Impact Series

New ‘Decarbon8-US’ impression fund lets anybody make a philanthropic present to climate-saving entrepreneurs

Trees burned by wildfire, with Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains in the background. (Kevin Lisota / GeekWire)

You’re already recycling and composting, driving an all-electric Model 3 and donating to an environmental nonprofit like The Nature Conservancy or Climate Solutions.

But as warnings about the future impacts of climate change increasingly shift from unnerving to outright terrifying — not to mention the “new normals” that we’re already adapting to in own lives (hello 80 degrees in Seattle in early May!) — you might be ready to up your game when it comes to fighting global warming.

Seattle-based E8, a network of angel investors that backs clean-tech companies, is announcing the launch of Decarbon8-US, a fund that will invest in startups developing innovative solutions for addressing climate change. Anyone can donate to the philanthropic fund, and contributions are tax-deductible.

“I’m really excited that this is a whole new way for people to support innovation in clean-tech and climate-tech,” said E8 member Ramez Naam, a futurist, author and Seattle tech veteran.

Next week the fund is posting its first request for proposal (RFP) for interested startups to submit their applications. Decarbon8 is focused on early-stage companies that have products and services on the market and are generating revenue. The pitches will be reviewed by an investment committee comprised of experienced investors and subject-matter experts.

The goal is to pick three to six companies in this first round that will receive a $50,000-75,000 investment. The selections will be made by a five-judge panel and winners will be announced in July.

Ramez Naam, E8 member and futurist. (Photo via LinkedIn)

​Decarbon8 has raised $120,000 and is hoping to get to $250,000 for the initial investments. The first round is open to startups working on a variety of decarbonization efforts, which the fund defines as reducing planet warming emissions as well removing greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere through natural means such as planting and protecting trees or tech solutions including direct air capture of pollutants.

The plan is to offer two rounds of Decarbon8 funding annually, and future RFPs will focus on specific sectors, such as alternative energy, electric vehicles, sustainable and precision agriculture, water management and energy storage. The fund is hosted by the nonprofit Realize Impact.

Entrepreneurs in climate-tech can face unique challenges compared to other startups. It can cost more to build innovative hardware than it does to develop software, and the prototype process can take longer, particularly if it involves biological or chemical processes. The customers might include governments and heavily regulated markets, both of which are slower moving. The startups may present a greater risk to investors — though the payoffs are significant for technologies that pan out.

Decarbon8 investors who give more than $5,000 have the option of recovering gains realized from their investment and putting those dollars back into companies or other charitable funds.

E8 Executive Director Mike Rea (center) with the group’s 2019 University of Washington Fellows. (E8 Photo)

E8, previously known as Element 8 and Northwest Energy Angels, started in 2006 and has invested nearly $40 million in 98 companies in the U.S. and Canada. Investments include Northwest companies such as Energy Storage Systems, Green Canopy, Apana, Ecellix, PowerLight, StormSensor, Membrion, Joule Case and Nori.

Paul Gambill is the CEO of Nori, a Seattle-based company working to reverse climate change by creating a marketplace that allows people to pay by the ton for decarbonization programs. Nori is likely too big to be eligible for Decarbon8, but Gambill says there’s a need to blend philanthropy and entrepreneurial innovation.

“We have run into this ourselves,” Gambill said. “There is a lot of nonprofit money out there that wants to support these types of efforts, but we as a company are not set up to accept that directly.”

There are multiple initiatives to fund clean- and climate-tech entrepreneurs, each with its own investing model, targeting startups at different stages and working with investors large or small. Last year, Portland’s VertueLab launched the Climate Impact Fund, which has raised close to $1 million so far and will begin investing later this year. Other efforts include the Clean Energy Trust, Techstars, Elemental Excelerator and Craft3. The wealthiest donors can invest through the Bill Gates-led Breakthrough Energy Venture, Prime and Khosla Ventures.

Schematic of how Decarbon8-US will work. (Decarbon8 Graphic)

Considering the scope of the climate challenge — which essentially requires the restructuring of how we live, eat, use transportation, build buildings and develop land — there’s room for multiple efforts to fund entrepreneurs.

“We’ve all worked quite well together to try to fill gaps in the ecosystem,” said David Kenney, president and executive director of the non-profit VertueLab.

Many people who are concerned about the climate crisis appreciate the urgency in slowing greenhouse gas releases as quickly as possible. The coronavirus has provided a case study in the need for fast action to minimize disasters that can grow exponentially.

Faster decarbonization “will have significant impact on future harm,” said Gambill. “Just in the same way that people talked about delaying [coronavirus-driven] lockdowns had enormous effects on the number of deaths, it’s the same with climate change.”

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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