Amali de Alwis CEO of Subak, talks to Jonathan Bryant, Partner at Erevena, about the importance of funding and sharing data to enable companies, entrepreneurs and innovators in the non-profit climate action sector scale their great ideas.
What does Subak do?
Subak is an early-stage accelerator and data cooperative that focuses on climate change. We help very early-stage not-for-profit startups and innovators take their climate ideas forward with the aid of shared data and funding. We also fund research and analysis fellowships, which is something I’ll come back to later.
Subak was launched in July 2021 and is the brainchild of Baroness Bryony Worthington. She was the lead author on the UK Climate change act, and one of the UK’s leaders of the response to climate change and the need to reduce global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. We all recognize the reality of climate change, and that we have an ever accelerating and urgent timeline to really address the problem. The solutions that Subak fund and help to scale take into account both human behaviour science and technology, as we connect the best tech and environmental & science talent to drive mass behaviour and policy change.
How did you become involved with Subak?
I joined Subak as its CEO in October 2021, having been Microsoft’s Managing Director for start-ups in the UK. Prior to that, a variety of career journeys saw me focusing on aspects such as insights, thought leadership and data, which, of course, brings me right back to Subak and our data ecosystem. I’ve also been an entrepreneur, having been CEO of Code First: Girls, a company focused on getting women into the tech industry. It is the largest provider of free coding courses dedicated to women in the UK.
The common thread, including across my work with start-ups at Microsoft, is the need to be mission-led. No business exists outside of the societies in which they operate. Any businessperson today, regardless of whether they are operating a company under for-profit reasons or not must accept a responsibility to the world around them. The old philosophies prevalent in the 1980s, which espoused that the only responsibilities were to make money for your shareholders is long dead. People want companies to take responsibility, and Subak’s mission-led purpose with its focus on climate action is very much aligned with my thinking on this.
Subak brings together a mission with technology — why is this personal to you?
This is really important and one of the reasons I was passionate about Code for Girls, for which I was the first CEO. It’s about fairness, and how we can use tech to promote equality and make sure everyone’s able to participate. This was something I also felt passionate about at Microsoft where I could see that technology had a role to play in getting tech software start-ups started. Subak combines both thinking about the impact we have in the world and the role technology and data have to play in this by solving problems.
Why is solving problems important to you?
I’m really curious about the world. For me, a job well done is when I can look at the world and identify both opportunities and problems, then put together innovative and creative solutions to address those problems. How we interpret human behaviors and create better products and services that fulfil not only a business need, but a human need as well is something I get excited about.
And that interest has always been with me. For example, I started my higher education studying engineering, but then switched to shoe design as I wanted to do something radically creative. I realized fairly promptly, however, that I’d essentially done the same degree twice because whether you’re manufacturing aeroplane propellers or shoes, you actually go through the same creative processes of looking around at the world, and then creating something to reflect the needs that you identify. I really enjoy that process. This of course, ties back to Subak’s mission to help address one of the world’s biggest problems — that of climate change. It’s the biggest problem we have in the world today, and if we don’t solve this, everything else becomes harder or impossible, which is why I felt it was such a critical issue to work on.
What problem does Subak solve for climate start-ups and entrepreneurs?
Our co-founder Baroness Bryony Worthington noticed that while a lot of early-stage climate companies had defined their mission and potential climate impact, they then struggled to build good business foundations. She identified a need for an accelerator type format to help some of them, especially those operating in the not-for-profit space. These aren’t necessarily charities, rather that companies operate under a not-for-profit model – including those who generate revenues – but aren’t constrained by having to deliver a return to any investors. This liberates them to really focus on their mission, which is a really important part of addressing climate change. Of course, they can generate income because there’s no issue with companies needing to be successful and to fund their growth, but it’s more around giving them a structure for sourcing investment.
So, the first problem we’re able to solve is funding. We give access to grant funding through a 12–18-month accelerator programme, as well as to individuals through our Fellowships. These programmes support companies or individuals through different phases of their climate action journey, from exploration and innovation, through building, testing, and scaling, to a long-term involvement in the Subak data cooperative and community. We also add to this support from our teams of mentors and access to training workshops, which is the sort of support early-stage tech start-ups would expect from most acceleration and support programmes.
Subak’s website carries a bold statement: share the data, save the planet. What does it mean?
