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Carbon13: Cambridge-based venture builder for the climate crisis hosts its first pitch day

The first Carbon13 pitch day at the Bradfield Centre showcased 10 start-up companies whose combined scalable ventures will contribute to the overall goal to “reduce CO2 emissions by 400 million tonnes or one per cent of global emissions” every year.

Chris Coleridge, CEO of Carbon13, at The Bradfield Centre. Picture: Mike Scialom
Chris Coleridge, CEO of Carbon13, at The Bradfield Centre. Picture: Mike Scialom

Carbon13, “the venture builder for the climate emergency”, was founded in 2019 and deploys largely Cambridge-based business expertise. The main founder is CEO Chris Coleridge, senior faculty in management practice at Cambridge Judge Business School, with co-founders Dr Nicky Dee, Michael Langguth, Frank Knowles and Katy Ford.

The business scale-up programme is unique because some companies are created during the programme – the Carbon13 intake includes both existing start-ups and people who are looking to contribute towards the core mission in some way. Having been inducted, they work to come up with a business model with other like-minded individuals on the programme.

The first intake, in March, consisted of 59 people. By May 1, 23 teams had been selected and, from those 23 teams, 10 were selected on July 23 to go forward. These final 10 teams included both those with pre-formed ideas and those looking to join or create a new team.

“The history of entrepreneurship tells us that good ideas often come from a fresh perspective, from outsiders,” said Chris Coleridge of the rationale during a break at the Bradfield Centre. “The selected companies are from across the board – buildings, food and agriculture, energy, mobility, manufacturing and finance.”

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response,” Chris added. “It speaks to the urgency involved.”

The inaugural Carbon 13 pitch day at the Bradfield Centre on July 28, 2021. Picture: Eleanor Navrady
The inaugural Carbon 13 pitch day at the Bradfield Centre on July 28, 2021. Picture: Eleanor Navrady

The 10 companies are:

  • Agreed: Platform accelerates adoption of regenerative farming methods using satellite images and relevant data sources
  • Windfinity: Acquires legacy (20-year-old) wind turbines and then operating maintaining them for another 10+ years
  • Infyos: Measures social and environmental impact of EV batteries from sourcing materials to recharging options
  • OG (Offgrid) Finance: ‘Quick and easy loans for investments into clean and efficient technology’
  • Tierra: Two tracks – a gluten-free, nutritious carbon negative flour due to agroforestry techniques, and is working with farmers in Guatemala
  • WNWN Food Labs: Ethical-free food, starting with a cacao-free chocolate which saves on land use, palm oil, deforestation and child/slave labour
  • PuriFire Labs: Aims to process 100m tonnes of waste by 2030 using breakthrough technologies
  • xtonnes: Next-generation carbon management platform to help firms cut emissions
  • Clear Pursuit: Sustainability careers platform to meet the global demand for green jobs
  • Materials Nexus: Building a new operating model to accelerate scientific discoveries in the fields of materials science.

If the quality of the pitches was varied, the quality of the ideas was always stratospheric. Infyos’ intention to track every aspect of a battery’s life from minerals sourcing to disposal is hugely welcome – though there must be concerns about whether organisations running child slave mines in Africa and Asia are going to install IoT sensors to ensure their products are sustainably sourced. But even if they do not, Infyos will help highlight sustainability in the supply chain.

The Bradfield Centre audience listening to Carbon13’s pitches. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Bradfield Centre audience listening to Carbon13’s pitches. Picture: Mike Scialom

OG Finance, likewise, has grand goals – investing billions of pounds to grow SMEs in emerging markets.

“We want to get to the Funding Circle point where all investors trust them with their due diligence,” said CTO Amyas Phillips.

What made this pitch stand out was self-awareness – the realisation of the scale of the challenge.

“The challenge for us is to industrialise insights and then spread them out to customers,” Amyas concluded. The “industrialisation of insights” and where that leaves human thinking is certainly something to take away and ponder...

Tierra’s pitch had lots to ponder too – though there seemed to be two pitches. Pitch one was an agroforestry method which produces gluten-free flour with a carbon negative footprint. Pitch two is the company’s work in a Guatemalan rainforest where land has been used to plant ramón trees.

The team – Angela Newton and Marcela Flores – spurned the vampiric business model of conventional agricultural methods.

“Traditional agriculture techniques give a very fast return but trash the land in the process so you have to move on to new land continuously,” Angela noted.

There were concerns in the Q&A that the ramón tree has to grow for five years before it yields any fruit. It then turned out that the Tierra strategy includes “a plan to exit at the end” after five years.

To define the entire arc of a company’s trajectory long before the first product or service is launched seems an unnecessary straitjacket, though these pitches were made to an audience which included investors, and investors like to have a nice pot of gold at the end of their investment rainbow.

I fully appreciate that folding in an exit strategy right at the start of a company’s marketisation is the sign of a more mature hub. But indubitably, the creative genius that flourished in Cambridge at the start of the computer era was driven by brazen idealism and that sort of idealism might be seen as a liability in the 20s.

OG Finance present at the inaugural Carbon13 pitch day
OG Finance present at the inaugural Carbon13 pitch day

If you look at Silicon Valley’s route to glory, you have to ask: did Google, Amazon, Microsoft or Facebook plan an exit strategy? They did not, and they conquered the economic world. Cambridge’s equivalents – Acorn, Autonomy and Arm are just the ones beginning with ‘A’ – have all experienced their overall financial fortunes being tied in with overseas ownership. But even if I am not inspired by a company that bakes in an exit strategy to its first-draft business development strategy, one must not romanticise the past.

“Sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism,” as Oscar Wilde said.

The final pitch before lunch was from WNWN Food Labs. The unlikely pairing of Dr Johnny Drain – the self-professed ‘Willy Wonka of fermentation’ – and former Morgan Stanley management consultant Ahrum Pak came at the same script from different angles.

Johnny is a PhD in Materials Science from the University of Oxford, and “took a leap of faith by leaving academia to work in kitchens”.

The Carbon13 project – also a leap of faith – has got off to a great start, and is set to expand to other entrepreneurial hubs soon.

“We’re starting our next Carbon13 site in Berlin,” says Chris Coleridge. “And our showpiece demo day will be at Cambridge Union on November 30.”

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