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35 Innovators Under 35


People who are reimagining how technology might solve perennial human problems.

Sarah Kearney, 29

A financial innovator is crafting a way for foundations to invest in clean energy.

  • by Martin LaMonica
  • Sarah Kearney wants philanthropists to act more like venture capitalists.

    She’s created a nonprofit called Prime Coalition to help private foundations invest in energy-related startups. Given that venture funding for clean energy technologies has dropped substantially in the past few years, Kearney’s idea could open up a source of much-needed capital from long-term backers.

    Radically new energy technologies have proved too risky for most private—and even government—investors. But foundations might not mind those risks, and they need to give away a small portion of their endowments every year if they are to maintain their tax-exempt status. Why not use it to fund companies whose primary goal is fighting climate change?

    So far, seven foundations have bought into her vision, giving her money to fund Prime Coalition. Next, she hopes to facilitate deals between philanthropists and startups working in renewable energy, energy storage, and related technologies.

    Creating the necessary legal and financial structures is a long, complex process. There are potential pitfalls, too. If a startup gets money from a chari­table foundation and private investors, will the foundation’s social mission be at odds with the goals of the profit-­seeking capitalists? But Kearney says foundations that want to do something about climate change should be involved with technology startups somehow. “Nothing is going to happen at scale unless people are making money,” she says.

    Martin LaMonica

    Watch this Innovator at EmTech 2014
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