Entrepreneur and investor Gi Fernando, MBE, is recalling his formative years working in and around London’s “Silicon Roundabout” district in the early days of the British tech boom. “There was a real vibe at the time,” he says. “We were in Shoreditch and it was all pretty raw but it was great. We were all collaborating with each other.”
Fast forward to 2021 and Fernando believes that something of the same spirit of collaboration can be harnessed to accelerate the growth of not-for-profit tech startups. More specifically, he sees a commitment to cooperation, information sharing, and open data as crucial ingredients in Subak, an accelerator program designed for tech-driven startups working on solutions to mitigate the climate crisis.
Launched on July 21, this year, Subak claims to be the first global accelerator to focus solely on nonprofits working in the carbon reduction arena. Currently located in London but with plans in train to expand to the U.S. and Australia, its remit is to “support data scientists and campaigners to transform understanding of the climate problem.”
That is, of course, an admirable goal, but it sounds a little esoteric. So how does that mission map onto the accelerator model as we understand it? When I talk to Fernando and Songkick founder Michelle You—also on the Subak leadership team—it quickly becomes apparent that when it comes to nonprofit data businesses, you have to approach the acceleration process a little bit differently.
Like any conventional accelerator, Subak’s aim is to help participating organizations grow rapidly. Now that’s a pretty straightforward proposition in the case of fully commercial startups and, indeed, for those who would classify themselves as profit/purpose businesses. The accelerator invests, provides mentoring and coaching, and makes introductions to investors who support further growth. If everything goes according to plan, everyone makes money. Nonprofits don’t have the same appeal to investors. So how do they raise the money they need to scale?
Well as Fernando points out, nonprofits can raise money, but not necessarily from the usual sources. “There is philanthropic and public money available,” he says. “And funds, such as Google’s Global Impact Fund.” For its part, Subak has provided seed funding to the five companies taking part in the first cohort.”
As You stresses, however, it’s not all about the money. “Subak isn’t just about funding and the back office, she says. It is about mentoring and growing.”
What Does Growth Look Like?
All well and good. But what when we’re talking about nonprofit businesses, what does growth look like and what does it deliver?
Much of the focus is on putting data to work The first cohort companies include New Automotive, Transition Zero, Ember, and Open Climate Fix which collect and analyse data on the transport and energy markets. The fifth company, Climate Policy Radar keeps track of shifting climate regulations around the world.
As Fernando points out, all of them have the potential to drive change by furnishing not only policymakers but also fully commercial companies and consumers with the information that helps build a greener economy.
Creating A Market
There is a strong link between policy and the commercial opportunities created by the move to a net-zero world. For instance, here in the U.K., sales of non-electric cars will be banned from 2030. That policy decision is accelerating changes in the motor industry. “If we can change policy, we change markets,” says Michelle You.
Gi cites an example. “You would assume that as we transition to a green economy there would be a database of vehicles and how far they travel. You would say, surely there is such as thing.”
But that kind of data doesn’t pop out of thin air. It needs to be harvested, cleaned up and analyzed. The good news is that once the information has been collated and codified it can be used to inform policy and also provide the market validation needed by commercial companies making plans to enter the green economy. “So New Automotive is providing data to policymakers,” he says.
The energy sector is also data-hungry. Thus a company such as Open Climate Fix, which forecasts usage patterns of solar energy, can help grid operators understand when weather conditions will, effectively, be turning panels on and off. Again, there is huge scope to feed this data to commercial buyers.
Easing The Grind
The data-centricity of the first cohort has helped define another key function of the Subak accelerator. “Collecting data is a grind,” says Fernando. “We help our members with that grind.”
Equally important, drawing on the tech industry, mentors and coaches are on hand to help founders who may be more comfortable with data science than marketing their organizations to policymakers, corporate CEOs and buyers, and the general public.
Subak seems to be in a strong position to build bridges between nonprofit founders, government and the wider innovation economy. One key member of the leadership team is Baroness Byrony Worthington, the lead author of the United Kingdom’s Climate Act. Members of the tech industry are also well represented. It is the connections between the nonprofit, policy, and commercial worlds that might—just might—help the organizations in the cohort to extend their reach and make a bigger difference at a crucial time.