider Electric, when as he said he was first “stumbling into alliances.” NECEC is a nonprofit business association that he said is “building a community” to effect systemic change around climate through a combination of policies, innovation, ecosystems, workforce development, and municipal (and other governmental) leadership. And, yes, partnerships.
Both Dutt and Aggarwal are working in actual climate tech solutions companies, with Aggarwal describing EnergySage as aspiring to be “the Expedia or Kayak of heat pumps,” as well as a purveyor of residential solar applications, batteries, and other products.
Dutt, similarly, spoke of Sense’s mission to “create solutions that help people and the planet,” making energy more affordable as well as greener and cleaner. This means among other things going to market with solutions at scale, which requires—you guessed it—more partnering.
Time to Listen, Get Buy-In, Scale, and Fix It
Gomes-Casseres said that the Brandeis study done a couple years ago found roughly 500 climate tech startups in the US Northeast alone, and from diverse sectors. The common thread?
“Alliances have been critical in innovation. Those of you with alliance skills, this is your time.”
Among the challenges of working in climate tech, according to Dutt, are the need to “listen empathetically” to customers and potential partners, to set up pilot partnerships, to ensure reliability of energy sources and solutions, and to overcome problems of scale. Part of this effort involves understanding “whose buy-in do you need?” she said, and “what is the value this technology provides over time,” as well as helping people understand that “value isn’t always clear cut.”
And as Gomes-Casseres chimed in, “If we don’t have scale, nothing is going to get fixed.”
Getting to the Promised Land
Aggarwal said that “alliances and partnerships played a huge role in our journey” in building EnergySage, which was recently acquired but operates independently of its parent company. Its goal, he said, is to “be the sherpa in climbing the electrification mountain. These products are a great way to get to that Promised Land.”
Pim noted that both large companies and small startups can play important roles in battling climate change. While he termed his former employer, Schneider Electric, “enlightened” in its approach, as well as flexible in adapting over time, he said some companies remain “ostriches with their heads in the sand” when it comes to climate change and its implications—for the planet as well as for their business.
In the classic “build, buy, partner” model, Pim said, it’s actually going to take a combination of all three to be successful. Companies will need to learn, invest, partner, and acquire, as well as “scale up” and operate regionally and globally.
Alliances with a Mission
The good news, said these panelists, is that the “collective pressure” of both political and economic developments in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere is starting to point us in the right direction. Voters, consumers, and companies have started to demand energy-efficient, green solutions, creating more of a “pull market” rather than a “push.”
“New partners come out of the woodwork all the time,” Pim said. “It’s a vibrant ecosystem.”
Finally, Gomes-Casseres alluded to the “shadow of the future” as a compelling catalyst for climate tech innovation and partnering, adding that this topic could rightly spawn “another ASAP Handbook.”
"There is not one answer” to climate change, said Dutt, but one answer that most certainly will contribute to the solution is partnering.
“Alliance management is one of the most interesting jobs out there,” Pim summarized. “Especially with the mission of saving the planet. It’s something many people can aspire to.”