Jim Walker is co-founder of The Climate Group, an international NGO sharing best practices on climate change solutions, and currently works on solutions to the world’s water crisis with the NGO Thirst. He has been a valued jury member of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge since the start in 2007. We talked with him about what defines a good start-up and what the jury is actually looking for. 

What inspired you to found The Climate Group?
“In 2004, the mood about solving climate change was very negative. It was perceived as a niche green issue; a difficult and expensive thing to deal with. Government negotiations were mostly based on ‘burden sharing’; which is code for “we all have to take short showers and live in caves, who’s going first?” So we interviewed a group of leaders in business and government, who were all working on energy efficiency and renewable energy targets. Without exception they had all gone further and faster than they had expected, and had positive stories to tell about what they had learned.

It was a diverse group of people with a common mission – from the State of Victoria in Australia to Timberland to Woking Borough Council in the UK. Even the oil company BP had surprised themselves about how fast they could cut their operational emissions The group didn’t really know each other, and they were tired of going to conferences to hear about the problem. They wanted to meet each other, learn from each other and have a much more positive conversation about solutions. That’s how The Climate Group was born.

We had help at the start from a small group of foundations including DOEN Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. We launched The Climate Group, originally as a series of conferences to pull all these people together. But it quickly became something much bigger – a coalition of the willing. There was a lot of attention from the media and interest from states, cities and companies that wanted to join up. I think it was just the right idea at the right time.”

climate group 2

What, in your eyes, defines a successful start-up?
“A lot of research has been done on this and generally you should have great leadership, a great team, and good timing. These are the most common things that link together successful start-ups. The fact that your idea is pretty good overall obviously helps as well! But I think it’s really about the right team and the right timing for that idea.”

When looking at the market, what opportunities do you see for sustainable entrepreneurs?
“I think some of the most exciting stuff is happening in materials. This field is so ubiquitous and at the same time so unsustainable at the moment, that anything that can disrupt the materials space can make a huge difference. That’s one.

And secondly, there are big opportunities in energy systems. There is an amazing amount of incredible innovation going on. Start-ups that are doing things I can’t even comprehend, really looking at how to move the different parts of the energy system forward. It’s everything from storage, to renewables, to matching supply and demand. A lot of it is data-based, which makes it more attractive for investors to get on board. If you look at networks like Energy Unlocked (a spin-out from The Climate Group) you can get a good idea of what is coming down the pipeline.

The third one is water. Water is the medium through which climate change is going to get nasty – my fellow climate campaigner Paul Dickinson calls water scarcity the ‘teeth’ to climate change’s ‘shark’. By 2040 there will be 40% undersupply of fresh water relative to demand. This is going to play out in key regions like India and the Middle East, Australia and California. It has the potential to cause social and political upheaval, as we have seen with tragic consequences in the Syrian refugee crisis, which was partly catalysed by drought. Anyone who can get agriculture, water and energy working better together is going to see huge opportunities in the next ten years.”

Do you think sustainable start-ups should partner with corporate businesses?
“Yes, I do. Good partnerships are a key part of growing any capital-intensive start-up to get to market quickly. I think it’s hard to do it without. That ability to get access to market, and bring your idea to scale, that’s really exciting. But it is obviously a case-by-case matter. As an entrepreneur it can be overwhelming to partner with a big company that might turn out to be a competitor. Finding the right corporate partner is critical. There are more companies out there like Nike and IKEA taking innovation on climate very seriously, and this helps.”
StartupsWhat does the jury pay most attention to when choosing a winner?
“There are two parts to the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge: one is that we just want to identify great teams and great individuals that can accelerate ideas. And second, we want to see what the impact of the money will be for the realization of the idea, and hence benefit for people in the Netherlands and worldwide.

Of course, one of our foremost questions is: does the start-up make a change? Is it going to make a measurable difference to the state of the environment, specifically on carbon emissions? Does it enable and empower citizens?

What is great is that so many people who are concerned about the planet think they can make a lot of money with it as well. The idea that there is a business opportunity in solving huge problems changes people’s perspectives. I am very happy for lots of people to get rich stopping climate change! They can make people’s lives better with new products. They can cut carbon emissions and deal with huge social environmental problems. This is going to make kids want to become green entrepreneurs and people in college want to study clean energy and the circular economy. It’s a really good culture to cultivate through the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge.”

Which finalist is your favourite from all times?
“It’s hard to pick a favourite, and they all feel like family now. The one I probably talk about the most is CINTEP’s Nick Christy, the guy with the recycling showers. The idea directly disproves the supposedly miserable future of the short, cold showers that we sometimes think of when we imagine doing the ‘right thing’ for the climate.

There’s warm water pouring on your head that gets collected under your feet. It gets filtered, warmed up, and it’s poured on your head again. You can have a long hot shower, while saving a massive amount of water and energy at the same time. It’s my favourite idea that I’ve seen put forward, because it is emblematic of the opportunities that we have in this system: just cut out waste and have a better user experience at the same time. What’s not to like?”

Jim Walker actie