Some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the world just launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund that will invest in new technologies that bring clean energy to the world. The investors will prioritise ideas tackling the most greenhouse gas intensive activities: electricity, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and buildings.
Last year, a group of wealthy tech giants announced the creation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition just before the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21) opened in Paris. The goal of the Coalition was to accelerate the switch to renewable energy by investing private capital in research, development and demonstration. As we know, COP 21 resulted in the Paris Agreement, in which the participating countries agree to do their best to keep global warming below 2⁰C.
This week, the Coalition launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV). The purpose of this venture is to put the Coalition’s goals into action by committing to invest over 1 billion USD to fund innovative technologies. BEV includes Bill Gates and about 20 other wealthy entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Jack Ma (Alibaba) and Mike Bloomberg (Bloomberg LP, former New York City Mayor). Not all members of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition are part of BEV, as some of them decided to invest on their own rather than through this fund.
Grand Challenges and Technical Quests
BEV’s vision is illustrated in what they call a “Landscape of Innovation”. BEV selected five grand challenges: electricity, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and buildings. These are the key areas producing the most greenhouse gases (GHG). For each of these grand challenges, BEV identified technical quests, which they define as “Specific scientific pathways that have the potential for breakthrough technologies which can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
For example, the technical quests for electricity include ultra-low-cost energy storage and low-cost ocean energy. The list contains several more interesting technical quests, including technology solutions that eliminate the need for travel (for the transportation grand challenge), reducing methane emissions from ruminant animals (agriculture), low-GHG paper production (manufacturing) and high efficiency lighting (buildings).
Patience Is a Virtue
Besides the colossal amount of money pledged for investment, BEV stands out because of the flexibility of the investors, who know from their own experiences that it takes patience to get real breakthroughs.
“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.”
- Bill Gates
Hopefully, some bright and ingenious minds will find BEV’s offer appealing and start – or continue – working on the proposed technical quests. The survival of our world as we know it will need radical innovation, and BEV might help embolden some young scientists to pursue that path.