It turns out that there is huge potential for this: electrochemistry has wide reaching applications in industries including pharmaceuticals and textiles – in particular the production of Nylon-6,6, a $35 billion market. Sunthetics has developed a process which would reduce prices by 30%, use 50% less raw material and energy, and reduce waste by half. If their plans are implemented, the method would save 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere, equivalent to the amount that would be saved if everyone in New York City stopped driving for 6 months. The main challenges to face are how to scale up the process so that it can be used across the industry, as well as securing funding to keep the project going.
Our second speaker was Eli Mitchell-Larso of Sunfarmer, a company bringing clean, affordable and reliable renewable energy to Nepal and empowering local entrepeneurs to bring solar energy companies to their own communities. Nepal has an electricity usage of around 100kWh per capita, compared with around 5000kWh per capita in the UK, while 80% of Nepal’s population does not have access to electricity. SunFarmer aims to change this and started off by working with Lungra Health Clinic which, when functioning without electricity, often had to deliver babies in darkness and couldn’t charge a mobile phone to call for help from the regional hospital. By building in a solar energy system, SunFarmer gave the health clinic a reliable and green source of electricity, allowing them to provide better treatment to their patients and free midwives from having to hold a torch in their mouth when delivering a baby! Within 24 months, SunFarmer had electrified three hospitals and over twenty health clinics, all funded by donors, changing lives across the population.
The company’s principles are to build local leadership, ensure financial stability and growth and make an impact to as many people’s lives as possible. They wanted to improve people’s livelihoods, and so decided to reach out to Nepal’s agricultural industry. Most farms in Nepal are small and unirrigated, meaning that for the 8-9 months out of the year where there’s no rain, they cannot grow crops. SunFarmer wanted to provide farmers with an alternative electricity source to diesel, which is expensive and unreliable and within 2 years they had built 200 solar powered water pumps, allowing farmers to increase their productivity and profitability. SunFarmer also wanted to avoid charging a large upfront cost and so they charge in small monthly instalments, as well as providing long-term maintenance. The company is now starting up community scale solar powered drinking water projects and empowering local communities to engage in their own projects.
The final speaker was Jonathan Gartside, cofounder of 100% renewable energy supplier Bulb, founded with the intention of reducing customers’ energy bills and making renewable energy affordable and easily available. 24 months after Bulb’s launch, they had become the UK’s 15th largest energy supplier and now supply energy to 860k customers as the 8th largest UK energy supplier. They believe that you shouldn’t have to pay a premium to have access to renewable energy and, by ensuring maximum productivity within their business model and not taking in as much profit as their competitors, they can keep costs down for customers. Bulb also tries to inform and encourage people of when the best time is to use energy i.e. avoiding peak times, as this is when energy is most expensive and when all the dirtiest and costly power stations in the UK have to be turned on! They estimate that they have saved 1130997 tonnes of CO2 since the start of their business and there are only plans to grow their impact in the future.
How do you balance profit and purpose?
The balancing act is unavoidable, but it doesn’t stop you from building a successful business. You can raise different types of capital, capital which will withstand change better than money. Staying mission-driven is key, if the team is all focused on the mission, this will drive ambition within the company. Doing research within is university is great as there is the freedom not to have to be consumer oriented.
What is a B-Corp company and how do you implement its principles into your business model?
It was very important when we founded Bulb to stick to the B-Corp principles of people, planet, profit. It requires a certification and recertification process and is integral to the business model, governing suppliers, recruitment, diversity and much more. In short, it means that these principles are built into the company rather than being tagged on the end as an afterthought.
What roles do graduates and undergraduate students have to play in social enterprise?
It’s key to start thinking early about the impact that you are making and want to make in the future. Scope out the start-ups you want to work with and offer to volunteer for them, develop relationships and make connections. Use your time as a student wisely, learning how to translate scientific knowledge into the market is very powerful.
How do you cope with the uncertainty at the beginning of a start-up?
You never get to a place where you can relax! If you are working within a university you are lucky as you get paid for teaching, but you can never lose your mission and must pursue opportunities when they arise. Uncertainty can also depend on the market you are working in, for example the earthquake in Nepal meant that SunFarmer redirected itself to helping with relief efforts – so you have to be prepared for anything! In addition, in certain political climates even national policy changes can have an impact on people’s attitudes and, consequently, your business. Evolving continually is important, there are always ways to improve and, in fact, this ability to adapt and evolve is why start-ups can be so successful!
Which methods of financing have been most successful in Nepal?
There is an informal system set up already with farmers’ co-operatives providing loans. At the moment we get loans from local banks, but this took a lot of lobbying! You have to start from the bottom and work your way up to local banks and international financing.