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Entrepreneurs and SMEs; the new game changers for a sustainable future

28 November 2019 – Eithne George, Programme Director for CISL's new Accelerator, explains why the bright ideas of today need a leg up to become the sustainability solutions of tomorrow.

Entrepreneurs, innovators and small business leaders are increasingly looked to as the new game-changers. Recently deemed “the most successful innovation engine in Europe,” the Cambridge Cluster has a proven track record as a world leader in innovation, employing over 61,000 people through more than 5,000 “knowledge-intensive” companies, that last year generated £15.5bn in turnover.

Increasingly society is looking to these innovators to bring the disruptive new ideas and solutions to problems that can sometime seem intractable. They bring the promise of hope through their inventiveness, creativity and agility. They have the luxury of a blank sheet of paper to design more sustainably from the outset. It’s not surprising then that attention is shifting towards how this new wave of entrepreneurs could help tackle some of our biggest global challenges.

The future of the planet is a heavy mantle to carry, however. The innovation journey can be a long and lonely one.  For every person who applauds your new idea, there are often ten others who can find a myriad of flaws.  Whilst you may be the toast of the room, very few people will part with their money to back it in the early stages. There may be relatively established routes to finance for high profit ventures, and increasingly for social enterprise too, but if you fall in between these stools, there is often a chasm. 

The challenges are significant, but so are the opportunities. Established innovation clusters are turning their focus to sustainability and in this, there is a wealth of new opportunity for sustainability entrepreneurs.  This year the University of Cambridge’s Maxwell Centre, a collaborative community and co-working space for physical scientists and engineers, is making zero carbon a strategic theme for the next four years.  Regionally, the Local Carbon Innovation Fund has recently launched its second round of investment, off the back of a first round that claims to be on track to have saved 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by the end of 2020. 

SimPrints, founded in Cambridge by Toby Norman, is a leading example of an impactful business born out of the high tech Cambridge Phenomenon. SimPrints is a non-profit whose central mission is to transform the way the world fights poverty, using technology to ‘radically increase transparency and effectiveness in global development’. The enterprise has developed a mobile biometric scanner and open-source software that can accurately link people to their digital records.  The World Bank estimates that 2 billion people worldwide lack formal identification, limiting their access to essential services, such as healthcare and banking.  Toby was a winner of the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards in 2016, run by CISL, and has since gone from strength to strength.

Funded by the Low Carbon Innovation Fund, geo (green energy options), co-founded by Patrick Caiger-Smith, is now the UK’s leading supplier of smart home energy monitors, having sold over 6 million to date.  Recently geo announced its partnership with Wallbox, the developer of intelligent charging solutions for electric and hybrid cars. The two companies are working together to allow customers to benefit from tariff optimisation, solar and grid signals. 

It is precisely with innovators like Toby and Patrick in mind that CISL launched its Accelerator last week, to bring the next generation of sustainability game changers over the line, faster.  CISL has 30 years of experience of bringing sustainability onto the boardroom agenda for big business.  The smaller players have huge amounts to potentially gain from this insight, and from interacting with the unique and active network of over 9000 sustainability professionals that CISL has worked with over the past three decades. 

Our new Accelerator is designed around innovators and small business leaders, and their needs.  It aims to connect them to the rich ecosystem in and around CISL and help them to crystallise their ideas into viable business plans, and support them in accessing new markets. We understand that the journey, whilst exciting, can be a frustrating and unsupported experience, ricocheting from one start up programme to the next.  We aim to fill the gaps and provide continuity, to see a venture through to its full potential, and to help small businesses to embed sustainability, regardless of where they are on their growth and sustainability journey.

Innovators, entrepreneurs and small business leaders have huge potential to be the pioneers of change, pushing boundaries in sustainability and challenging business as usual. But they can’t be expected to solve these problems alone. There is a critical role in convening efforts across the corporate, political and public sectors to provide the disruptive innovators with the networks and support they need.

Eithne George is Programme Director for CISL’s Accelerator Programme for entrepreneurs and SMEs.

If you have a business idea with the potential for great impact, or a business with a track record in sustainability looking for a boost, please register your interest here.  Likewise, if you work with small businesses wanting to improve their sustainability performance, please connect with us to discuss how we can collaborate.

This blog was first published in Business Green on 27 November 2019.


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About the author

Eithne George 2

Eithne George is Programme Director for CISL’s Accelerator Programme for entrepreneurs and SMEs.

Eithne graduated in Architectural History and French from the University of Edinburgh, where she developed a strong interest in sustainable design and building.  Pursuing a career as an environmentalist, she co-founded the first Impact Hub in Islington, London in 2005.

This is an incubator and co-working space for those in the social and environmental start up sector, which led to the creation of an international network of Impact Hubs.  Shortly after, she came to Cambridge to help ‘green the growth agenda’ on behalf of Cambridge City Council, working on energy, district grey water trials and helping to develop sustainable drainage policy.  She went on to work in the community energy sector, before joining the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership in 2019, to lead on the Accelerator and Sustainability Hub.

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.