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A New Model for Investing in Energy Innovation

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Big Bets

A New Model for Investing in Energy Innovation

By the middle of this century, the world will use twice as much energy as we use today.

There’s good news in this: more energy means better lives and stronger economies.

But it also means the world needs a new energy supply—one that doesn’t contribute to climate change. Climate change is a serious threat, especially in the poorest parts of the world. 

We need affordable and reliable energy that doesn’t emit greenhouse gas to power the future—and to get it, we need a different model for investing in good ideas and moving them from the lab to the market.

That is why today, I, along with an incredible group of people who care a lot about energy innovation, am announcing the launch of Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), a fund that will invest more than $1 billion in scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to deliver cheap and reliable clean energy to the world.

It’s the next step in an effort that began last December, when we brought together private investors from around the globe who were passionate about solving this problem. We formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of entrepreneurs, business leaders, and institutional investors committed to help bring promising new zero-emissions energy technologies to market.

The Coalition partnered with Mission Innovation, an initiative of more than 20 countries and the European Union to double their investment in clean energy research and development in the next five years.  

As I’ve argued before, an investment in a true energy transformation requires governments, research institutions, businesses, and private investors to work together. And it’s hard to overstate how important this public commitment is. Government funding gives scientists the freedom to come up with bold new ideas and try to prove they will work. But government research is not enough. The world needs the skills and resources of investors with experience driving innovation from a lab to the marketplace. The private sector knows how to take great research, turn it into a great product, and ultimately create a great company to bring a transformative technology to market.

It’s this type of public-private collaboration that’s given rise to advances in defense, space, medicine, and information technology. In fact, it’s what brought these words to your screen right now. During the Cold War, the Department of Defense developed a network of computers that could survive a nuclear attack, and private companies saw an opportunity to expand this technology to the public. Together, they created the Internet.

When it comes to energy, though, this transition—from idea to product to company—is often complicated by the challenges of the market. Unlike a software start up, getting a new energy technology from a lab to market takes a lot of infrastructure, a lot of upfront capital, and a lot of time.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition created BEV to address some of those challenges in the energy market. We are willing to wait a longer time for returns than other funds. We have a higher tolerance for technical risk, because we know it’s tough to determine which technologies will succeed in a complicated energy market. We are led by our investors, who are a unique group of global business leaders, entrepreneurs, energy experts, and company builders who can help new companies navigate the challenges of building a business while developing partnerships with the companies and institutional investors who will help bring those products to scale.

The fund is also driven by science. Because of the technical nature of succeeding in an energy market, we will build a team that knows as much about the science behind energy breakthroughs as the investment strategies necessary to build those businesses.

Finally, the fund is committed to discovering breakthroughs, wherever they are. The world has made remarkable progress in wind and solar over the past decade, and these technologies will continue to play an important role in our zero-carbon energy mix. I have argued before that innovative industries deploy the technology they have while developing the technology they need. But because the scale of the challenge of providing reliable and affordable power without contributing to climate change is so vast, and the future energy needs are so great, we need to explore as many viable solutions as possible. As I’ve learned through my work in business and philanthropy: to be successful, you have to get the most out of the technology you already have while developing the technology you still need.

After talking with some of the world’s greatest scientists, energy experts, and energy investors, the Coalition has developed a list of scientific priorities that will set us on the path toward the energy future we need. We see this list as a “landscape of innovation”—essentially, a roadmap that Breakthrough Energy Ventures and others can use to focus their attention and guide their investment decisions over the next two decades.

In this landscape, we’ve outlined five grand challenges, corresponding to the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions around the world:

  • Electricity: How can we deliver reliable, affordable zero-carbon electricity to the world?
  • Buildings: How can we eliminate emissions from our homes, offices, hospitals, and schools?
  • Manufacturing: How can we make everything we use without emitting greenhouse gases?
  • Transportation: How can we get around our communities and the world without emitting carbon?
  • Food: How can we feed the planet without contributing to climate change?

Of course, no investor can answer these questions alone. That’s why, in addition to funding new ventures, Breakthrough Energy investors will help build a broader clean energy ecosystem. We’ll explore new partnerships with governments, businesses, and institutional investors who want to be part of the global energy transition. Through these partnerships, we will not only help organize more investments, but we will also help research new solutions. One of the Coalition’s partners is the University of California, which has an amazing capacity to innovate through their labs and universities. In the coming years, we’ll work with them to expand our research partnerships and identify the best ways to pull great inventions out of the lab and turn them into companies.

Even though $1 billion is a significant step, it is just one of many steps on the path to a sustainable energy future.

With patience, flexibility, collaboration, and a clear vision backed by meaningful investment, we, the fund’s investors, are confident the world can meet its energy needs in a way that is fair, safe, and sustainable. And we’re excited about the role that Breakthrough Energy Ventures will play in that effort.

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