Sustainability Start-ups: Creativity in the Transition to An Environmentally Sound Society
I’ve directed Columbia University’s Master’s in Environmental Science and Policy since 2002 and its Master’s in Sustainability Management since 2010. Many of our graduates go to work for large and prominent organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Most are united in their commitment to achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development goals. But a growing number are interested in forming new organizations to address the planet’s crisis of environmental sustainability. This has been a long-time trend, particularly in the more private sector-oriented sustainability management program, but I see the tendency growing, and I believe it represents a powerful and creative force that is exciting and worthy of attention and reflection.
One current sustainability management student, Yoni Ronn, has started a company named MOBY, focused on keeping micro-plastics out of our food chain. Another team of students has created a company called Voltpost. As Caroline Horrigan reported in State of the Planet this past February:
“Jeff Prosserman and Luke Mairo, M.S. in Sustainability Management (SUMA) students and the founders of a company called Voltpost, aim to enable this green transition. Voltpost works to retrofit lamp posts into electric vehicle charging stations managed by a mobile application — a solution they hope will accelerate electric vehicle (EV) adoption by providing cities with scalable curbside charging for drivers. Recently, Jeff and Luke, as well as Aditi Desai, a part-time SUMA student and a full-time Volpost employee, secured $1.3 million in funding for Voltpost’s mission. They will use the funds to develop the Voltpost lamppost charging system, secure pilot contracts, and expand the Voltpost team.”
A number of our current students and graduates have worked in start-ups, several have started sustainability consulting firms, and many are working on creative products, services and technologies in established organizations. The common theme is innovative problem-solving. A member of our adjunct faculty, Dr. Jonathan Hollander, teaches a course on Sustainable Entrepreneurship, and a number of other courses in our Sustainability Management master’s program address issues related to financing and operating start-ups, as well as analyzing risk. Student demand is pushing our curriculum to respond to this hunger to understand the management challenges of starting a new enterprise.
These new organizations and new ideas are particularly important in the field of environmental sustainability because without new and creative thinking, the trend lines of business as usual seem to bring our planet to gloom and doom. This past July in the Journal of Cleaner Production, Sarah Tiba, Frank J. van Rijinsoever and Marko P. Hekkert observed that:
“Today’s sustainability challenges call for the help of radical innovators like those startup founders who are finding creative solutions to pollution, the unsustainable use of resources and the spread of diseases. In fields ranging from clean energy to health treatments, innovative startup firms often translate scientific findings into actionable solutions that can reach a global audience. The new business models established by startup firms are simultaneously breaking open existing arrangements… and helping to solve today’s pressing societal and environmental challenges.”
In sum, we need both new and creative technologies but also new and creative business models and institutional arrangements. Sharing economy start-ups such as Lyft, Rent the Runway, Uber and Airbnb use smartphone technologies and new forms of revenue generation to invent new products that consume fewer resources than traditional business models. Tesla’s ability to compete with established auto companies was in part due to its freedom from the established thought patterns and standard operating procedures of giant automobile corporations. Tesla’s creative advances in battery technology, software design, and rare earth mineral recycling were critical in enabling the company to overcome its lack of production process experience and numerous failures in new product rollout.
Electric vehicles, renewable energy generation and greenhouse gas reductions in heavy industries such as cement manufacturing will all require creative, non-linear technical and management innovation. While I would never advocate discarding the design, production, sales and distribution capacity of large established organizations, the energy and creativity of start-ups can both challenge these older organizations, and if acquired by larger businesses, be an agent of change in established organizations.
The technological and managerial challenges of environmental sustainability are profound. I know that some environmental advocates believe that we now have all the technology we need to decarbonize; all that is missing is political will. It is true that some of the resistance to change comes from fossil fuel companies and others hoping to recover sunk costs and seeking to use the political process to block change. However, if renewable energy technology was more accessible, more reliable, and less expensive than fossil fuels, no amount of political manipulation could block the new technology. The fact that renewable energy is less expensive than fossil fuels is not enough. Renewable resource technology is improving daily, but for it to drive fossil fuels and the throw-away economy from the marketplace, it must dominate existing technologies and business models.
Electric vehicles are among the first tests at scale. They have many advantages over internal combustion engine vehicles. But currently, it is easier to find a gas station than a charging station, and electric vehicles are more expensive to purchase even if they are probably cheaper to operate. Batteries with longer range, faster charging and lower prices could drive fossil-fueled vehicles from the marketplace, but that will require technical and managerial innovation. Governmental tax subsidies can help for a short time, but for enduring change, the new technology must completely dominate the old one.
Environmental sustainability requires government investment in research, infrastructure, finance, and market development, but it also requires a creative, agile, and innovative private sector. While government intervention may be necessary, it is far from sufficient. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and resource recovery must prove themselves in the marketplace. The concern that young people have about climate change and the degradation of our natural environment create favorable conditions for products and services that claim to be greener. Organizations seeking to be green have an easier time attracting talent than those that ignore these issues. Entrepreneurial start-ups focused on sustainability can provide creative ideas and the desperation-driven hard work that is often displayed by hungry, marginal, new organizations. As an educator for over 40 years, I’d never bet against youthful idealism or on Goliath over David.
Many educational institutions like the one I work for are doing a great deal to encourage their students to begin new enterprises. We are including start-up education in our management curriculum, and at Columbia, resources are being allocated to an initiative called Columbia Entrepreneurship that is designed to encourage student start-ups. Columbia Entrepreneurship works out of Columbia’s President’s Office and among other activities started Columbia’s Start-up Laboratory in 2014. According to their website:
“69 Charlton Street has been home to the Columbia Startup Lab since it launched in 2014, and headquarters to over 329 startups and 448 Columbia alumni entrepreneurs that have raised over $94.1M in funding and $115M in acquisitions. In 2021, Tishman Speyer took over the space and reopened it as its proprietary Studio flex space. Now, at Studio, the Lab and its 71 entrepreneurs are kicking off another year of launching, mentoring, and growing in its sophisticated space with access to Tishman Speyer’s amenities and workspace experience platform ZO.”
Start-ups are now part of our professional school curriculum, but as important as they are, they don’t always succeed. After a few years, a sustainability start-up can end up: 1. Larger and better established; 2. Bought by a larger and better-established company, or: 3. Out of business. Regardless of the outcome, those involved in the enterprise learn a great deal, and hopefully, even those who endure failure learn lessons that influence them professionally. I am impressed and amazed by the work I’ve seen by my students and graduates as they work to translate their environmental principles into practical sustainability practice in a world desperate for innovation.