Amazon is only the latest big company to launch a scheme to partner with early-stage sustainability innovators, reports Oliver Balch

If necessity is the mother of invention, then brand backing is – or, in an ideal world, could be – its midwife, wet nurse and handmaid rolled into one.

Such is the thinking behind a slew of sustainability-oriented “accelerator” schemes to have emerged in recent years. Think, the 100+ Accelerator (set up by Unilever, Coca-Cola, AB InBev, and Colgate-Palmolive), PepsiCo’s Greenhouse Accelerator, and Microsoft’s recently launched AI for Environment initiative, to cite but a few.

Another name to add to the list is the new Amazon Launchpad Sustainability Accelerator. Geared towards startups that are building physical products to help people live more sustainably, the U.S. online retailer has pledged to provide selected UK and European startups with cash and in-kind grant support worth up to 33,000 pounds, including access to its cloud service, AWS.

Aditi Singh, general manager in Europe for the  company’s small business-focused platform, Amazon Launchpad, says Amazon will work with participants to complete a climate impact assessment to understand their product’s potential climate impact, and develop strategies to make them even more environmentally friendly from the outset.

Year-on-year sales of ‘climate-pledge friendly’ products doubled on Amazon’s UK and European sites in the last year

A major component of the programme is a 12-week bespoke learning programme, supported by Amazon’s partner, the European Union-backed innovation hub EIT Climate-KIC.

Singh says in the short term, Amazon’s new initiative seeks to respond to changing demand patterns, which have seen year-on-year sales of “climate-pledge friendly” products double on its UK and European sites over the last year.

The concept of corporates helping to fund early-stage startups is well-established within the innovator incubator space (the New York-based Do School and Echoing Green being archetypal examples).

Amazon's accelerator programme is aimed at startups developing eco-friendly products. (Credit: Jeramey Lende/Shutterstock)

For all the billions of dollars global brands pour into research and development, the popularity of accelerator programmes implicitly acknowledges that the best ideas often come from outside large organisations.

To quote Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss solar flight pioneer and founder of the Solar Impulse Foundation, a catalyst for pro-sustainability market solutions: “Certitude and habit kills innovation (because) innovation only sets in when one thinks about the opposite of what was done before.”

But disrupting the status quo is challenging for large, established brands, especially when such practices have proved profitable up until now, Piccard says.

The best programmes build in opportunities for collaboration and cross-organisational learning

Accelerators aren’t about outsourcing innovation, either. The best programmes build in opportunities for collaboration and cross-organisational learning.

A case in point is the Global Cement and Concrete Association’s (GCCA) new Open Challenge initiative, which aims to work with innovative startups to achieve ambitious net-zero goals for its industry members.

Under the scheme, experts from GCCA’s member companies (which represent around 40% of the global cement and concrete market) pledge to work side by side with selected early-stage innovators to help them move their technologies closer to full commercialisation.

For participants on the accelerator, the prize is “unprecedented access” to an industry worth $333 billion, GCCA says. For the association’s members, it’s a chance to get a heads up on potential breakthrough technologies coming down the track.

The cement sector is pairing with startups to help it achieve net zero. (Credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

GCCA’s chief executive Thomas Guillot describes the initiative as an attempt to “identify and jointly progress” cutting-edge clean-tech solutions, by applying the accelerator principle to the creation of green cement and concrete.   

For all the cuddly language around sustainability-oriented accelerators, such initiatives are not without their risks. The most obvious is greenwashing. “Tweaking old systems isn’t enough,” warns Melanie Hayes, managing partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, a UK-based “tech-for-good” venture capital firm. She points to the risk of brands seeing accelerator schemes as a publicity focused add-on to the real business of research and development. 
How can brands prove otherwise? In one of two ways, says Hayes. First, “by providing (startup innovators) access to their networks, reach and influence”. And second, “by partnering, rather than competing” with smaller innovators.

Microsoft has structured its new accelerator to ensure that startup participants retain all intellectual property rights

A good example of the latter is Piclo, an online energy-systems marketplace, which has teamed up with the large distributor UK Power Networks to facilitate the procurement of clean, flexible electricity. Since its creation in 2013, the small peer-to-peer trading platform has helped procure 667 megawatts of clean power.

To avoid any potential accusations of unfair competition, Microsoft has structured its new accelerator to ensure that startup participants retain all intellectual property rights. The U.S. tech giant has also committed not to take equity in any of the businesses that come through the programme, which kicks off in mid-March.

Previous  artificial intelligence startups to have gained early-stage support from Microsoft UK include ThermaFY, which develops real-time thermal analysis solutions, and recycling business Recycleye, which has so far raised more than 4 million pounds in funding.

Main picture: Energy system startup Piclo is helping UK Power Networks balance the grid. (Credit: Pan Demin/Shutterstock)



100+ Accelerator  concrete  Amazon Launchpad Sustainability Accelerator  EIT Climate-KIC  Solar Impulse Foundation  Piclo  ThermaFY  Microsoft 

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