Global Cultures

Reframing Perspectives: Green Giants

May 2017

Are APAC's clean tech start-ups ready for prime time? The tide is turning as more venture capital is being sunk into renewable energy.

Last year, world leaders made unprecedented levels of commitment to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, following the historic 2015 Paris Agreement forged by leaders from 175 nation-states to address climate change remediation.

The case for low-carbon innovation in energy production is stronger than ever following consecutive years of record-smashing global temperature records, and reports that atmospheric CO2 has reached its highest level for 650,000 years. 

But there's doubt around timing, as investors wonder: when will “clean tech” (energy production harnessing the power of the sun, waves or wind) - move beyond niche and reach an economically-viable critical mass?

Tim Heasley

Real time

If clean tech is a bandwagon, the time to get on board is now, according to Tim Heasley. He's a partner at Artesian, an investment firm spun out of ANZ's Capital Markets business in 2004 which now boasts offices in Sydney, Melbourne, New York, London, Singapore and Shanghai.

In the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, clean tech is now a very viable venture capital investment class, Heasley says. “I think there's now almost universal recognition that climate change is a real thing. Unless we look to replace carbon-based sources of energy, we're not going to a good place."

The tide is turning as more and more venture capital is being sunk into renewable energy. And once the field establishes a broad startup base, it will thrive, Heasley says. Meantime, clean-tech innovators are tapping the know-how of clean-energy incubators and accelerators to get a jump on competitors. One such outfit is the University of Technology Sydney's development crucible, EnergyLab, which promotes the adoption of totally sustainable clean energy solutions.

Dirty secret

According to green energy expert, John O'Brien, a key reason for clean tech gaining traction is rising public condemnation over the pollution caused by rival energy sources such as coal. O'Brien points out that China's acrid capital, Beijing, kicked off 2017 with a stratospheric air pollution reading of 755 on the Air Quality Index - which rates anything above 400 as hazardous.

Growing pressure from residents in Beijing and nearby areas have prompted tighter regulation of the region's air and water quality. Public pressure “drives a lot of activity," says O'Brien. He runs two green innovation firms from his South Australian base: Australian CleanTech and Sino CleanTech.

The other big driver of clean-tech is financial, he says. The cost of producing green energy is steadily dropping – so building a high-polluting coal or gas power-station and threading wires everywhere no longer adds up when compared to distributed solar photovoltaic plants, which are now the dominant player in APAC's clean-tech startup space.

There's far less start-up entrepreneurship in wind-generated energy, which is more often harnessed at scale. That's because building a wind farm that yields worthwhile wattage demands considerable resources – the kind of clout wielded by corporates and governments. Witness the Gansu national wind farm mega-project under construction in northwest China: it is set to grow to 20,000 megawatts by 2020.

Other forms of renewable energy proving to have real potential include geothermal and now, tidal and wave power. The signs are there for an energy future that combines multiple renewable sources to provide cheap and consistent power when needed. 

Here's an overview of just three of the APAC startups making a redoubtable buzz in the fields of wave power and solar.

Wave power - harvesting the energy of the ocean

The Ryan brothers

BOMBORA WAVE POWER, Perth, Australia

Former GE Ecomagination ANZ challenge winners Shawn and Glen Ryan find inspiration in a primal rhythm: waves breaking on beaches around the globe.

The clean-tech pioneers run the Perth-based wave-power start-up Bombora. They have developed a low-cost membrane energy-harvester, which feeds wave energy back into the grid.

The brothers' wave power kit is versatile enough to be usable in coastal locations globally. Its first commercial application - a 60-megawatt wave farm - is set for construction in Peniche, Portugal, a location the company's website describes as “an ideal location for a full-scale mWave converter wave farm."

Waves have been a part of their life for a long time, as both founders are keen kayakers and white-water rafters. They founded their ocean energy start-up in 2012. Since then, it has evolved in line with Shawn's avowed belief that you must let go of your baby, let it breathe and improve through testing - and by taking expert advice. That expert advice came via Curtin University's mechanical engineering department and the Australian Maritime College.

These experts have added to the Ryan brothers existing, impressive technical proficiency; Shawn is a qualified mechanical engineer, with consulting experience across the oil and gas sectors, while Glen has held roles as a consulting engineer and data analyst. 

In 2013, their ocean-energy start-up was named WA Innovator of the Year and named one of five winners of GE's first Ecomagination ANZ Challenge. One of their big challenges is that wave power is often regarded as a fringe option. Normally costly to process, wave energy proposals can be the fodder of perpetual feasibility studies that never quite make it to the grid.

But the Ryan brothers option may have overcome waves' biggest obstacle: they highlight the affordability of their harvester, which dispenses with pricey implementation. Plus, they say, “wave" is the most concentrated form of renewable energy: denser than either solar or wind.

