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Climate change and energy

Bill Gates’s energy venture fund is expanding into climate adaptation and later-stage investments

The new efforts are an acknowledgment of the mounting dangers of climate change and the costs of scaling up technologies.

October 19, 2022
Rodi Guidero, executive director of Breakthrough Energy, speaking at the firm's summit in Seattle.
Rodi Guidero, executive director of Breakthrough Energy, speaking at the firm's summit in Seattle.Steven Walter

Bill Gates’s climate-oriented venture capital fund is expanding its mission, adding adaptation to its investment categories and establishing a later-stage fund to help clean-tech startups begin building plants and scaling up their technologies.

The announcement came at the end of the firm’s Breakthrough Energy Summit in Seattle on October 19.

To date, Breakthrough has been focused on “five grand challenges,” backing companies that promise to drive down climate pollution in electricity, transportation, manufacturing, buildings, and agriculture. All these efforts are considered forms of climate mitigation. Climate adaptation refers to developing ways of bolstering protections against the dangers of climate change, rather than preventing it.

In an interview, Eric Toone, technical lead for Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ investment committee, said it’s increasingly clear that adaptation will need to play a major role as global emissions continue to rise and the planet continues to warm.

“Mitigation’s just not going to get us there fast enough, and suffering is unacceptable,” he said, in reference to the line from John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s former science advisor, that we have three choices for how we respond to climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.

“So while our focus will continue to be on mitigation, we will expand our scope to include adaptation,” Toone says.

Eric Toone discusses Breakthrough Energy's next investment priorities at the firm's summit.

The firm will focus on several areas, including ways to help farmers and communities grapple with increasingly common or severe droughts; such approaches could include advanced desalination technology or systems that pull moisture out of the air. Another will include helping crops remain productive as the world becomes hotter, wetter, or drier, potentially through indoor farming and genetically alteration.

Toone said Breakthrough will also look for ways to strengthen the infrastructure of global ports, which face growing threats from sea-level rise and increasingly powerful storms. Investment opportunities there could include dynamic mooring systems that automatically respond to storm surges, cranes that can operate safely in hotter and harsher conditions, and ships that are more rugged.

These new investment areas will come into effect under Breakthrough Energy’s upcoming fund, which the firm is in the process of raising, Gates told Bloomberg recently and reaffirmed at the energy event on Tuesday. The company hasn’t yet announced how big it will be or when it will be finalized. To date, Breakthrough has raised two roughly $1 billion funds.

The separate later-stage fund, dubbed Select, will mainly provide “large-scale, follow-on” funds to enable companies to move ahead with demonstration projects. These are built to test and optimize technologies on larger scales, though not yet commercial ones. Toone said the funding will go mostly, but not exclusively, to Breakthrough’s existing portfolio companies.

Temasek, a Singapore holding company that has invested in several of the firm’s other portfolio startups, will be a contributor to the new fund. Breakthrough hasn’t yet announced the size of that fund either, or disclosed additional investors.

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