In one form or another, Imperial has been supporting innovators to create a sustainable and resilient low-carbon future for 13 years. These efforts have been driven tirelessly by Professor Richard Templer, and recently evolved into Undaunted, a partnership between the Grantham Institute and The Royal Institution.
Undaunted is building a community of multi-disciplinary innovators focused on turning ideas into impact; ultimately helping humans to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis in just and sustainable ways. As Alyssa Gilbert takes on the leadership of Undaunted, and in the first of our new Undaunted blog series, Climate Solutions Up-Close, Professor Templer reflects on the journey so far.
It’s impossible to pinpoint when Imperial started supporting climate innovation. As the 21st Century began, a significant and growing number of academic researchers at Imperial were working on the causes, impacts and solutions to man-made climate change.
Back in the early 2000s, the reality of global heating caused by human activity was contested territory – it was an uneven fight, with political ideologues and fossil fuel giants pitted against scientists, so despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, progress on action was blocked.
In 2009 that began to change…
The Grantham Institute, which launched in 2008 under the directorship of Brian Hoskins, Simon Buckle, and Simon Bailey, meant that Imperial now had a well-funded organisation to help bring together and coordinate the actions of its climate research and innovation community – and just at the right time. The recently formed European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) had a call for proposals to create a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) on climate change. The intention was to create a partnership amongst EU knowledge institutions and businesses to tackle the causes and effects of climate change through innovation, with a funding pot of €160m and status as the EU’s climate innovation organisation.
We joined forces with colleagues at ETH Zürich to develop a proposal and others soon joined us, enabling us to offer innovation clusters in Berlin, London, the Netherlands, Paris, and Zürich as well as regional representation in Emilia Romagna, Lower Silesia, Valencia and the West Midlands.
At that time, climate innovation programmes within corporates were generally small and inhibited. Regional governments understood the threats and opportunities of climate change but lacked stable policy frameworks to drive innovations. Universities and research institutes, on the other hand, were already developing climate innovations – but without any markets, most of these projects were still stuck in labs and pilot demonstration. How could universities accelerate the growth of the green economy in the absence of strong drivers?
Our hypothesis was straightforward
Universities are home to communities of experts, inventors, innovators, educators, students and influential networks. They are normally difficult for outsiders to access and their impact in the external world is slow and indirect. We felt that our job should be to enable access and to stimulate and resource impact-driven activity.
By the end of 2015, we had become the Climate-KIC, and just over a year later became a legally constituted partnership approved and funded by the EIT. That bland statement glosses over a hugely turbulent birth, all of which I saw from within – I was by now in charge of Climate-KIC UK and directing the education and training programme across our partnership. We emerged from the birth with a new CEO, my Imperial colleague Professor Mary Ritter, a postgraduate summer school on climate innovation that students loved, a growing portfolio of collaborative innovation projects and a start-up accelerator programme, which launched just prior to 2012, and which continues to this day, though funded by others.
A torrent of creativity
I am immensely proud of what my colleagues, students and start-ups have achieved. Opening up the opportunity for this community to make an impact on climate change has unleashed a torrent of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. It would be tempting to cite statistics at this point, but they do nothing to convey the way a new economy is being imagined and shaped, so instead I have decided to point to just a few of the people that have come through our gates and made a difference…
Over a thousand students learned the art of creating a climate innovation start-up and around a quarter of those went on to found their own businesses. One of the first to take the course and create a business was Kate Hofmann who, with her co-founder Tom Webster, founded Grow Up Farms in 2013. The company began as an urban aquaponics farm, a system of cultivating plants in water alongside aquatic animals. A decade later, they opened up a £100m controlled environment, low-emission farm in Kent.
In 2014 we welcomed Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez and Pierre-Yves Paslier onto the accelerator, who co-founded Notpla. The duo had invented a way of replacing plastic water bottles with algae-based blobs. Eight years later, and with many other innovations behind them, the team won £1 million in the Prince of Wales Earthshot Prize.
Two-thirds of the start-ups on our accelerator programme come from outside Imperial’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and these too have flourished. Our very first start-up, founded by Christophe Williams and Nicholas Simmons, was Naked Energy who make a unique, combined photovoltaic and solar thermal system. Eleven years on they manufacture these systems and sell them all over the world to industry, the leisure sector and healthcare. Learn more about their work.
Dr Jem Woods is a world-leading expert on the sustainable use of land. In preparation for the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in (COP15) he led the development of the Global Calculator. This tool and its subsequent incarnations (thirty nations now have their own versions) continues to be highly influential, supporting climate negotiations and raising awareness of the mitigation options we can use to control carbon dioxide emissions. On its publication in 2015, it brought global attention to how much our emissions could be reduced by changing our diets.
Professor Ralf Toumi, now the Co-Director of the Grantham Institute, led a project that, in 2016, brought state-of-the-art extreme weather modelling to the insurance sector through a project called OASIS. This led to the creation of the OASIS loss modelling framework, a software as a service business, now used by the multinational US stock exchange service, NASDAQ. Its work also influenced the Bank of England’s development of green finance innovation that ultimately led to the founding of the Green Finance Institute.
Weathering the storm
Of course by 2016 our ability to support climate innovators collided head on with the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Government had no capacity to engage in architecting green economic growth with us, our Climate-KIC funding almost entirely disappeared and our European community was moving on without us. This was a very difficult period, and there were many moments where the challenge of continuing our work felt insurmountable, but we continued as best we could.
We focused our efforts on maintaining the accelerator programme, raising funding from HSBC UK, the Greater London Authority and the Prince Albert of Monaco Foundation. In 2018 we became the Centre for Climate Change Innovation and moved into the Royal Institution, which provided our start-ups with a fantastic opportunity to work in central London within an impressive and historic setting. By the end of 2022 we were celebrating a decade of continuous support for start-ups in our accelerator, which is now called The Greenhouse, as well as announcing an exciting partnership with the Royal Institution, and a compelling rebrand, which brought all of our innovation activities under one banner: Undaunted.
Over the past decade we have taken in 148 start-ups, more than three quarters of whom have gone on to raise significant investment – over $1bn in total – creating over 1,500 jobs in more than 30 countries – meet some of them here. Of these, the vast majority continue to trade. It is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the talent and drive of the innovators we have supported, that they have achieved this in a period that saw a global pandemic and severe socio-economic upheaval. As we face the climate crisis, we need more of this – a lot more. I am excited to see how the next phase of Undaunted develops under Alyssa Gilbert’s leadership.
Why have we evolved into Undaunted?
When we thought about the collective effort it has taken to keep creating the green economy of the future, our earlier names – Climate-KIC UK in the first instance; the Centre for Climate Change Innovation thereafter, felt inadequate somehow. Prosaic and unmemorable, these descriptions seemed to dull down what has actually been a remarkable story of persistence and success against the odds. So, undaunted we have been and Undaunted we will remain.
Undaunted is a partnership between The Royal Institution and Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment.
Undaunted is co-funded by the 2014 to 2020 European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, the Greater London Authority and HSBC UK.