As we witness a consequential time for the environment, a ray of hope comes from entrepreneurs who are making not only good business decisions but also good environmental ones as they launch companies and products that help address climate change. These people represent the heart and hope of a new generation of environmentalists.
The Climate Collective is one such network, a vibrant and growing community of green entrepreneurs and professionals from South-East Asia. They provide a start to end ecosystem for cleantech startups in the region, from mentoring to potential funding. The collective is co-founded by Pratap Raju, who strongly believes that young entrepreneurs are the key drivers for climate action, and is passionate about supporting startups in the region to bridge the gap between today’s business world and a future where environmental and social sustainability being integrated into business practice becomes second nature. Pratap speaks to Ayushi Shah about the ambitious green network that spans the region, their upcoming programs, how to join the collective and the importance of entrepreneurship in solving the climate crisis.
Ayushi Shah (AS): Pratap, could you take us through your professional journey and how you entered the sustainable entrepreneurship space?
Pratap Raju (PR): I started in cleantech sustainability about 11 years ago as a renewable energy, solar and wind developer. And that felt more of a business opportunity than climate action back then. I have always been interested in the power sector and so the national solar mission was exciting.
But then, I had a couple of kids and that changed the way I looked at the world completely. What’s happening with climate change, and rising sea levels had less meaning for me until then, because now the thought process is: how are they going to live? What’s going to happen to them? What are we doing?
Also, our renewables business started winding down around 2015-16, we stopped winning tenders as some of the bigger players like EDF or Adani or SoftBank started bidding very aggressively, which is great for consumers but not so great for midsize players like us. I then started transitioning to this aspect of climate change – supporting startups who are doing climate action. My background in entrepreneurship for 20 years made it a natural fit for me. The idea was that I have about 15 years of startup experience, I have some cleantech experience and cleantech startups are coming up, why not set up a startup support organization? So that was the budding impetus to starting Climate Collective.
AS: Tell us more about one of the first Cleantech entrepreneurship program: Climate Launchpad.
PR: Around 2016 is when we first started getting our activities on the ground here in India. Things like a pilot incubator for a clean energy startup, and organising India’s first solar hackathon. There were experiments and breaks but we puttered along. In 2017, we had our first Climate Launchpad program. It was piloted in Bombay, and from there that program exploded throughout India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. It grew to about 16-18 programs a year with around 250 startups climate tech startups accepted annually. It’s India-focused, so we were really thinking about scale. We were the largest country in the program globally. And I think that’s a testament to the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we see in India everywhere and not just in big cities.
Something that irked me was the injustice that all the opportunities in this space were gobbled by just a few players. Like big universities, or two-three major cities. There could be hundreds and thousands of entrepreneurs who may be just as good or even better, that don’t have that access or that ability to talk to a CTO that could help their business or to a CSR funding source to help them get to the next stage.
AS: What are the resources that are offered by the Climate Collective for entrepreneurs?
PR: Startups need more than capital or training in that initial phase. If you want to be an entrepreneur, how do you get the education? We started to think about community in a deeper way and we now have a lot more climate talks that happen. We’re working on an online community and social space on a platform called Gather Town. Last year, we launched a women-focused program called Climate Ready for Women. It’s going to be our big program this year and is funded by the Good Energies Foundation. We’re also launching the Climate Institute in June 2021 which is for recent postgraduates interested in climate entrepreneurs. Building a startup is such a hard process, even with the best of help and best of luck. We want to focus on what we can do to really help all the talented people that have this goal of helping the environment but are looking at the startup approach. Where we are now is still an experiment on what it means to help build an ecosystem for early-stage climate tech startups in India and Southeast Asia. But it’s been quite exciting. And the momentum is growing pretty fast.
AS: I love the fact that it is a start to end entrepreneurial ecosystem. What has the impact so far been?
