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The Eye in the Sky: How New Space Can Help Measure and Mitigate Changes in Climate

Remember the story of bankrupt Solyndra and its $535mm in loan guarantees from American taxpayers? The episode is part of a broader narrative that has been well documented by MIT in a 2016 research paper claiming that venture capital is the “wrong model for cleantech innovation”. Cleantech spent close to a decade in the wilderness after a string of high-profile bankruptcies, but the story of technology as a tool in the fight against climate change doesn’t end here.

Fast forward ten years to today and cleantech investing is all the rage again. It has been rebranded as Climate Tech, a catch-all category that includes a broad set of technologies and companies looking to decarbonize the economy and mitigate mankind’s impact on the planet. Early-stage Climate Tech investing went from $418m at its low point, in 2013, to $16.1bn in 2019, a 37x increase according to PwC in its recent report on the state of Climate Tech Investing.

This resurgence is the result of a combination of technological, economical, political, and societal factors that have all converged over the last decade into a perfect storm of opportunity for Climate Tech entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, some of Cleantech 1.0's poster children have grown into thriving enterprises with proven business models addressing large and growing markets and generating some of the best venture outcomes in history along the way in what could be construed as the ultimate narrative violation.

Milford Lake, Kansas, USA, Algal blooms occur annually on Milford Lake in the summer and can be harmful to fragile wetland ecosystems. The USGS Kansas Water Science Center uses multispectral sensors onboard drones to identify harmful algal blooms and study how they affect local businesses and human and animal health.

I’ve been a passionate advocate and on the frontline of this slow-moving, yet inevitable revolution for 13 years and have been surprised and excited by the sudden acceleration in interest and capital formation over the last couple of years. I’ve become convinced that a good place to start if we’re committed to making our world more efficient and resilient is the digitalization of our physical environment.

In order to fix the system, we need to quantify what the system does. Scalable and cheap ways to measure and evaluate progress have proven to be a major bottleneck in the adoption of clean and efficient technologies. We’ve been looking at the box from within the box, but that is changing.

We’re increasingly going outside the box. Literally. The space sector is the critical missing piece of infrastructure that we need in order to digitize, observe, monitor, and measure the physical world.

New satellite constellations are being deployed and new payloads are being developed with sensors that can measure everything from soil moisture to erosion, rising sea levels, deforestation, emissions, and much more. The plummeting cost of acquiring data from space is proving a boon for entrepreneurs who want to build data-driven solutions to solve climate change and inject efficiency and resiliency into the system.

The in-orbit real estate that is being deployed will become ever more useful and valuable in providing the picks and shovels to the many ambitious founders and companies looking to make an impact back on Earth.

In fact, we are seeing many New Space startup models adding an environmental measurement vertical to their business as a result of market demand for this offering. This trend makes me excited and energized as I can see firsthand that we are building the infrastructure and the applications that will help us better understand changes in our world, in space, and on Earth, and what prudent steps need to be taken to solve these issues.

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Pierre Festal

Partner at Promus Ventures, supporting early stage deeptech entrepreneurs