In the race to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, the Royal Society now plans to back promising new technology with venture capital as well as intellectual clout. The Society announced Thursday it will sink its first-ever investment fund into businesses developing carbon capture and renewable energy, along with water purification and other world-saving innovations (Financial Times).
The Society’s Enterprise Fund will use a planned £20 million in private charitable donations to make investments of £250,000 to £2 million in early-stage businesses working with existing technology. It’s a more profit-oriented complement to existing Royal Society grants that support proof-of-concept research by scientists hoping to commercialize their discoveries.
The idea is that with problems as pressing as climate change, everything possible must be done to get potential solutions off the bench and into the marketplace. But that’s typically a difficult leap, the fund’s chief executive Andrew Mackintosh told me. “Most commercial funds don’t invest in early stages of a business based on new technology – it’s hard work and very high risk. They wait for the market to sort out the winners and losers and then invest in the winners.”
Mackintosh said the Royal Society expects to use its deeply rooted connections with scientists and policy experts to suss out ideas, make a bunch of high-risk investments, then wait patiently two or three decades for just a few to pay off – in both dividends and do-gooding, two goals which the Society’s plan does not precisely distinguish. The fund will take advice from star venture capitalists Roger Brooke of the IP group, Adrian Beecroft of Apax Partners and Anne Glover and Herman Hauser of Amadeus Capital Partners, but Mackintosh called the fund’s charity and profit motives “two sides of the same coin …. In the long run,” he said, “something which does a lot of good has a big market.”
Tapping its scientists for information on investments makes sense – but the Royal Society also advises policymakers about green technology as an independent scientific body, a mission that doesn’t mix as smoothly with business. Mackintosh, acknowledging that this might be seen as a conflict of interest, said that maintaining the independence of the policy advice would be paramount.
And the Royal Society’s reputation is indeed crucial to the plan. In the context of the Manhattan Project-scale investments in climate-protection R&D that analysts have called for, £20 million – let alone the £3 million so far donated – is a drop in the ocean. But it could be amplified if the Society’s influence attracts other investors to the chosen ventures. Semali Perera, a chemical engineer who last year won the Society’s commercialization grant to develop nano-porous microfibres for use in carbon capture, said that this “seal of approval” made it much easier to secure backing and start a business. Potentially, Mackintosh said, such an endorsement could push forward even the “game-changing technology” of geoengineering proposals.
James Lovelock, a Royal Society fellow and geoengineer (Nature subscription required), had a characteristically eccentric perspective on this offer. Lovelock thought the fund could help but de-emphasized the importance of throwing wads of cash toward new ideas. The Royal Society “shouldn’t expect, and probably are not expecting, that pouring funds in will lead to invention,” he said. Inventors, according to Lovelock, are motivated by specific problems that need solving, not by funds: “A lot of money, I’ve always found, is a big disadvantage.”
Any thoughts out there? Is the Royal Society well-positioned to speed green tech to market – or is business no business of a national academy of sciences?