PR: The end goal of understanding your impact is actually seeing success or outcomes that you’ve been working towards. Having said that, it’s a long journey. So we can only see some of the short term changes in our ecosystem. The Launchpad program, which is our key flagship program, here in South Asia had a problem – the number of women-led startups was only about 15% while globally, it was 40%. So we ran the Climate Ready for Women about a year back to increase the number of women who join the market or accelerators. In this short program, that was supported by Carolyn Startup Mission, out of 16 startups, three received grants from the ecosystem. And that’s a large number for a small program. And now, we have additional funding to build on that for the next two years.
AS: When it comes to climate change, South East Asia is deeply affected in real-time. So was the focus on this region a conscious decision?
PR: The drive for Southeast Asia to be the focus of our effort is that other countries, like Bangladesh, that are quite small in terms of these climate ecosystems can benefit from what India is doing, and vice versa. The more we come closer together, the more we can share resources – our startups can go there, their startups can come here. And since we’re talking about a collective impact goal because we’re all trying to solve a big problem that’s getting bigger and bigger. So, it was a conscious decision to think regional from both a business as well technical point of view. We have similar cultures and we do have strong linkages with many countries in the region. But also it makes sense from an impact point of view.
What also really drives us is this idea that entrepreneurs in the developing world oftentimes are the closest to the problem. And that is why they are also the best people to find a solution. Not because they may have the best degrees and best resume, but they have the best insight. And insight is something that stems from talking to people around you in the community about the problem you’re trying to solve. The challenge is that developing countries don’t have as many resources as for example, the USA and Europe. So, we have designed this early stage ecosystem for some portion of the startup journey, and we are trying to replicate this in Mauritius, Kenya, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Because we see so many similarities in those countries, and especially in Asia and Africa, who are at an even more nascent stage than we are in India.
AS: Can sustainability and profitability go hand in hand?
PR: When I started in solar in 2009, the first response I got from a lot of people is that you should talk about the CSR angle. But, the value proposition we were pushing for was quite simple – if you adopt solar, you will save money. Solar started to get cheaper and eventually became cheaper than coal. Right now, in most countries in the world, solar is so cheap and a strong business decision. So things have changed quite a bit in this one specific space, and when we think about climate a little deeper we still have this same problem. How can you make a positive impact on the environment without grants or subsidies? Or how does profitability come in? Now, climate is so complex that we need everything from activism and subsidies, to regulatory changes that do not have a business or profitability angle.
But a significant portion of climate action can be supported by businesses and in particular innovation and startups. For example, we see that there’s been a large push to reduce meat consumption for the environment. What we saw is that as Beyond Burger and others have started coming out and have gotten adopted. So they’re one of our climate tech unicorns that started making a sustained substantial profit while also achieving strong environmental goals that maybe others have struggled with. So, I don’t think it’s an ‘either-or’ situation. We should also recognize that a lot of decisions we make are economic decisions and not just value decisions. A lot of those economic decisions can be supported by innovation in the climate space to grow, and that makes it easier for people to choose a more climate-friendly lifestyle. I think that’s the intersection we’re seeing right now.
AS: Do you think consumers are responding to this intersection?
PR: Economics is so important for consumer choice. It’s very hard for many people to make more climate-friendly decisions if it’s much more expensive. That one thing that we can do in the innovation space is broaden the options out there, and reduce costs for sustainability products. What innovation and startups in particular can do is make those decisions easier.
AS: When you’re an entrepreneur in the climate space, it’s always very difficult to ensure that every single process of what you do is completely environmentally friendly – you have to take flights, for example. So, how do you maintain that balance?
PR: It’s a tough one. This is where values come in, and we are trying to figure out this balance. So I would say that we start with this phrase, ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’. It should not paralyze us. I think as long as our movement is increasingly towards sustainability, and there are underlying individual and community values that is extremely supportive of the climate and environment – we are in the right direction.
AS: Could you share a story of impact from the entrepreneurs you support?
