Martin Reynolds, who worked at UK battery start-up Britishvolt before its collapse, says his goal in Abu Dhabi is to “build a camel instead of building a unicorn” by investing in green businesses that last.
His company Zero Carbon Ventures announced on Thursday it had raised $5 million in seed funding and appointed Dubai ruling family member Sheikh Ahmed bin Mana as chairman.
The venture, which has offices in Masdar City, looks for emerging clean tech that it can invest in and bring to market in the Middle East. One of its projects is on capturing methane from landfills before it escapes into the atmosphere.
It is also interested in decarbonising buildings, factories and aluminium mines and working with “interesting materials” such as graphene, a way of reinforcing steel.
Speaking to The National, Mr Reynolds said the “spark” to start the company came when the UAE was announced as host of the Cop28 climate summit, which starts on November 30.
“The overarching message from our perspective is that net zero doesn’t have to cost you money,” he said. “There’s an economic benefit to doing these things.”
His team of tech scouts, engineers and financial experts is meant to bring some business nous to tech wizards who “don’t normally have the right sort of commercial expertise” to interest big investors, Mr Reynolds said.
A new green widget may be “great in a lab environment,” he said, but “without having that external experience to know what makes the world go around, and how the oil and gas industry works or how major infrastructure projects get built, that widget on its own is just a widget”.
Britishvolt and beyond
A former Kent Police detective who investigated financial crime, Mr Reynolds brought his specialism into the business world as an adviser in Abu Dhabi. It was there where he met the founder of Britishvolt, Orral Nadjari.
Mr Reynolds was chief governance officer at the start-up that planned to build the UK’s first, £2.6 billion ($3.2 billion) battery gigafactory in north-east England, employing as many as 3,000 people.
It was, he says, still “very much a going concern” when he left the company, but Britishvolt ran up debts and went into administration in January, in a setback to the UK’s standing as a clean tech hub.
Fears of an exodus from Britain were heightened by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement on Tuesday that green targets would be watered down to ease the burden on households.
What has Mr Reynolds learnt from Britishvolt’s demise? There are non-disclosure agreements but he says the company was trying to “raise £1.2 billion ($1.48 billion) before they can build anything”.
By contrast, in his new line of work in the Middle East “there’s this notion of building a camel instead of building a unicorn,” Mr Reynolds says.
“You build a clear vision, you know where you want to get to, and you build something that’s slow and steady and gets there rather than trying to build a unicorn as this mythical figure. You build a business that’s sustainable and built to last.”
Zero Carbon’s scouts are sent to universities, business parks and tech hubs with a mandate to “go and find me the next big thing”, according to Mr Reynolds, who is particularly interested in energy, waste, water and materials.
The company also offers to test the waters for major companies inundated with offers of whizz-bang green technology, steering them towards products with the Zero Carbon “stamp of approval”.
Hopes for Cop28
The search for clean alternatives will take on more urgency than ever at Cop28, whose President-designate Dr Sultan Al Jaber, UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, has made “fast-tracking the energy transition” a key pillar of the summit.
Leaders have been warned in a key UN report that the world is “not on track” to cut emissions fast enough to curb global warming to 1.5°C, the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit damage to the planet.
Cleaner technologies “need to be rapidly deployed” in a process of “accelerated innovation and development”, especially in developing countries, according to the report that will underpin a first-ever global progress check.
Mr Reynolds is hoping the talks at Dubai’s Expo City will bring an “attitude shift” towards investing in green technology in the aftermath of Cop28.
“For me, it’s what happens after. It’s really important that we end up with a clear mandate on buying into innovation earlier, on supporting venture capital-type businesses,” he said.
“I hope that Cop28 will be a catalyst, particularly in the climate tech space, for the fantastic capital that exists in the region to go in at an earlier stage and to be spread a bit wider and a bit thinner.”