Sometimes, if you want to really understand a problem, you have to see it for yourself. I’ve been in the conservation sector for a long time, but for much of my career I was operating from a place where environmental challenges were simply charts and graphs with exponential curves like these. But when I moved to India to help start The Nature Conservancy’s program there, I saw firsthand the dire consequences of what was actually depicted in these charts—the degraded air and water quality, the declining biodiversity, the range of threats facing humans and nature today, not some distant future. I despaired, because I saw that we needed to do more a lot more, a lot better, and a lot faster.
So in 2018 I moved back to the U.S. to help run the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator, a partnership between TNC and Techstars to mentor and help grow technology startups focused on addressing environmental challenges. That might seem like a radical shift from the on-the-ground work I was doing in India, but to me they were directly connected—my experience in India showed that we needed to develop solutions faster, and Techstars was a potential answer to that.
I was hopeful, but cautious. Technology has radically and rapidly altered so many sectors of the economy. Could it do the same for conservation? Could it help conservation solutions achieve the same kind of scaled growth these challenges call for?
The initial three-year partnership between TNC and Techstars has come to a close, and while I can't say we discovered any silver bullet technology to solve climate change or the biodiversity crisis, we did learn a lot about how to better approach some of these challenges—through new partnerships, new technologies, and new ways of working. Our wrap report, Looking Back at The Sustainability Accelerator: What Nature’s Entrepreneurs Need Next, details our learnings, our successes—and our failures, too.
The graph above, from the report, summarizes some of our top learnings.
Impact and Profit Can Go Together
Companies in the Sustainability Accelerator demonstrated that businesses don't have to take more than they give back. We can link successful business models with impact and reinforce positive outcomes for both the planet and customers. Here are a few company highlights:
Nori was ahead of the game in applying new technology to further the impact needed in nature. The company successfully links revenue with support for farmers who employ carbon removal practices. Learn more about Nori
Propagate Ventures is an analytics and project development platform that makes it easy for farmers & landowners to increase profitability while helping investors fund low-risk regenerative agriculture and agroforestry projects. Learn more about Propagate Ventures
2NDNATURE offers a scalable end-to-end system to support communities on their journey to measure, manage and improve the health of their waterways, with a software solution grounded in maps to get sound science to decision makers. Learn more about 2NDNATURE
Technology can be revolutionary for conservation
Technology can be as revolutionary for conservation as it has been for other industries. As I outlined in 4 Ways Nature needs Technology, tech can help us obtain better and higher-quality data; automate the aggregation and analysis of that data; develop tools to influence natural resource managers and decision makers; and measure the impact of those conservation decisions.
Although the Accelerator partnership is ending, TNC has launched a new Conservation Tech function led by Niraj Swami. This group identifies, pilots and enables strategic conservation technologies at local and global levels, and that includes working with startups and the global tech sector.
New ways of working can be equally revolutionary—especially for NGOs
I wasn't just inspired by the technology developed by the startups we worked with—it was also the way they worked that fascinated me. They moved quickly, took calculated risks, learned from their failures, and iterated until they either succeeded or failed fast. As Ann Mei Chang explains in her book, Lean Impact, this is not how NGOs typically work—but it can be revolutionary, especially when building new solutions amidst extreme uncertainty.
The approach of these entrepreneurs inspired the launch of TNC’s Agility Lab, which takes innovation methodologies developed in the tech and entrepreneurial space—like Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and agile ways of working—and has adapted them for conservation, helping us deploy smarter solutions faster, with lower risks.
The Path Forward
Just four years ago, there were no partnerships like the TNC/Techstars Sustainability Accelerator. And while there were plenty of startups trying to improve traditional tech solutions like clean energy or recycling, there were very few startups working to advance nature-based solutions.
Today, it's a different story. There are dozens of accelerators focused on the sustainability space, and nature-based solutions for climate and other challenges are becoming mainstream. Technologists are rushing to work on climate and biodiversity issues, excited to use their skills for good.
My hope is that our early experience can help this growing ecosystem of people and organizations use technology to develop conservation solutions at the same pace and scale of the challenges we are up against.
Here are some things investors, funders, NGOs, and other sustainability leaders can do to help catalyze the conservation technology movement.
Impact investors can:
- Grow their networks and build relationships with science-led organizations and experts to increase their value-add to their portfolio companies.
- Connect their founders and pipeline companies with more diverse, flexible forms of capital.
Sustainability-related accelerators can:
- Design programs that include varied types of expertise, from business model creation and customer discovery to conservation science.
- Provide founders access to networks where they can prove their technology with pilot partners and connect to flexible forms of capital to de-risk their solutions.
- Launch pilot programs to help startups de-risk their technology.
- Enable the participation of their science and conservation experts in tech and innovation programs.
- Hire liaisons that make collaboration possible.
- Provide early-stage capital to help these companies de-risk their technologies and business model, enabling other forms of less risk-tolerant capital to come in and support their growth.
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This article is the first in a two-part series on technology and innovation that ran in the March 2021 issue of the Global Insights newsletter. Subscribe here to get part two and other exclusive insights like these straight to your inbox.