We spoke to Alyssa Gilbert, the Director of Innovation at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London and the director of Undaunted. Undaunted is the Imperial College London’s climate change innovation activity, which is managed in collaboration with the Royal Institution. Undaunted’s mission is to nurture an environment in the UK, where climate change-focused startups can be successfully created and scaled up at pace.
A seasoned climate policy professional, Alyssa has been at the head of Undaunted since December, but has followed the UK innovation debate with colleagues at the Imperial College for the last two years. Prior to that, Alyssa’s background is found deep in the field of climate and environmental policy.
To Alyssa, the case for Undaunted to join forces with the Cleantech for UK initiative was clear. With her policy background she could seed that there was potential to look at innovation through a policy and regulatory lens. With Imperial’s longstanding work to bring innovation from R&D to commercial scale, there was a clear fit. Undaunted is well positioned to support the scaleup and growth of the disruptive cleantech solutions that are needed to combat climate change including through Cleantech for UK.
“Policy can be a powerful enabler of innovation, but it can also be a barrier.”
Alyssa describes Cleantech for UK as offering an opportunity to drive the ambitious policies needed to supercharge the UK cleantech space and bring the community supported by Undaunted to market at great scale. Indeed, while the objective is to achieve positive global impact on the climate, Undaunted is focused on empowering the founders whose passion and ideas drive the launch of innovative cleantech startups. They run innovation-focused modules in Master’s programmes, and several graduates go on to found successful businesses down the line. On top of this, they work with student associations, climate-themed clubs and the like to support founders, or even would-be founders who have yet to realise that they’re on the path to launch a business.
Cleantech startups often have to do two things at the same time, she explains. On the one hand, they want to launch a successful business – which comes with having to develop a top-tier product, secure a share of the market, establish customer relationships and more. On the other hand, they also have to develop the marketplace to be ready for their offering. As we move towards an era where climate change technologies will be in massive demand, the individual startups are trying to not only pitch solutions to challenges, but also to educate the broader market about the need for a demand for their product. Alyssa sees the potential for Cleantech for UK to take on some of the burden of this latter mission - driving the public debate around the need for cleantech by liaising with policymakers. Prior to the launch of Cleantech for UK, Undaunted ran sectoral roundtables with startups, mapping out their different policy needs and challenges, together with Tech Nation and Coadec (now The Startup Coalition).
This endeavour identified two key issues. Firstly, access to money, and second – appropriate climate or related policymaking. Naturally, access to funding such as public investment schemes is absolutely vital for early-stage companies that are looking to bring their solutions to market, but also for more established companies that are looking to scale up their operations.
As for policy, clear and consistent regulatory signals are vital. Without that, it’s difficult for companies to know there’ll be demand for their solutions. Naturally, ambitious climate policy is at the heart of this, but Alyssa notes the importance of adjacent fields, such as planning regulation.
“We can see a direct connection between our work to empower climate tech founders, and the need to engage with policy.”
Out of the founding members of Cleantech for UK, Undaunted is the one player that works primarily focused on strengthening specifically the voice of the founders. Undaunted does not invest directly in the startups they support, and Alyssa expresses her excitement to work alongside direct investors, so that both the economic needs, but also the day-to-day challenges of the people behind the company's face, can be addressed. Combining these different perspectives from the very start of the initiative, she says, is a promising approach to engage with political leaders.
In the face of the Inflation Reduction Act in the USA, as well as the EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ package and Green Deal Industrial Plan, industrial policy being directed at supporting innovative cleantech companies, calls for the UK to match this approach in an increasingly climate tech-friendly environment. The UK simply needs to keep up.
“Regulation sets out broad goals, but the devil is in the detail.”
Alyssa emphasises just how granular policymaking becomes when you get into the weeds of it, and the real-life consequences for cleantech companies that stem from regulatory details. Definitions matter. For example, how do we categorise different plastics? When you start arguing that you have a compostable plastic substitute, what regulations apply to it? Is it a plastic? Is it something else? Alyssa highlights how important it is to liaise with policymakers and work collaboratively with these professionals who are sure to want to be fair and support different initiatives fairly. With every company, innovative and incumbent vying for their attention, it’s important for initiatives such as Cleantech for UK to speak for the good of the cleantech sector writ large.
Undaunted has offered its valuable voice to the Cleantech for UK coalition, and the work has just begun! We look forward to this shared journey.