Of all the things that are happening in the energy sector in Australia right now, the least talked about but most interesting relates to entrepreneurial innovation in energy-related products and services.
In fact, clean energy innovation is running at least as white-hot as the political debate about the broader energy sector.
The Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s Innovation Fund – the biggest VC fund in the world for clean tech right now – is a big driver of interest in the sector.
Katerina Kimmorley is on the CEFC Innovation Fund team and brings to the role a potent mix of experience.
Having grown up in Sydney and with an undergraduate degree from Sydney University, she has a Masters and PhD from the London School of Economics in the broad areas of environmental economics and climate change.
She made a huge impact as a social entrepreneur in India as the founding executive director of Pollinate Energy – a startup that delivered simple, low-cost solar lighting to slum households as a replacement to toxic kerosene lamps.
The smarts of Pollinate was in the micro-financing arrangements for some of India’s poorest people. It offered an alternative. The solar technology had a health impact for people and an emissions impact by removing kerosene burners by the thousands.
And Pollinate Energy’s social impact continues through its expansion to providing solar rechargers for mobile phones and other low-cost appliances to the same community.
“[We felt] that if you wanted to have a big change in the emissions we are producing, you need to provide an alternative solution for people at the bottom of the pyramid.”
In this podcast, I talked Ms Kimmorley about the motivations for getting so deeply involved in such a coal-face social entrepreneurial project, and then the decision to step back and get into the large-scale, mainstream innovation finance through the CEFC.
The common thread across it all – from university study to commercial enterprises – is a deep passion about the environment and environmental technology.
She has a core belief that Australia has an unprecedented opportunity to play a big role in clean tech innovation, and building sustainable economic models to confront climate challenges.
Ms Kimmorley believes the energy sector will undergo enormous disruptive change in the next five years through innovations in solar plus storage plus tradeable energy and smart software systems.
But that near-future disruptive change is only the start.
“We are recreating the entire energy sector,” Ms Kimmorley said. “It’s the biggest investment opportunity globally that there is for the next 50 years. As an impact across every other sector, it will be transformative.”
Australia is in the box seat. It’s not like the rest of the world isn’t also looking at clean tech opportunities, but Ms Kimmorley says we boast some of the best research, best technology, and best innovators in the world.
And now that more capital is starting to mobile into clean tech – including from the banks, super funds, high net worth individuals and family companies – the Australia sector is looking exceptionally healthy.
In its short life, the CEFC Innovation Fund has mapped to a broad range of Australian clean tech or emission reduction innovation – from Carbon Revolution to Redback Technologies. But arguably its bigger success has been in mobilising other capital sources.
“The Innovation Fund is the biggest venture capital in the world for CleanTech. That’s exciting. And that’s commensurate to the fact that Australia has one of the most exciting CleanTech industries in the world – and has had for 20 years,” Ms Kimmorley said.
“Basically the Innovation Fund is a standard venture capital fund. We invest in very early stage to middle stage and provide what we’d call the commercialisation infrastructure to rapidly progress the Clean Tech industry and to help those businesses grow.”
Some $200 million was allocated for the fund. “But our role is to mobilise capital across the industry.”
“We are starting to see a huge amount of interest from institutional investors, philanthropic investors, high net worth individuals and family offices who are all coming in, mainly on the back of our investments as a cornerstone,” she said.
“And in some cases they can lead, as well. [The process] is really starting to see a big upskilling of the investment and philanthropic communities in this space.”
The CEFC Innovation Fund was also a cornerstone investor in the Clean Energy Seed Fund – putting in $10 million – that is being managed by Artesian Venture Partners.
Ms Kimmorley is unfazed by the fact that the political debate around energy and climate change has become so fraught.
“I think that just demonstrates that we are heading into an energy revolution. And that can be quite scary for incumbent industries, but it is hugely exciting for the rest of the clean energy sector. And that’s what we are starting to see now,” she said.