International expert on cleantech: “There is huge space for every scientific discipline in fighting climate change”

23Cleantech is today’s buzz word raising serious questions on the impact of climate change. Cleantech can provide solutions for changes within our nearest environment and our planet in general. Vilnius university (VU), as a member of Cleantech Cluster Lithuania, hosted “Cleantech Conference Vilnius“ event, where scientists, startups and business were able to share their good practice, exchange contacts and present their cleantech technologies.

What does cleantech hide within itself, what is the potential that cleantech can unlock for mankind and what could universities contribute to the issues of climate change – these were the questions that we asked Ron Bloemers, one of the keynote speakers in ,,Cleantech Conference Vilnius“ event.


Cleantech is an experience of a lifetime

Ron has been interested in the environment as from his university time, when he studied Business Economics at the University of Amsterdam: "When the course Environmental Management was being taught for the first time at the University of Amsterdam during my studies, I just loved it! I was so dedicated and interested, that the professor asked me to help him in setting up a scientific institute as part of the Economic Faculty of the University of Amsterdam, which was called the “Institute for Environmental Control Science“. After graduation from university, Ron a.o. started working for 12 years at McKinsey & Company as an expert (renewable) energy & climate change. Besides serving (renewable energy) clients and developing new clients on a global scale, Ron a.o. had a worldwide responsibility for knowledge development in renewables at McKinsey & Company, under McKinsey's Practice Leadership.

After Mckinsey & Company he became involved with cleantech startups himself: “One cleantech startup, which I‘m proud of is for example “TukTuk Factory“. We are selling zero emission, three wheel electrical rickshaws in more than 30 countries worldwide“. Having learned from his personal and hands-on experience with cleantech startups himself, Ron then became involved in co-creating cleantech business accelerator programs with a.o. ClimateLaunchpad , EIT Climate-KIC, and infoDev Worldbank.

As he says: “Going from individual companies and cleantech startups, and having done it myself from kitchen table to IPO basically, I am now involved in how to set up cleantech business accelerator programmes that have global reach and global impact“.


The secret of success is to think about solutions, not about the problems

Ron Bloemers proposes a broad definition of cleantech: "Clean(er) technologies & new business models for climate mitigation and climate adaptation". And with clean(er) Ron means any substantial reduction in climate impact on the input side of the economy ("economy inputs" are natural resources such as fresh water resources, food & agricultural resources, energy and raw materials), plus any substantial reduction on the output side of the economy ("economy outputs" are emissions to air, land and water, solid waste and noise/nuisance/hinder). These "economy inputs & outputs" are based in environmental science and environmental economics, and are the same on the macro-, meso- and micro economic level. So cleantech startups reduce these inputs and outputs with a better proposition in the market on the micro economic level.

Ron does not find it easy to distinguish only one cleantech issue that will be the most urgent in the near future, because all of them are interrelated. "Who decides what's more important? E.g. the availability of drinking water or global warming? I think what has happened now is that energy has matured a lot in terms of innovations coming to the market and scaling. My vision is that (cheap) clean energy will unlock new developments in, for instance water, agriculture, transportation, building efficiency, etc., and make them more accessible. As an example, there is need of fresh water for private consumption and agricultural water irrigation in the Middle East. Fresh water in the Middle East is to a large extent obtained through "desalination" ("making fresh water out-of salt water"). This is a very expensive and energy intensive process with big installations that cost billions of dollars. The (fossil fuel) energy costs of such installations are usually between 40-60% of the total operational costs. In short: the process is expensive and polluting. So now, with e.g. new developments in solar energy becoming much cheaper, new developments are unlocked. The topic I worry about most is clean and safe water for private consumption and agricultural water irrigation. I think this topic will be the hottest one for the next ten years". Ron says, that he likes to think about solutions, not about problems, therefore he gave an example of a startup Desolenator that solves the desalination problem, and more. This startup produces fresh & clean drinking water from salt or contaminated water with a special device, which uses only solar energy. “This device makes 15 liters of drinking water per day and the price is coming down to 1cent per liter. This device is solving the water crisis, and it had really impressed me“, says Ron. Desolenator wants to provide 1 billion people with clean and safe drinking water by 2035.


