Imperial and Royal Institution drive next generation of climate startups

15 Dec 2022 | Network Updates | Update from Imperial College London
These updates are republished press releases and communications from members of the Science|Business Network

Imperial and The Royal Institution showcased some of London’s most exciting sustainable businesses as part of a landmark partnership.

Last year, Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment and The Royal Institution (Ri) launched the Centre for Climate Change Innovation to catalyse 'clean' innovation across business, industry and policy and help to deliver a zero carbon and climate resilient future. 

One of the Centre’s flagship initiatives is The Greenhouse, a 12-month innovation programme for climate-positive startups, which offers tailored support to drive the commercialisation of viable and scalable technologies and services that help tackle the climate crisis. 

At an event held on Thursday 8 December, The Greenhouse's third cohort presented their ideas to an audience of investors, business leaders and climate innovation supporters, including Deputy Mayor of London, Shirley Rodrigues, and Chief Executive of HSBC UK, Ian Stuart, also a founding partner in the Centre. 

Based at the Ri’s central London headquarters, Undaunted aims to think innovatively about how to tackle climate change not only within the area of tech and business, but also in other contexts, such as policy, regulation and societal engagement.  

At the event, the Deputy Mayor announced a series of new measures London is taking to tackle the climate crisis, including £4.35m new funding for the Ri to upgrade and improve the environmental impact of Undaunted’s home.

Many older buildings, including the Ri's 300 year old headquarters, lack good heat insulation and waste energy that is predominantly produced from climate-damaging fossil fuels. The engineering challenge and cost of remedying this situation is worse because its Grade 1 listed status restricts the changes that can be made to the fabric of the building.

The funding has been awarded under the Mayor of London’s stated commitment to achieve Net Zero Carbon status for London by 2030. This will include upgrading the lighting in the Ri’s iconic lecture theatre (and setting for the famous Christmas Lectures) to use less energy, replacing the existing gas heating with an all-electric heat pump system and replacing or upgrading all windows with secondary glazing – creating a leading example of an historic building with low climate impact. 

Building a better, greener and more prosperous city

Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy, Shirley Rodrigues, said: “I am excited to announce a £4.35million grant to the Royal Institution to retrofit and refurbish its historic headquarters as part of the Mayor of London’s support to create the capital’s leading hub for cleantech activity. 

“Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is just one of the ways we can work towards a net zero London by 2030. London is a beautiful city with some stunning buildings but many of the older, listed buildings have very poor energy efficiency. I hope this demonstrates that London is leading the way when it comes to retrofitting older buildings.

“The new home of Undaunted will be a centre for some of the most innovative businesses and start-ups tackling London’s environmental challenges. It will be a place for people to come together and develop initiatives to build a better, greener and more prosperous city for all Londoners.”

Professor Mary Ryan, Imperial's Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise) said: “At Imperial College London, we are determined to accelerate the world to a sustainable, zero pollution future. That means finding practical innovations that can make a difference on a scale never seen before. Undaunted will show the world what can be achieved when scientists, investors, businesses, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and the public work together to tackle climate change.

"We are proud to work with the Royal Institution and the Mayor of London to tackle this urgent challenge and welcome this funding to make Undaunted’s home at the Royal Institution sustainable and fit for the future."

Undaunted's new Director, Alyssa Gilbert, echoed how important the partnership between Imperial and the Ri is: “The Royal Institution recognises and promotes people's love and curiosity – in academic science, but also across the broader contexts which are impacted by scientific innovation. At Undaunted we're finding solutions to an existential climate crisis, and we want to be doing so in a way that's fully engaged with the public, and that encourages them to find their roles in this story as well.”

Clean tech revolution 

This third cohort of Greenhouse innovations range from intelligent data tools that protect crops from disease and fashion industry dyes made from food waste to plant-based cleaning products and carbon-negative building materials. 

The Greenhouse has supported some of the UK’s most promising clean tech businesses, including Notpla, founded by Imperial graduates Pierre Paslier and Rodrigo Garcia, who recently won £1 million in the Prince of Wales’ Earthshot Prize for inventing a seaweed-based biodegradable alternative to plastic. Rodrigo also joined the Demo Day celebrations to present an Audience Award.

Notpla's products include a coating for takeaway boxes, film, paper made from seaweed pulp, and a rigid plastic alternative, also made from seaweed. Notpla’s products drew public attention during the 2019 London Marathon, where over 36,000 of their edible capsules filled with Lucozade were handed out to runners in a bid to reduce plastic waste. More recently, the team have made over one million food boxes for takeaway company Just Eat. The coating of this packaging is seaweed-based, greaseproof and waterproof, biodegrading in weeks. 

Founded in 2014, the Notpla team met while studying Innovation Design Engineering, offered jointly by Imperial and the Royal College of Art. During their time at Imperial, they received support from Imperial’s well-established entrepreneurial ecosystem, including the Venture Catalyst Challenge and Experts-in-Residence programme (now run by Imperial Enterprise Lab), the Centre for Climate Change Innovation's accelerator and the Imperial White City Incubator. 

Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez from Notpla said: “Notpla wouldn't exist if we didn't have the support of what is now Undaunted. They were the first ones to believe in us and the idea, and provided the necessary guidance and connections to start this journey.  

“Back then, Pierre and I were finishing the Innovation Design Engineering master’s programme at Imperial and the Royal College of Art. They provided support to facilitate a project with the Chemistry Department at Imperial to develop the technology, provide us with our first office space in the Incubator and have some funding to pay ourselves our first mini salary.

"Thanks to them we have been able to create a company that now employs 74 people and directly replaces single-use plastic items in the millions in different geographies." 

Professor Richard Templer, Director of Innovation at the Grantham Institute at Imperial and founder of The Greenhouse said: “We have been helping young start-ups who are addressing the challenges of climate change for exactly ten years now. Their record of success is world-leading and Notpla are an exemplar of the Undaunted spirit that has driven this success. When Rodrigo and Pierre came to us, they were still students, but we could already see that they had the right stuff to grow Notpla. I think we were probably right! I cannot tell you just how delighted and proud I am of their achievement.” 

The Greenhouse: what's next?

"Our work at The Greenhouse never stops", said co-founder Naveed Chaudhry. 

"The Cohort 4 startups are already part-way through the programme, having joined in September, and applications for Cohort 5 are opening shortly - keep an eye out on LinkedIn and Twitter to find out when!" 

This article was first published on first published on 12 December by Imperial College London.

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