Start-ups joining Shell at Web Summit

How open innovation can accelerate decarbonisation

A crucial role for start-ups on the road to net zero

By Akilah LeBlanc on Nov 25, 2022

The energy transition is upon us, and the need for swift and decisive action is clear. If we continue at our current incremental pace of change, we will not be able to avoid the most serious consequences of climate change. The fast-track to decarbonisation requires radical ideas, innovative technologies and genuine private–public collaboration. Shell is deeply involved, both as a partner and a convener, in business ecosystems that deliver technology and digital innovation. We see this as a fundamental requirement for accelerating the transition to a net-zero emissions future.

Digital technology helps in four key ways.

  • Making today's energy system more effective and more efficient.
  • Accelerating the design of low-carbon solutions.
  • Enabling effective implementation and management of an emerging energy system that is more complex and diverse.
  • Unlocking new business models by creating economic incentives and demand signals that attract investment into low-carbon technologies and bring them to market sooner.

An International Energy Agency reporti stated that 35% of the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions reductions needed for a sustainable future will come from technologies that are currently at the prototype or demonstration phase. Another 40% of the reductions are expected to come from technologies which have not yet reached commercial maturity. It is crucial, therefore, that in the coming years we focus on technology innovation and commercial development.

Strong partnerships with start-ups and entrepreneurs

Throughout the digital technology community there is enormous energy and enthusiasm for net zero and the energy transition. There are numerous start-ups working in all areas of the energy system. Digital and physical technologies are being combined to transform business activities for everything from green hydrogen projects to the assessment of nature-based solutions. Shell is working with start-ups and innovation partners to accelerate the development of technology which helps society to transition to a net zero emissions future.

Start-ups and entrepreneurs bring a different mindset and fresh perspectives to the net zero challenge. They can move much faster than big organisations and find it easier to do new things. This makes them a perfect fit for companies like Shell, which are less nimble, but can offer strong financial support, extensive technical capacity and easy access to global partners and markets.

What do start-ups and entrepreneurs gain from collaboration?

Incubators and accelerator programmes help start-ups in three key ways. The first is direct access to a network of investors and corporate bodies that can help scale the new technologies. The second is access to a network of mentors who can help them avoid common pitfalls. And the third is support with the promotion and publicity that helps new businesses prosper.

Start-ups can also provide the vital bridge between publicly funded research and technology product development. Those whose focus is research, like the teams at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the USA, rely on start-ups to help commercialise their ideas. By working with public research bodies and commercial organisations, start-ups can access and leverage the best of laboratory facilities and enter a support ecosystem that goes far beyond technical assistance.

Ideas into action

Shell is supporting a range of start-ups and scale-ups that operate in the area of decarbonisation. Space Intelligence, for example, is a satellite data analytics start-up that uses freely available satellite data to track changes in land cover and in the carbon stocks held in vegetation and peatlands. These high-quality datasets are helping to address deforestation and to guide the restoration of damaged ecosystems. Space Intelligence’s trusted maps help companies ensure that the money they provide is being spent effectively and that carbon offsets are real and verifiable.

“We have seen massive benefits from the Shell GameChanger programme,” says Ed Mitchard, professor at MIT and co-founder of Space Intelligence. “It provided funding for us to try out a new way of using satellite data to map land cover change in Brazil. It has been a very positive experience working with the innovative people within Shell.”

Shell is also working with Mirico, a scale-up company that helps customers achieve net zero by monitoring emissions of greenhouse gases over large industrial sites. “Collaboration is a great way to bring new ideas to market,” says Mark Volanthen, Chairman of Mirico. “Corporates have established customers and established brands, while start-ups tend to be more innovative and reactive to the rapidly changing needs of markets. Decarbonising established industries calls for innovative thinking, and we see entrepreneurs at the forefront of that.”

Working with entrepreneurs encourages Shell to move more quickly and to take early decisions on which processes and technologies to support and develop. These open partnerships bring together disruptive technologies, innovative thinking and the commercial and financial backing that will make new ideas a reality.

Better technologies, better companies

Start-ups and scale-ups are important vehicles for turning good ideas into ventures. Innovators have a key role in showing what could be done with new digital technologies. But they have to be supported by entrepreneurs and corporates to ensure that the tools for driving the energy transition become widely available.

Shell can help by integrating technologies from start-ups with scalable solutions that we can bring to market to accelerate the transition to a net-zero emissions energy system. We acknowledge that rapid digital transformation of the energy sector will require a broad ecosystem where each organisation brings specific strengths and expertise. Achieving net zero will test the members of these ecosystems to the limits of their capability and stretch what they can do. The result will be better technologies, better companies and a profound impact on the biggest challenge facing the world today.

i Clean Energy Innovation, IEA flagship report, July 2020

Akilah LeBlanc is General Manager for Commercial Innovation Partnerships at Shell and leads the Shell GameChanger start-up acceleration program, where Shell partners with start-ups to accelerate the development of energy-related technology solutions.

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