Hydrogen-powered cars and high-tech animal feed: two sustainable ventures on finding funding and creating jobs
Solving the world’s toughest problems requires ambition, determination and resilience. Entrepreneurs with great ideas for tackling the climate crisis or food security require all of these qualities because turning a game-changing innovation into a viable business isn’t easy without the right support. And that’s where Unreasonable Impact, a partnership between Barclays and the Unreasonable Group, comes in.
In a nutshell, Unreasonable Impact handpicks innovators with the most creative ideas – and backs them. Deep Branch, a biotech company that uses microbes to turn carbon dioxide from industrial emissions into protein for animal feed, and Riversimple, which is developing hydrogen-powered vehicles, have both benefited from access to the expertise and resources provided by the programme.
Deep Branch’s technology offers a more sustainable means of creating protein. Currently, livestock are mostly fed soybean or fishmeal, which are linked to deforestation and overfishing. Deep Branch’s technology takes purified CO2 and mixes it with microbes, in a process called gas fermentation, to create a protein powder that can be added to animal feed. It isn’t at the mercy of volatile weather or global supply chain disruptions, so helps to ensure food security. And it has the further benefit of reducing competition for valuable arable land.
“Deep Branch’s tech means you can use arable land to keep producing products that can’t be made another way,” says Pete Rowe, CEO and co-founder of Deep Branch, which employs 30 staff in the UK and the Netherlands. “Letting land be used for something else – even rewilding – is a big win.”
Riversimple aims to deliver an equally big win in sustainability terms: the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport. The company says that its prototype hydrogen fuel-cell car, the Rasa, is designed for a range of 300 miles on a full tank of hydrogen and, unlike conventional electric vehicles, can be refilled in three minutes. This means it offers all the flexibility of a fossil fuel car without the environmental downsides, as its tailpipe emits nothing but droplets of water.
Rather than selling its vehicles, Riversimple, which is based in Llandrindod Wells in Wales, plans to offer them as part of a subscription service that covers all the associated running costs, from servicing and maintenance to insurance and fuel. It’s a business model that makes efficiency profitable without asking the customer to pay a premium for it. At the end of a contract, the vehicle is returned to Riversimple and supplied to another customer.
“We’re about resource conservation instead of consumption,” says Hugo Spowers, chief engineer and founder of Riversimple. “If you sell cars, the more resources you consume, the more money you make. And I don’t see how we can ever have a sustainable industrial society based on rewarding industry for doing the opposite to what we’re trying to achieve.”
Unreasonable Impact was established in 2016 to provide ambitious entrepreneurs such as Rowe and Spowers with the guidance and support they need to tackle pressing global challenges. Over the course of the programme, entrepreneurs are brought together with a curated group of mentors and industry experts who can help them solve key issues facing their business. Support continues through the Unreasonable Fellowship, which provides these innovators with access to investors and experts, including from Barclays, as well as some of the world’s most powerful institutions.
More than 250 firms have benefited from the programme to date. Collectively, they’ve raised more than $10bn in financing and are supporting more than 19,500 full-time employees.
Fiona Spowers, communications director at Riversimple, says the company’s involvement resulted in “a very welcome, patient and longstanding cohort of support” and that she was “surprised and delighted” that many of the entrepreneurs in the group were also working on “hard, real technology solutions …[tackling] real problems”. In the years since, Barclays’ mentors have remained helpful, encouraging and interested in the issues involved in developing a hydrogen-powered car, she says.
Rowe, meanwhile, appreciates the fact that the programme allows CEOs of companies to engage with one another on a very purposeful level. “Within your organisation, you don’t necessarily have any peers … [so] it’s nice to have an external network you can lean on.”
He’s now focused on industrialising Deep Branch’s CO2-to-protein technology, “because big problems need large-scale solutions”. A pilot plant at an innovation hub in the Netherlands is due to open shortly, and the company is also exploring the possibility of a commercial-scale facility in Iceland. The company’s aim is to produce 600,000 tonnes of protein per year by 2030. “It’s exciting to think of a world where there’s a lot more food security and food self-sufficiency,” says Rowe.
The Rasa, meanwhile, has undergone successful beta testing, and Riversimple was recently in talks to locate a manufacturing plant in Aberdeen’s energy transition zone. It would produce 5,000 vehicles a year and potentially create 200 jobs, plus 600 more in the supply chain.
Rather than the UK building electric car battery factories when China already dominates the market and supplies of the critical minerals the batteries contain, Hugo Spowers believes Britain should seize the opportunity that hydrogen vehicles represent, given that fuel-cell technology is still immature. “It doesn’t require those critical minerals, and it really depends on innovation, which we’re pretty good at,” he says. “So a position of global significance in the supply chain for fuel-cell vehicles is a real opportunity for the UK.”
While protein for animal feed and hydrogen-powered cars might seem quite different, both illustrate the guiding ethos of Unreasonable Impact: that solving tough global problems is not only a moral imperative, it’s also a financial opportunity. And thanks to support from the programme, hundreds of innovators that share this belief should now find it easier to scale their business – and maybe change the world.
Discover more about the Unreasonable Impact programme, a partnership between Barclays and Unreasonable Group that supports high-growth entrepreneurs working on social and environmental challenges