Investing in the future

March 14, 2019 Jane 0

Charlie Curtis teaches businesses how to innovate, focusing on the positive impact they can have for future generations. But keen to have a positive impact himself, Charlie, alongside his business partner Tim Kruger, starts revolutionary new ventures to address environmental issues.

Everyone should have a wilderness experience where they walk across a desert or climb a mountain or cycle across a country. In 2008, I spent three months in a small boat with three others, sailing from Argentina to Cape Town via the Antarctic. The camaraderie with a team that size is fascinating, but you also have lots of time with your own thoughts.

I realised what I was doing for a living was fostering inequality, driving wealth towards people who were already wealthy – often at the expense of the environment. And that wasn’t the legacy I wanted to leave behind. I decided I wanted to focus on driving business as a force for good.

Business is the power broker of the future. 69 of the top 100 economies in the world are businesses as opposed to countries, where 15 years ago it was 50. Power really is moving from governments to business, especially in the Western world. Businesses have a moral responsibility may be to leave the world a better place, but the world is changing at an unprecedented rate, and there is a commercial imperative here too: the corporations that do lead us to a better place will be the ones that survive. Businesses who hold onto the status quo are not going to be with us in 10- or 15-years’ time. There is a real call to action for business to lead a transition.

There are not yet many multinationals that in their core business are either socially or environmentally neutral, or ideally restorative. Unilever is a leader but even it is still early on in its journey, with only 26 ‘Sustainable Living’ brands (out of about 400 brands I believe), although these 26 are delivering 70% of the business’ growth. And then companies like DSM and Ikea are doing great things, but very few others are changing their core business. What many are doing is learning about the future through innovation.

That’s what my mission is now – to help corporations learn about what that future is going to be and how innovation can help them lead them to a place where they will both protect the future of their business and have a positive impact on the environment and the people they touch.

And I am trying to do it myself by working on start-ups. My business partner Tim Kruger is the cleverest person I’ve ever met. He’s got very big ambitions and thinks at a systems level; some people leave their jobs to start up a business that reduces emissions for example, Tim left his job to fix climate change.

He developed an idea called C-questrate, which breaks limestone into lime. Putting that lime into the ocean counters ocean acidification and takes CO2 out of the air. He realised that not only the science had to fall into place for that to happen, but also the regulatory regime around what we can and can’t do with oceans, as well as the legal, social and ethical implications. He realised no one was studying these. And despite not being an academic, he founded the Oxford Geoengineering Programme at the Oxford Martin School to understand and research these issues.

The first business I worked on with Tim is Origen Power; a new design of power station. As it generates electricity, it takes CO2 out of the air; the more electricity it generates, the less CO2 is in the air. Combined cycle gas turbine – today’s natural gas technology of choice – emits about 400 grams of CO2/kWh. Even with CCS this will only halve to about 200 g/kWh. For Origen Power the figure is minus 600g, that is, it takes 600 grams of CO2 out of the air per kilowatt hour. It turns the whole equation upside down. We’ve had a lot of success, most recently winning the UK Government £1m Energy Entrepreneurs Fund grant, and we’re currently building our pilot power station.

Then we worked together on DryGro – a new way of growing crops using 99 percent less water. Tim had the idea and did the first experiments at the University of Oxford. I found some researchers and designers, and we built the kit and grew lettuces in 40-degree heat. Then I found a CEO from the business school here in Oxford called Sean Peters. He’s such an excellent combination of clever strategic thinker, good on the financials and also very good at understanding the mechanics of – and looking after – the team. He has very strong ethics running through his blood and is an immensely hard worker. He’s just on it every day and amazes me every day.

To me, he doesn’t work for me – he’s the person who’s in charge and running the venture. But in the early days, I admit, we clashed. Up until that point it had been my baby, I had grown it from nothing and then this guy came in who wanted to do things differently from what I had planned. That resulted in a few big clashes.

