The Biden Administration’s Climate Plan Depends on Innovators and Entrepreneurs. They’re Ready to Help.

-By David Weinstein, Founder and Managing Partner at Freshwater Advisors

Beginning this week, President Joe Biden and his administration will face one of the greatest challenges ever set before an American government. They will determine whether we speed ahead towards a climate dystopia or take the exit ramp to a prosperous yet sustainable future. Their decisions will affect all 7.8 billion people on this planet and many generations to come.

Biden’s appointed climate leaders — including John Kerry, Jennifer Granholm, Deb Haaland, Michael Regan, and Brenda Mallory — know what must be done and have a track record of developing successful government programs. The newly created White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Biden’s National Climate Advisor, will be integral to this team’s efforts.

The U.S. and its peers need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, at the latest. However, this cannot be accomplished through policy alone. The Biden administration is counting on the private sector for solutions and hope.

I’d like to offer both. Entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds are already building technologies for the future this White House envisions. With collaboration between the White House and private sector, these technologies could transform our climate crisis into an engine of prosperity.

The Economy of the Future

The Biden administration’s mission to address climate change depends on entrepreneurs like Jason Aramburu, CEO of Climate Robotics. At a startup pitch competition for Wilmington, Delaware, hosted by Exelon Corporation and the Exelon Foundation in November, Aramburu stunned an audience of veteran cleantech investors and policymakers who had tuned in digitally. He unveiled a solar-powered robot that collects and heats agricultural biomass into a mineral form of carbon called “biochar.”

Not a household term (yet), biochar is a supplement for soils that can boost crop yields, nutrient levels, and water retention. The kicker: converting one acre of biomass into biochar sequesters three to five tons of carbon dioxide, the amount an average car produces in one year of driving. However, the biomass is normally transported to a processing facility, which makes the costs prohibitive and limits the potential for reducing emissions.

Not anymore. Climate Robotics produces biochar at one-tenth the cost of its nearest competitor and does so on site with a robot made of 90% off-the-shelf parts. Considering that the U.S. has more than 250,000,000 acres of cropland and over 900,000,000 acres of total farmland, the potential is immense.

Entrepreneurs like Aramburu know how to build for the future, and they are doing it in Mr. Biden’s backyard. His administration can and should harness the talent, passion, and vision of these innovators. Bottom-up, market-driven innovation could decide whether Biden’s climate policy succeeds or fails.

Impact-Driven Innovation

The challenge for Biden’s administration is to identify, support, and scale the most promising clean startups, like Climate Robotics. I suggest they use a model called Impact-Driven Innovation (IDI).

IDI is a model whereby local entrepreneurs and innovators are empowered to solve their community’s problems. It connects corporate (or government) cash, talent, and credibility to entrepreneurs like Aramburu who can advance social causes, mentor new innovators, and create hubs of economic vitality in under-resourced communities. My team at Freshwater developed an IDI model in partnership with the Exelon Corporation and Exelon Foundation, the nonprofit wing of the country’s largest provider of carbon-free energy.

Aramburu pitched Climate Robotics to us during a series of events held on behalf of the Exelon Foundation’s Climate Change Investment Initiative (2c2i). We were looking for the next class of startups to receive an investment from the Exelon Foundation.

Climate Robotics is not alone. Numerous startups are trying to address climate change with market-based solutions. If the Biden administration is ready to work with entrepreneurs on a climate strategy, there is no shortage of outstanding candidates. Consider just a few that participated in the Exelon pitch events for Chicago, Atlantic City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Wilmington:

  • ClearFlame Engine Technologies, based in Batavia, IL, develops a patented technology that retrofits diesel engines to run on a decarbonized liquid fuel. Engine manufacturers can integrate ClearFlame’s technology into heavy-duty trucks, tractors, and machinery without changing the vehicle’s performance or their production processes.

To be clear, no single startup offers a silver bullet for climate change. The Biden White House needs the collective efforts of many innovators working on diverse issues. As my friend David Wilhelm, a solar energy executive and former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has said, “This is the way we can change the world — one startup at a time.”

The Climate A-Team

Americans are accustomed to a top-down model of climate policy — of regulators capping emissions, and polluters fighting back with tooth (political donations) and nail (lobbyists). Impact-Driven Innovation complements top-down initiatives by solving for the economic incentives that encourage pollution in the first place. It is therefore encouraging to seeformer Secretary Kerry and former Governor Granholm join the administration as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and Secretary of Energy, respectively. They understand the value of this bottom-up approach to climate innovation and will further it.

In 2004, I had the honor of supporting then-Senator Kerry’s presidential bid as an advisor to his campaign on entrepreneurship and innovation. At the time, I was running the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (which now operates the globally recognized incubator 1871). Denied the White House, Kerry continued to champion clean innovation as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Like my colleagues, he saw synergy rather than conflict between climate action and economic vitality.

Much has changed since Secretary of State Kerry spoke at the COP22 climate summit at Marrakech in 2016. Yet, his words still ring true: “It is not going to be governments alone, or even principally, that solve the climate challenge…It’s going to be innovators, workers, and business leaders, many of whom have been hammering away at this challenge for years who are going to continue to create the technological advances that forever revolutionize the way that we power our world.”

If Secretary Kerry brings that perspective to Washington as Envoy for Climate, impact-driven innovators will be eager and ready to help.

Governor Granholm, likewise, understands the potential of aligning climate policy with economic growth. In the U.S., transportation is the largest source of greenhouse emissions, accounting for 28% of the total in 2018. Granholm’s deep experience with the auto industry in Michigan will be vital to mitigating emissions in this sector.

Having discussed transportation with Governor Granholm at the Clean Energy Trust’s Co_Invest Cleantech conference in Chicago two years ago, I could not be more optimistic. As she wrote in a recent op-ed, companies that form the “backbone” of the U.S. economy “…know that acting on climate change is good business sense. However, the private sector needs greater support and political will from our policymakers to help us fully realize the potential of a zero-carbon future.”

Soon, as the administration’s Secretary of Energy, Granholm will be in a key position to generate that support and political will.

To both Kerry and Granholm, climate action is not a penalty on business but rather a multitrillion-dollar opportunity to revitalize the American economy and secure its future. Perhaps they can spread this view throughout Washington.

Take the Exit

The test for Biden’s administration begins soon. By 2030, the window to contain climate change within 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels will be over. Impact-Driven Innovation (IDI) is an opportunity for the administration’s climate plan.

Without question, Biden will rejoin the Paris Agreement, reinstitute Obama-era regulations, and clean up government supply chains. However, the White House cannot transform the economy alone.

To work, the climate strategy must mobilize not only government resources but talent, capital, and technology from the private sector. Furthermore, the strategy must include people of color and other marginalized communities that take the brunt of climate damage but rarely have a voice in national climate action.

Executive actions, legislation, and stimulus spending can kickstart the energy transition, but they cannot complete it. Thus, the fight against climate change needs to become more of a bottom-up movement. It is local activists, leaders, and entrepreneurs who win over communities and change industries. It is startups like Climate Robotics, corporations like Exelon, and ecosystem channels such as the National Coalition of Clean Energy Incubators that drive enduring change.

Around this nation, there are entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, journalists, and corporate leaders eager to face down climate change alongside the Biden administration. Let us join you. Together, we can be the change this world needs. The exit ramp to prosperity is still ahead.

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David Weinstein

Founder & CEO of Freshwater Advisors, a venture catalyst firm and corporate innovation consultancy. www.FreshwaterAdvisors.com