This reflects the other essential element of what we do, beyond giving access to the funding I mention above. The idea of sharing data within our data cooperative is very much at the heart of our model. There is a critical need for structured and accessible data for those looking into climate action solutions. We saw that a lot of small operators were creating datasets to drive their own businesses, but many others simply didn’t know where this information was. And even when they did know, creating the right stories behind that data and then getting those stories and angles in front of policy decision makers, as well as to the public, was a real challenge. That’s where the idea of our data cooperative came from.
We recognized that a supportive data ecosystem for climate non-profits would lead to faster and better climate action. So, we support Subak members by making sure they are generating climate data that can be acted on not just by themselves, but by the wider Subak community. This is important — our members are not competitors; they are collaborators able to draw on an accessible pool of data to build and scale their climate ideas. Some of this is done under an Open Data Initiative approach, whilst others it is with shared data – but regardless of which approach is taken, it’s making sure that we share who holds what data already so that people don’t have to supplicate efforts and can problem solve quicker. This is especially critical with climate change where we have such a limited time to solve problems.
Research fellowships are also integral to your growing dataset — how does this work?
The research fellows are very smart individuals. They come to us looking for help in building, aggregating, or analyzing datasets to inform a climate-related problem. They might be studying for a PhD or working at companies or another not–for-profit. We give them support as they undertake their work, which includes mentoring, access to our digital learning content, and £10K funding – to help them undertake their work. This data can then be used for their own purposes as well as is added to the Subak body of data.
Our ‘data catalogue’ within the Subak data cooperative can also be used to undertake the analysis needed to influence public policy decision makers and government. We already have a number of companies from our pilot cohort of members that have been doing some really incredible things in this area. From 10 January this year, any Subak member will be able to simply log in to access this catalogue and will be able to reach out to those individuals who have submitted the data, such as a research fellow, to help take their own ideas or research forward. We will then be making the Catalogue available to the wider community later in 2022.
Who are your funders and why is this funding different?
Our start-up funding has come from a Climate Foundation. We then re-grant those funds to the Subak members. We like to think about this funding as money without strings but with focus — and that focus is climate action. I think this is an important difference between a traditional grant giver and what Subak and its funders are doing. This isn’t funding for the likes of a capital building project or new IT system but is money to simply get them going. It’s start-up capital to cover getting your business up and running.
Looking ahead, we expect to see a reasonably big rise in the funding in this space, so we’re aiming to increase our grants numbers and our global footprint – something we’ve already started with the establishment of our first global node with Subak Australia! In the post-COP 26 environment, I think people are realizing just how urgent this is as well as how much money it will take. We’re now seeing climate funds being set up with hundreds of millions of investment capital. Microsoft for example has a 1-billion-dollar fund. These are the types of organizations that we will be reaching out to.
What can they do with this money?
We don’t specify what a company spends its money on, but we will sit down and say, “let’s make a plan with you; let’s help you to identify where there’s a good spend that is really going to give you bang for your buck”. From there our aim is to be their critical friend as they grow their business, and to work with them to their timelines, with monthly catch-ups to find out how things are going and how we can further help them to achieve their objectives. We have an incredible board and network of experts who are really at the sharp end of technology, policy and building companies, all of whom have our mission at heart and are helping our members to build out and scale their climate ideas.
Of course, with our belief in the criticality of data, we will look to fund companies that have some sort of data specialist in their team as well. If we’re going to support them through rapid growth, we need to make sure they have the right teams in place to be able to use our data ecosystem to achieve their aims.
What does the future hold in store for Subak?
I’ve mentioned our beta launch of the data catalogue on January 10 and that’s part of our growth plans. In fact, growth and impact are our two objectives going forward. It’s not growing for growth’s sake or to make money, rather we’re growing to expand the scale and depth of impact that the organizations we support can have.
Following our initial pilot with five companies, we’ll have 10 more joining us in March, along with 20 research fellows by end of May. We’ll be scaling that up to a minimum of 40 companies over the next two and a half years with another 90 research fellows helping us to build our steadily growing dataset. Whether it’s companies, individuals who want to join as fellows, or collaborators, what we’re doing is building a community where people can access the right type of information, expertise, and whatever other support we can give.
We’re also expanding internationally. As mentioned, we have just established our first international hub in Australia, which is now live and running. This is really fantastic and we’re looking to open a number of other hubs globally.
Are there any spaces for companies or fellows to join you?
We have a couple of company spots left for the cohort in March. We’ve already got a number of fellows agreed but will have a several more fellowships available through to May for people. So, if you are bright and solving problems in the climate space, we would love to hear from you, so do visit climatesubak.org to find out more!