As part of our second magazine ForHum, we spoke with Benjamin Tincq, co-founder of Good Tech Lab, an innovation agency that deciphers and supports technological responses to climate and environmental emergencies.
What if science and technological innovation could be part of the solution to climate change and environmental issues? With the Good Tech Lab he co-founded, Benjamin Tincq has interviewed more than 450 entrepreneurs around the world involved in impact tech.
Here is an overview of the conclusions of the resulting report, “The Frontiers of Impact Tech”, with a focus on the industry of tomorrow.
ForHum: What is impact tech?
Benjamin Tincq: We chose the term “impact tech” which is beginning to appear in the English-language literature because it is broader than the term “tech for good” used in France. The latter term generally refers to social rather than environmental issues and to EHS structures. Impact tech covers a slightly broader spectrum with start-ups and technological or science-based players. Examples include new processes for making carbon-free building materials, the use of biotechnology to replace pesticides in agriculture, large-scale CO2 absorption, new energy storage techniques, and so forth.
How do you explain the development of impact tech?
This movement can be compared to a revival of the clean tech boom of the mid-2000s, driven by the urgency of global issues, particularly climate and environmental issues. This urgency is shaping the career plans of more and more young people who want to align their daily work with resolving these issues. They are not satisfi ed with a militant commitment on the side, but want it to be the core of their work. In addition, the barriers to creating a company made up of scientists keep getting lower. There is more and more support and funding. Pension funds are getting on board and are beginning to take a strategic interest in fi nancing companies that will reduce climate and environmental risks. We have a groundswell of uses for technologies to address climate and environmental issues.
What was the purpose of your report “The Frontiers of Impact Tech”? To inspire other entrepreneurs?
I have an engineering background. I worked in engineering and consulting and then in an NGO. I wanted to focus on these imperfections between science, technology, and the environmental and climate emergency. With my co-founder, who has an international development background, we wanted to better understand these imperfections, to increase our expertise on the subject, and to understand all the ins and outs of the ecosystem.
For this report, we interviewed several hundred entrepreneurs, investors and companies working in these areas. We took the UN’s SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) as a reference. As we continue our work, we will focus more specifi cally on climate and environmental issues. The report was released in June 2019 with a French version that was released in October.
How is the industrial sector doing in this impact tech movement?
According to the latest IPCC report, industry and the production of goods account for about 21% of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a lot. A large part comes from cement and steel but also textiles. These sectors were previously considered diffi cult to make carbon-free. In recent years, we have begun to see innovative new players trying to tackle these sectors where it’s hard to reduce carbon. That’s exactly what Hoffmann is doing with cement. For steel, one example is Boston Metal, which has developed a process that avoids blast furnaces by using electrolysis of iron oxide.
What trends have you noticed in these areas?
An emerging trend is the use of synthetic biology to produce bio-manufactured materials. These differ from bio-based materials, where mechanically or thermally processed biomass is recovered to make building materials, textiles or other materials. In bio-manufacturing, living processes are used to grow matter directly. Ecovative is making textiles from the mycelium of fungi. Another example is the company Pili, which manufactures dyes from bacteria fed with sugar.
Another strong trend involves the circular economy and more particularly the end of the life cycle. One example is designing buildings in a modular way and listing all building materials so they can be more easily deconstructed and reused. The Dutch company Madaster has created a material passport for buildings. The aim is to make them completely circular. Others are working to replace polluting and non-recyclable materials with recyclable and compostable materials. For single-use plastics, this is a major issue. One goal is to replace conventional plastics with plastics that are biodegradable and degradable in marine conditions to combat marine pollution.
All these trends are beginning to converge and point to industrial activities that would be largely carbon-free.
What about digital?
At a time when dematerialisation is being advocated as the trend that will lead to carbon reductions, it is not totally virtual. Various rare metals such as cobalt are needed to make all the terminals, processors, satellites, etc. This doesn’t mean we have to stop all digital applications and dematerialisation. But we must be aware of this impact, which will grow as the industry grows. We need to look at sourcing these metals more responsibly, extending the end of life and rethinking the way we make components.
How do you see the factory of tomorrow?
The factory of the future is supposed be highly automated, where we can manufacture custom-made objects on demand without having stocks. I don’t have an ideal answer to this question. This is in line with the trend in 3D printing. In our report, we haven’t denigrated its potential, but we point out that we must be careful. On the positive side, you’ll be able to print different shapes and, in particular, optimise the structural capacities of the material while minimising the quantity. These shapes are slightly porous with holes everywhere. This is interesting because we are going to use less material, material that is going to be processed less and save energy in the upstream phases of production. On the other hand, there is not yet a thorough life cycle analysis, in particular a total energy balance for production. One of the possibilities could be 3D printing technology for the future. For example, technologies which use processes that assemble matter at the molecular or atomic scale, rather than heating matter. We’re still far from doing that.
How is the switchover to scale financed for these innovations?
The question that will arise is the growth of the company, particularly for technology companies. How do we fund them over a long enough period of time to allow them to reach critical size? What is the possible output for investors? Are these companies going to be listed on the stock exchange, or is there going to be a secondary market for shares that will allow them to go beyond this ten-year phase? Indeed, venture capital has a maximum phase of ten years and more often seven or eight years. However, for some companies, especially those that are highly technological, we’ll begin to have a market launch at the end of this fi rst period because the R&D phase is very intensive. It could be very advantageous for some businesses to be bought out by industrial companies that have the means, capacities or resources to scale up. They already have the distribution channels, the in-house expertise, etc., so it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
What role do large traditional companies play?
There is increasing pressure on large companies to wake up and stop saying that CSR is enough. CSR was invented as a means of offsetting externalities. Today, we have to go beyond that. The aim is for environmental and societal impact to be key to the company’s mission and key to its business lines so it can respond to today’s urgent issues. Some companies have a real desire to evolve because they realise that customer expectations are changing, employee expectations are changing, the expectations of certain investors are changing, and the expectations of regulators are changing.
What the IPCC report tells us is that we are really heading for an environmental disaster with cataclysmic human and social damage in the next 20 or 30 years. We can’t afford to wait. It is critical that companies commit to this process.
You also address the question of impact measurement in the report. What method would you recommend?
We tried to bring some visibility to the different methods. The approach is not exhaustive but gives an introduction to the entrepreneur who wants to get started in these areas. We propose a framework that summarises the key elements to keep in mind when starting a business: how do I think about my impact strategy, what is the logical reasoning that shows that the product/service I am developing will solve the societal/environmental problem I am trying to solve, what context of the industrial ecosystem do I fi t into and what will make it work or not? This allows us to take the lead and anticipate. In the environmental measurement part, without going into detail, a good life cycle analysis, at least, is part of the basics. The risks of rebound effects are also signifi cant. For example, take the idea of growing biomass on a fairly large scale. That sounds like a good idea, except that, depending on the type of biomass we’re going to use, we need a very large agricultural area, which will consume a lot of water and will compete with food-producing agriculture. The key question that needs to be asked is: what does it look like on a large scale? What are the potential positive and negative loops?
Benjamin Tincq is an engineer by training and co-founder of the Good Tech Lab, an innovation agency that analyses and supports technological responses to urgent climate and environmental issues. He co-authored the report “The Frontiers of Impact Tech”.
This interview is taken from pages 44 & 45 of our magazine ForHum, currently available for free consultation on our website.