It's possible that the wave energy fringing the world's coastlines, just might hold the most promise of all.

Beneath the surface - new technologies turning waves into electricity


Despite the name, this company is not another wave-power start-up. Singapore-based Third Wave Power offers a portable multi-function solar charger called the mPowerpad. The gadget enables users to charge their devices anywhere on Earth that can be reached by sunlight.

But the potential of this device is not just its gadget appeal: the device is pitched at two contrasting market demographics: outdoors types - and the rural poor, dogged by wobbly electricity access. 

Spruiked as a 21st-century Swiss Army knife, the mPowerpad also includes a reading light, flashlight, SOS signal, radio and ultrasonic insect repellent.

Third Wave Power's personable chief executive VS Hariharan brings more than 20 years of experience from the information technology space. With Hewlett-Packard and the IT services firm Wipro Infotech, Hari held management roles and senior positions in sales and marketing. He has broad experience in product marketing and building go-to-market engines for consumer and business products. Throughout his career, he has been involved in scaling new and emerging businesses.

Already, his handy tablet-like device has won a wealth of awards geared around innovation and ecology, partnering with the Good Water company to implement rural solutions.

The secret of Third Wave Power's success may be the chemistry between Hari and his chief technology officer, fellow Hewlett-Packard alumnus Loi Jiew Liang.

"One of the wonderful things about Third Wave Power is they came to us with two founders and not one. If you look at the history of many great companies - they often do have more than one founder: Apple was started by Jobs and Wozniak, HP clearly by Hewlett and Packard," investor Frank Levinson says in a promotional video clip.

Hari and Loi Jiew Liang could not be more different, Levinson continues. "One's very nerdy and loves technology and things like that. The other loves customers but understands technology, and they both respected each other. Wow! We thought - this is going to be a powerful combination, and I think it's proved to be true."

Alex Shoer

SEEDER Shanghai

The Shanghai-based solar start-up Seeder conveys the convenience it offers in a three-word catchphrase: “hassle-free solar". Seeder helps finance rooftop solar for building owners in China.

Seeder spruiks a "zero-cost solar solution for small to medium-sized commercial and industrial rooftops," recruiting investors to buy and operate the panels. The investors then sell the power yielded back into the building, below the grid price. Ingenious.

Seeder's “mission-driven" co-founder and chief executive Alex Shoer is a serial entrepreneur and graduate of innovation programs including Stanford Ignite and China Accelerator.

Shoer moved to Shanghai in 2011, believing that China was poised to make great green energy leaps. He co-founded Seeder in September 2012, with the aim of nurturing the green distributed energy movement. His start-up, which according to Crunchbase has raised US$438,000 in funding, touts access to project capital of over US$4.3 billion from reputable institutions in China and overseas.

Seeder brands itself the green equivalent of Alibaba: all about trust, transparency and accessibility.

Certainly, Seeder is well-placed in populous Shanghai, a global financial hub and start-up hotbed, where agile new tech companies drive an early-adopter customer culture.

Clean tech companies are certainly full of potential here, with China recognised by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2016 as the world's biggest clean energy investor.

And that investment is already on the way up: by the beginning of 2017, the country's energy agency announced that China would plough 2.5 trillion yuan into renewable power generation by 2020.

Seeder has even captured the admiration of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, Insight, for its spectacular business model fast becoming a money tree. Insight credits the startup as “turning rooftops into renminbi." In Shanghai, where rooftops outnumber trees significantly - that's definitely a good business to be in.

Seeder wins "Best Startup Founded by an Expat" at the 2016 China Bang Awards

John O'Brien

Hydrocarbon flameout

Tim Heasley is guardedly optimistic about the future of clean tech. Various finance experts have called a recent rallying of oil and coal prices mid-2016 a “dead-cat bounce,” with prices expected to fall again over 2017; but ironically, if those prices keep sliding, fossil fuels will remain attractive to investors in the short term, thwarting clean-tech fundraising.

“But I think they have a limited lifespan," Heasley says. “I think the momentum is certainly moving in the right direction. I think we have a good tailwind."

Also warily optimistic, O'Brien warns that as old-style power stations reach term and are written-off - or written down heavily as their value dips, their managers will rightly strive to protect their assets' value.

He believes another obstacle is the politicisation of energy creation methods, which causes consumers to switch off on such discussions. The fallout from coal-fired power stations is far less apparent for people who live in blue-skies Adelaide, rather than an Asian city where pollution is “bloody obvious."

O'Brien believes the real focus should be on the growth benefits of clean tech: its ability to create better cities, accessible energy for remote locations and high-tech job opportunities for the next generation. If the obstacles are conquered, the outlook for clean tech should be a seamless transition.

“In my mind, the aim of clean tech is not to exist as a concept," O'Brien says, arguing that, within a decade, it will be integrated into the landscape.

What a breath of fresh air that will be.

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