You don’t have to be a VC to invest in cleantech–and our world’s future needs investors

This paper was made with cellulose fibers picked out of a sewage mining system.
This paper was made with cellulose fibers picked out of a sewage mining system.
Image: Reuters/Baz Ratner
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When you hear the phrase “investing in cleantech,” what comes to mind?

Do you picture a venture capitalist writing out a check—one with lots of zeros—to a startup that’s tackling issues related to sustainability?

That’s one form of investing in cleantech, and make no mistake: it has played a huge role in moving innovation forward. But in recent years, the concept of “investing in cleantech” has broadened beyond a strictly financial definition to include “investments” that are undertaken by a variety of stakeholders—by individuals, by countries, and by companies—simply because they are viewed as the best solution to Earth’s most pressing challenges.

Doing well and doing good

Some of the most exciting investments in cleantech come from individual entrepreneurs. Much credit is due here to the Millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1997—a group that gravitates towards entrepreneurship in much greater numbers than Generation X or the Baby Boomers, with a particular interest in “doing good.”

The rise of the Millennials comes at a time when founding a cleantech start-up has become easier than ever before. Technology tools that support design and innovation have become more accessible. Maker spaces empower designers, engineers, and architects to build valuable proofs of concept, using 3D printing and other community resources.

Meanwhile, angel investors and accelerators help get entrepreneurs up to speed. Incubators worldwide—in locations from Beijing to Sydney, and Berlin to San Francisco—support entrepreneurs that want to build businesses that create positive environmental and social impact. And crowdfunding platforms can quickly move products from an idea into a first batch of manufacturing—and, ultimately, to the market—in record time. Many of these opportunities were unthinkable only a decade ago.

These lowered barriers to entry don’t just benefit cleantech startups—they assist any company that wants to manufacture a product in a more sustainable fashion. Today’s individual consumers expect the products they purchase to be manufactured in an environmentally friendly manner and to reflect their personal tastes and values—and they’re willing to “vote with their pocketbooks” to encourage sustainability. Thanks to the new ways that products can be designed and made in the 21st century, it’s easier than ever for companies to meet this consumer need.

Making sustainability a national priority

Individual entrepreneurs represent one way of “investing in cleantech.” But what if an entire nation made a concerted effort to devote resources towards creating a better tomorrow?

That’s precisely what’s happening right now in China, which is making investments in cleantech on a very large scale—and viewing these investments not just in financial terms, but as a way to address issues around sustainability.

China’s “Five Year Plan”—which sets priorities for the central, provincial, local, and district governments—makes sustainability a key objective, marking a retreat from the development-at-any-cost approach of recent decades. In addition, Chinese premier Li Keqiang officially declared war on pollution, calling it “nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.” Meanwhile, at least $5 trillion, or about 50% of the country’s annual GDP, is needed to repair the damage done to China’s natural environment.

What’s it like to “tap into the zeitgeist” currently occurring in China and be a part of this national effort? As the global lead for the Autodesk Cleantech Partner Program, I can speak from personal experience, because we just launched a program in China earlier this year.

Something we’ve learned over the years, as we’ve rolled out programs to different geographical regions, is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach:

  • Every region and every country has its unique requirements, and needs a tailored method.
  • It’s important to do research early on to find out which organizations or industry associations play a role in the cleantech community for that particular market.
  • In some countries, the government is very involved—in other countries, hardly at all. It’s important to understand this level of involvement very clearly.

With that research and insight in hand, we were able to team up with the China Industrial Energy Conservation and Cleaner Production Association (CIECCPA), an industry association affiliated with some of the central government ministries. This was a different approach than we’ve taken in other countries—but here, it was the perfect match. Working with CIECCPA extends Autodesk’s reach across China and helps us be the most authoritative and influential social organization in the field of industrial energy conservation in China.

It took us quite a while to find the right organization to partner with, and patience and persistence were key as we uncovered the best way to proceed. We’re confident that we’ve set the China Cleantech Partner Program up for success—on their terms.

The main lesson? Companies should not shy away from these types of investments. It takes time and effort; however, the reward in undertaking them is much greater than the challenges.

Helping others design a better world

At Autodesk, we determined that the best way for us—as a company—to “invest in cleantech” is through our Cleantech Partner Program, which provides qualified companies with access to up to $150,000 worth of Digital Prototyping software for free.

Our strategy behind the program was simple: we saw too many startups and entrepreneurs creating cleantech solutions without access to the right tools to turn those solutions and ideas into products. Oftentimes, I would visit a small, 5-10 person company and find them making prototypes out of cardboard, faxing a photo off to their manufacturer, and then hoping they got something back that resembled their design.

Using digital prototypes, cleantech pioneers can design, visualize, and simulate groundbreaking ideas. This allows them to test multiple concepts and reduce costly errors, getting to market faster. Providing entrepreneurs with access to 3D digital modeling tools was the most direct way for us, as a company, to invest in a better world.

Epic challenges like climate change are not solved in one, three, or even five years. But when individuals, countries, and companies all see an “investment in cleantech” as a priority—when they see it as something that needs to be done rather than wishful thinking, and they value the social and environmental benefits rather than just the financial returns—the world can’t help but become a better place. Together, we’re all investing in a better world.