All scientific disciplines could contribute with solutions for climate change

Ron adds that in order to create research-based solutions fighting climate change all disciplines at the university should unite in order to achieve big and systemic positive climate impact. Technology alone is never the solution, finding paying customers with the right business model is at least as important. He provides an example from his experience about one scaleup called “WakaWaka“. WakaWaka means "shine bright" in Swahili language: “This startup manufactures, distributes and sells solar LED lamps with a solar battery, therefore you not only have LED light, but also can charge your mobile phone with it. The founder’s dream was to provide these solar lamps & phone chargers to the one billion people who don‘t have electricity, because it is a very efficient thing. The problem was that the technology was very advanced and it was too expensive for average people in Africa to buy. Therefore, they came up with this concept - buy one, give one. For each lamp, which is bought in the west, the second one would be donated to Africa through a foundation. It worked really well. Even the Dalai Lama praised this initiative“. Talking about involvement of social science and humanities in cleantech, Ron noted consumer demand. Adaptability of new technologies in the marked, depend on consumers and their needs. As he says: “You can create a scenario whatever you want, but if nobody buys plastic, it is over in a few years. That is where, for example, psychology and all social science and humanities play their role. The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new, that is what I very much believe in. So consumer awareness is very important.“


University research Spinouts and Startups are the most importing thing to do something positive about the environment

EIT Climate KIC is Europe’s leading climate innovation initiative, which enables and organizes competitions like e.g. the 'ClimateLaunchpad' (the world's largest green business idea competition running in over 50 countries in 2019), Climathon and business incubation programmes like Greenhouse and the Accelerator below. Ron Bloemers is one of the mentors in the European Climate-KIC Accelerator, so he shared his recipe for successful collaboration between science and business. For him having scientific innovations and discoveries, which become university research spinouts and startups scaling up fast is the most importing thing to do something positive about the environment. Therefore, according to Ron, ClimateLaunchpad is a competition for that type of innovations.

Another thing is that if the business world adopts your climate positive invention (that is, if you find a "paying customer"), it at has the potential to accelerate and sometimes even "explode into the market", especially now that consumer preferences are changing fast. He gave two examples of well-known companies that adapt to changing consumer preferences: “Burger King” came out with a plant-based burger (named "the Impossible Whopper") just two weeks ago, and it looks that this is going to be very successful. Another example is an “Adidas” jogging shoe. They came out with a jogging shoe of recycled ocean plastic waste. The sales of these shoes are exceeding anybody's expectation. We need more of this. So universities with innovations spinned out into businesses with paying customers have the potential to be very successful in the market “

Ron also provides some suggestions for collaboration between science and business. According to him, firstly, universities should take good practice from each other in creating sustainable ties between universities and businesses. Secondly, universities need policies for eligible ecosystems of startups. As he said, “What‘s needed is policies from the university where it is possible to transfer research patents into startups. That it is a scary step for lots of universities, because they don‘t know how to deal with it. But once universities do that successfully, they are very happy with it, because innovations reach the market. Universities can learn from each other's best practices how to do this successfully“


Government play an important role in the development startups

Ron Bloemers considers governmental policies as much as important as an innovative idea and a great business plan. “If new promising inventions come from the lab, they are likely to be too expensive yet for markets to adopt it. Once this promising technology comes closer to the market, it is the primary task for governments to finance it until it is in the market and in the money". Because then the market absorbs this technology and takes care of it.“ Ron is disappointed with governmental monetary support and subsidies to fossil fuels: “What makes me wanna scream is that from a global perspective, we still give more money to fossil fuel subsidies than the entire global 2017 investments in clean energy (around USD 280 billion in 2017). We should take these subsidies from fossil fuels and put it into promising climate positive innovations at the university campuses. They need this finance to get their research-based solutions to the market.“

Ron Bloemers has 25 years of hands-on experience with cleantech, renewables and start-ups. He is also the founder & managing partner of Amsterdam based cleantech business accelerator Start-U-up His professional experience in cleantech started from Mckinsey & Company and now he is mentoring cleantech startups and scaleups in a.o. the ClimateLaunchpad and the European Climate-KIC Accelerator.


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