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Last week, I blogged about the risk of relying too much on developing technology and solutions to solve climate risks at some undetermined future time. TechCrunch published an article last weekend expressing similar concerns, but from a different angle: “the transition from science project to commercial outfit is one of the hardest to pull off.”

Technological success is only part of the equation. Not only must the science work in a lab or small-scale – it must work at a global commercial scale given that climate risk is a global matter. Once – and if – the science is confirmed, the problem in scaling moves to that of finances:

“But as [climate startup] companies emerge from the lab, they’re finding it hard to raise the kind of money they’ll need to build their first commercial scale project… [There is a] yawning gap between early-stage venture dollars and expertise on one end and infrastructure funds on the other. But those terms paper over the severity of the problem. A better term might be what Ashwin Shashindranath, a partner at Energy Impact Partners, calls ‘the commercial valley of death’…

The commercial valley of death has claimed more than a few victims. Over a decade ago, battery manufacturer A123 Systems worked feverishly to build not just its own factories, but also an entire supply chain to provide cells to companies like GM. It ended up being sold for pennies on the dollar to a Chinese auto parts giant. More recently, Sunfolding, which made actuators to help solar panels track the sun, went belly up in December after it ran into manufacturing challenges. Another startup, electric bus manufacturer Proterra, declared bankruptcy in August in part because it had signed contracts that were unprofitable — making the buses simply cost more than anticipated. In Proterra’s case, the struggles of mass manufacturing buses were compounded by the fact that the company was also developing two other business lines, one that focused on battery systems for other heavy-duty vehicles and another that specialized in charging infrastructure for them.”

Just looking at EVs beyond Proterra, there is a trail of failed start ups as Jalopnik wrote last summer – which doesn’t include Apple’s attempt, nor does it mention Rivian’s precarious situation. Business fundamentals matter in ESG and climate tech. While hype, excitement and enthusiasm may get a solution from Point A to Point B, reality is necessary to move further and become a part of the remedy on which others can rely. That is critical to keep in mind when setting emissions/climate risk management expectations, targets and goals.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile