Such “advance market commitments” have enabled cutting-edge technologies to swiftly reach commercial markets in other fields, from vaccine development to commercial spaceflight. The same approach could shrink the timeline to scaling up emerging clean technologies and driving down their cost premiums over more carbon-intensive technologies.
On top of swelling demand for clean technologies, investments in their supply are growing. President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is investing more than $20 billion in clean- technology demonstration projects, and private venture capital investment set a record in 2021 by topping $40 billion for climate-technology startups.
Yet the first half of 2022 has seen the broad technology sector tumble in market value, and venture capital investment across sectors has slowed. The chilly market climate may affect clean-technology companies in the short term, but investment in the sector still appears more sustainable than the “Clean-tech 1.0” bubble a decade ago, when venture capitalists invested $25 billion from 2006 to 2011 but lost half their money when the dust settled.
In addition to supportive government policies around the world, entrepreneurs today have access to a richer innovation ecosystem. Among the winners on this year’s Innovators Under 35 list are some who have incubated their technologies at US national laboratories, secured investment and collaboration from major energy and automotive companies, and made it into the portfolios of so-called “patient capital” investors such as Breakthrough Energy. Particularly for innovators in the United States, this diverse set of capital sources can help a company traverse the so-called “valley of death” and bring a technology from prototype to commercial scale.
Aside from saving the planet, there are serious rewards that await climate innovators. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with $10 trillion under management, has called decarbonizing the economy the “greatest investment opportunity of our lifetime” and predicted that the next thousand “unicorns” will be “startups that help the world decarbonize and make the energy transition affordable for all consumers.”
Those named to this year’s list are seizing this opportunity. Their success is something we can all get behind.
Varun Sivaram is the senior director for clean energy and innovation for US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry (and a 35 Innovators winner in 2021 and a judge this year). The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent official US government policy.