Energy Tech Startups Need ‘Later Stage’ Financial Boost to Escalate

17 March 2022 by Kitty Grubb
blog author

​With the race against time for the UK to reach its ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050, there has never been a more pivotal time to embrace innovations in order to achieve this goal.

However, a new report shows that while the pioneering ideas and groundwork conducted by tech startups to tackle the climate crisis are warmly embraced, there is a lack of funding after the initial kickstarting period, for the technology to develop and scale up on the level required to evoke change.

As a result of its findings in the study, experts at Harwell, the UK’s leading science and innovation campus, are calling for an increase in ‘later stage’ investment and smarter support for scaling energy tech organisations. This will prevent ‘pilot-itis’ and help tackle the global climate challenge.

Harwell has released its 2022 Emerging Energy Tech Report with Tech Nation, the national network for tech entrepreneurs, which revealed it was 200 per cent harder for energy tech startups to transition to late growth, compared to tech startups in other sectors. This leaves nearly half of the UK energy tech companies stranded at the seed stage, with little capacity to grow further.

While the energy technology sector saw unprecedented growth in global investment last year (at $22.2bn, a rise from the $9.9bn raised in 2020), the report flagged up the challenges faced by innovative energy tech companies to thrive and evolve due to the complex technical, political, legal and financial issues involved in scaling up.

In 2021, the UK received more than £1.5bn of investment in seed-stage energy tech firms (a 36 per cent increase from 2020), which was more than Germany, France and the Netherlands combined, and second only to Sweden in Europe. 

The ten-point-plan put in place by the UK government for a green industrial revolution also promises to increase investment levels in energy tech companies tenfold by 2025. 

Gerard Grech, Founding CEO, Tech Nation, said: “We support the government’s plans to increase investment in the UK’s drive for net-zero, which would equate to an additional $15bn invested by 2025. 

“We believe up to half of this investment could come from VCs to accelerate the growth of promising energy tech scaleups and technologies, and the rest from other organisational investors. It’s crucial that, alongside this new investment, we continue to systematically improve the UK’s innovation environment to enable more clean energy companies to thrive. 

“Failure to secure later-stage investment is too common for scaling energy tech companies because of the inherent complexity of moving advances from the lab into the energy grid. More multi-sector and multi-disciplinary working and coordination is crucial to support this burgeoning sector and will be crucial to the UK achieving net-zero by 2050.” 

Kitty Grubb, Senior AgriTech Consultant for the Sustainable Business Team at Acre, said:“There is the most enormous amount of innovation in, and investment into, cleantech at the moment. While the market is saturated with pioneering start-ups, we are discovering that later-stage tech organisations are harder to come by due to a lack of legacy. Perhaps what we need to see is a more structured approach to what the future of tech – which will only become vaster in its reach – should look like through partnerships and collaboration from private, public and third sector players."

The report noted that arranging organisations into clusters would help investors feel confident in supporting sustainable long-term projects that solve societal problems, due to the opportunities that would arise organically and the encouragement of industry collaboration. In the energy tech sector, this will lead to scaled energy storage technologies, allow energy tech firms to reach later growth stages and will elevate the UK’s status as a global hub for net-zero technologies. 

While the 950 UK energy tech organisations are clustered largely in Oxfordshire, they are also scattered across the UK and play a vital role in helping energy providers develop innovative net-zero technologies across renewables, battery research, zero-carbon energy storage, zero-carbon fuels, integrated energy systems, travel solutions and digital and data services. 

Harwell’s Energy Tech Cluster combines national institutions, such as the Faraday Institution, academia and industry to accelerate the rate of global innovation and recently its Living Laboratory launched an autonomous shuttle trial, which demonstrates the potential of battery-powered, zero-emission, 5G self-driving vehicles to operate in a real-world setting. 

Dr Barbara Ghinelli, Director of Clusters and Harwell Campus Business Development, UKRI-STFC, said: “It’s really important to invest in commercially scalable and collaborative approaches to ensure we’re making the biggest difference to the climate emergency. 

“At Harwell, we’ve seen rapid growth in our energy tech cluster, which brings together talented researchers, multidisciplinary facilities, and innovative businesses, to drive the transition to net zero and support growth and job creation in a sector that will shape the UK’s future economy and society.” 

AMTE Power, Brill Power and Starke Energy are three scaling SMEs also joining forces at Harwell’s commercial-scale testbed to demonstrate new energy storage products. The testbed will demonstrate AMTE's sodium-ion battery module, Brill Power’s battery management system (BMS) and Starke Energy's artificial intelligence system. Their collaboration comes as a result of the STEPS grant programme, which supports small to medium-sized enterprises in bringing their energy storage solutions to market. 

All three have received support from UK partners, The Faraday Institution and Cambridge CleanTech, which has included tailored testing, introductions to potential end-users and market knowledge to strengthen product competition. 

Professor Pam Thomas, CEO, Faraday Institution, said: “We are excited to be working with the North-West Europe STEPS programme to enable SMEs to demonstrate their latest energy storage technologies in a commercially-relevant setting. 

“This is another example of the Faraday Institution at Harwell, acting as a convener for partnerships between UK industry, academia and funding organisations as a route to commercialise breakthrough science and engineering to maximise economic value.” 

K​itty is a Senior Consultant in Acre’s Sustainable Business Team and has been appointed to a variety of international executives and boards since 2016. She began her career recruiting into wealth management and private banking for a boutique recruitment firm, before moving into global non-profits at a medium-sized, purpose-driven search firm. Since then, she has worked with ambitious, world-leading charities; membership bodies and commercial businesses to identify progressive and next-generation talent.

Prior to joining Acre, Kitty spent three years at Odgers Berndtson where she developed her focus on agricultural conservation and regeneration-driven organisations in the consumer, profit-for-purpose and charity sectors. Clients included AHDB; the National Forest Company; the Woodland Trust; McCain, and WRAP. Alongside this, she also helped to identify and provide consultation to clients around cross-sectoral collaboration and partnerships. Kitty speaks three languages, having graduated from Leeds University with a BA in French and Spanish, and therefore takes great interest in the diverse cultural requirements of international recruitment.