It’s hard to miss County Hall. Located on the south bank of the Thames, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, it is one of London’s most iconic buildings. As home to the Greater London Council is was seldom out of the news in the 1980s when the left-leaning city authority regularly faced off against the rightwards-inclined government of Margaret Thatcher. Since then, London’s seat of government has moved elsewhere and County Hall has been repurposed, becoming home to visitor attractions, hotels and – launched this week – a shared workspace dedicated to supporting Greentech businesses.
Created by sustainability-focused investor, Sustainable Ventures, the workspace has been positioned as an ecosystem for businesses working in cleantech and the green economy. On the official launch day, 50 businesses were occupying places and the company – which has other workspaces – aims to provide lodging and support for 1,000 by 2025.
Sustainable Ventures was established in 2011, with the specific intention of addressing climate change through commercial solutions. To date, it has launched 10 companies, invested in another 30 and has supported around 250 more. One key mode of support has been the development of workspaces and ecosystems.
In Sight Of MPs
As co-founder and partner James Byrne explains, the establishment of a workspace in County Hall represents a significant move for his company. Not only does it bring 42,000 square feet of space on stream, but its location also has the potential to raise the profile of member companies and the wider Greentech community.
“We have been working on County Hall for about three or four years,” says Byrne. “It is a very prominent building and we can use it to bring together the industry and politicians.”
Political interest in Greentech is, of course, on the rise. One of the key themes of the COP26 summit was that new technology will play a key role in the move towards a decarbonised economy. In addition to regulating their way towards a net-zero future, governments can foster green businesses through financial support and by becoming customers. To that end, contact between government and cleantech businesses can only be helpful. Such contact – in theory at least – will be made a lot easier if lawmakers can check out some of the latest developments by simply walking across Westminster Bridge from their palace on the other side of the river.
But aside from the possibility of Boris Johnson or a minister from the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, popping over to County Hall for a coffee, what is the attraction for businesses? Why choose the Sustainable Ventures ecosystem when there are a wide range of more generalist workspaces available right across London and beyond?
Byrne says the concentration of like-minded businesses should be beneficial. Although the members pay rent – as they would in any other workspace – the space isn’t open to anyone. “They have to have a sustainable impact at their core in order to become members,” says Byrne.
And as he sees it, this creates a mutually supportive community. “The kind of peer-to-peer learning that is going on is very powerful,” he adds.
In addition, members help each other. “They cross-sell their products,” says Byrne. “A company might be pitching and they will also sell products created by other members.”
In addition, Sustainable Ventures offers access to a by now familiar mix of learning, opportunities, potential investors and partners. The aim is to support startups from planning through to exit. In addition, it is working closely with the government on an initiative – led by the Carbon Trust – to provide incubation to green companies.
The Sustainable Ventures initiative is far from being the only game in town. This week also saw an announcement from climate business accelerator Subak that it was inviting startups to apply for its second cohort, and funding of up to £110,000. Founded by Baroness Byrony Worthington – lead author of the 2008 Climate Change Act – Subak describes itself as a Y Combinator for the climate sector.
Stepping back to look at the bigger pictures, figures published by investment intelligence firm, Dealroom and the U.K. Digital Economy Council reveal that impact startups have raised £2 billion in investment this year compared with £1.7 billion last year. And impact investment – as defined here as companies addressing the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals – is not confined to businesses at the earliest stages of their development. There are now 12 impact unicorns in the U.K. – many of them based outside London, according to the report.
In the wake of COP26, the question many people will be asking is whether all the talk of transitioning to a green economy really means anything and whether the thousands of startups emerging in the sector will actually make any kind of difference. Well, there is clearly a long way to go but increasing support is becoming available not only for Greentech but also businesses working in the wider sustainability arena.