I have one which is more low tech which is also why the results came very fast. A company called Brook and Blooms, led by young entrepreneurs who are trying to solve this problem of devotional flowers from the temples that are thrown into the Ganga. That waste causes water pollution and affects marine life. Their idea was to just collect these devotional flowers after they were used, and convert them to fertilizer. Sell the farmers and solve this problem – easy. But, they came across another problem – farmers don’t have that much money. And they’re not a big fertilizer company. So, how do they sustain this when they can’t sell it at a high enough price to cover that cost and make a profit to grow? So they joined our program, Climate Launchpad and reconfigured their business model. So then they said – instead of farmers, why don’t we sell it to terrace garden owners in Delhi, who are middle class and above and have the paying capacity? They were able to charge much higher then. And I think this is such a clever idea to solve a problem and make it sustainable because if it’s not sustainable financially, there’s no problem being solved. And it shows some of the ingenuity that we can apply as entrepreneurs, not just do a technical process of converting waste into a product, but making it into a business.
AS: What advice would you give upcoming climate entrepreneurs?
PR: Oh, that’s a kind of entrepreneur (laughs). But as ‘an entrepreneur’, you want to obviously make something good for the world, and the goal is not to exploit someone. One thing I have noticed is that while we do have a lot of people that come from a non-profit background that want to explore entrepreneurship, there is this guilt about making money. In the startup world in climate, your impact only comes from scale, not from a perfect business model. But for scaling, you need to charge sufficiently so you can grow. For example, people have climate-friendly products and they want to sell it to everyone. But well, maybe everyone can’t afford it right now. Because if you price it too low, you would go out of business. So one challenge is to accept that it’s okay to make money from certain segments, especially for those who can afford to pay us that. Use that to either innovate more or scale to reduce costs for other segments. Think about how to get the biggest impact, rather than how to get how to support everyone, at least at the very beginning.
AS: Can you tell me about some of the projects that are in the pipeline?
One of the big ones for us is women in energy entrepreneurship. We just launched Climate Ready for Researchers because we think that technical researchers are sitting on such amazing work and insights and innovation. The startup vehicle may be a great one for many of them to take these out of the lab and into the world. The other project that is coming up this year that we are excited about is the Climate Startup School. I think that there is a tremendous increase in interest in entrepreneurship around the climate.
AS: Are you hopeful for the future of our planet?
This quote from Father St. Augustine says, ‘Nothing great has ever been achieved without hope’. I start with this premise that we’ve lost the battle, right? Climate change is happening. What we’re aiming to do is limit the damage. We have lost this is not meant to be pessimistic. It’s meant to say that there’s no – should we stop it? Can we stop it? The question is – what are we going to do today? And I hope that it leads to a greater impetus to action today.
AS: How can anybody who was reading this interview be a part of the Climate Collective?
PR: I think people don’t realize how much support there is there. If you want to learn about entrepreneurship, we have an online startup school coming up for clean energy. That’s a self-guided course. We have our hackathons and incubators and accelerators if you’ve already taken that step. I think the first thing is just to keep track of our programs on social media, come join our community – The Climate Collective Network, where we try to share all the resources, events and activities that are happening right now. Lastly, we’ve been piloting this social space online on Gather.town. It is kind of a very cute platform, kind of 80s Super Mario Brothers style graphics. We want to create this field where you can just show up, and find out who’s there since a lot of us are spread throughout India and South Asia. We can make more connections and learn more by meeting more people. I always tell everyone, I’ve never had a bad meeting, ever. One can learn so much, even when they are asking for something. There’s a great quote here too – All knowledge is created from conversation. So, come join our social space which we’re going to launch very soon.
All images including Pratap’s feature photo are courtesy of The Climate Collective. The interview has been edited for clarity.
The Climate Collective is a non-profit focused on unleashing the innovation and entrepreneurial talents of people to solve the myriad environmental challenges that we face in South Asia. Details about their current programs including Climate Ready For Women are on their website. They have supported many startups including AgroTribe that provides tree plantation services and environment impact measurement to corporates, Sunintown Renewables, a clean energy company building solutions to accelerate solar rooftop adoption in India and Project Uthaana, that aims at providing access to clean drinking water to marginalized underserved rural communities. Learn more on their website and join their community here.
Our interviews focus on eco-friendly organisations and social entrepreneurs. The scope of the interview will revolve around the company’s vision, mission and initiatives. Climate change solutions and sustainable development are two of the key points we explore here.
Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.