Then overnight, I realised that the best way this was going to succeed was for me to get out of the way. It was like a lightbulb had been switched on. I had hired someone to do the job, and I was still trying to do it myself. So I took a step back and made it my mission to support him, in the early days, mainly by saying yes and encouraging everything he wanted to do. Once we had established that new way of working, we were able to outwardly challenge each other much more and have really rich conversations. My principle is ‘Here’s what I believe, but it’s your decision’. I might say something he completely disagrees with, and he can learn from it if it’s relevant. But I’m never going to say to him ‘you have to do it this way’. He’s repaid my faith in spades, recruited a team and has built our first working farm in Kenya growing a high-protein animal feed. The economics look really promising and the market is massive.

Before Sean was CEO, my main priority was getting money in. We were very much led by grants – great because they are free money but the application process can be painful and can cause delays which then brings cashflow issues. We are now also equity funded on both ventures.

Although I don’t particularly enjoy writing them, the good thing about grant applications is they force the discipline of writing a thorough map of what you plan to do and in what timeframes. Then after we received the grant, this map functioned as a sort of master instruction plan to deliver. However, a downside is grants are less flexible if you want to pivot. and there are also times where you need to deliver elements of the plan because the grant dictates it rather than it’s the right thing to do for the venture.

Going down the equity route is much more targeted on getting you to market ASAP. It focuses you on commercial growth whereas grant money isn’t necessarily driving you as fast in that direction.

My advice would be to remember that a key part of what investors are investing in is the team, so you ideally want talent and knowledge to stay within the team. There’s a trade-off in tech however, because you also want highly experienced, expert people who may be too expensive to employ.

We received a €50,000 grant from ClimateKIC, the terms of which were we had to spend it on external contractors. A pain at the time as we needed it to pay ourselves, but in hindsight, it was a brilliant driver. It forced us to partner with external experts and we managed to find really good ones.

When I was hiring, I quickly realised that candidates could have a stellar CV, but in the interview, show no evidence of strategic thinking or creativity in the moment. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to demonstrate that you can think creatively, and understand the commercial implications of the decisions you make. Rapport is crucially important. As an entrepreneur, you need to be a salesperson, a fundraiser, a motivator. Demonstrating the ability to build rapport at interviews is critical.

When the big tech giants like Google or Apple bring someone in, the HR team will typically come to them in the first week and say, ‘who are the best people you know?’ and then they’ll go and try to recruit them.

I tried this technique when I met with Nicky Chambers to see who we could recruit for Origen from her network. Halfway through the conversation I realised Nicky would be the ideal person for the job, so I offered it to her there and then. She’s a maverick but strategic and very clued up. She really gets how people work and she’s exceptionally good at building relationships with investors and building their feedback into what we’re doing.

As an entrepreneur, you need to know you’re in it for maybe 7 years. You have between 3 – 5 years to get the company to the point where you can exit and then there’s maybe 1 – 3 years where you’re doing your earn out. Or you may have to be prepared to give up control earlier, anecdotally, it takes somewhere between two and three CEOs to get from launch to exit, and a lot of founders find it very hard to let go, as I did, but they may need to if they want the business to succeed.

With hindsight, I wish I had known how long it would take to go through the process of fund raising. You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs to find the person who gives you money. Investors often have clear rules of what they can invest in and if you’re doing something that is truly groundbreaking, then these rules often haven’t even considered what you’re suggesting. Our investors understand that there is a technical risk and they obviously buy into the huge commercial potential if we can make the technology work, and they understand the milestones we have to hit to get there. As you can imagine, it took time to both find those people who get it, and more time to discuss all the information to help them make decisions.

One of those milestones is the IP development. It’s worth investing early in IP advice, not just how best to protect the technology, but also in the strategy to exploit it commercially over the long term. This is a very important decision factor for a lot of the investment community.

Finding a good IP advisor can be tough. Some advisors will give you technically correct advice, but not in a way that helps you to work out what to actually do, so try to find an expert who can speak in simple terms and critically, understands the IP from your venture’s perspective.

And finally – do something you care about, something that makes a difference. Being an entrepreneur is hard and can very lonely and stressful, as Elon Musk once said, it’s like chewing glass whilst staring into the abyss. You need that inspiring goal to drive your own and your team’s passion and commitment to keep going when times are tough.

If you’d like to know more about the ventures or contact Charlie, please visit his website: