The third edition of Social Alpha’s clean energy challenge, titled Techtonic — Innovations in Clean Energy, recasts the spotlight on the need for nurturing solutions that can radically improve the quality of life of the underserved communities and fight climate change. Techtonic’s diverse offerings are aimed at fulfilling specific needs of startups who are at different stages on their product-development journey. Smita Rakesh, Portfolio Director, Clean Energy and Climate Action at Social Alpha, tells us how this initiative will push the innovation envelope further in the quest for sustainable development. Edited excerpts…
This is the third edition of the energy challenge. Why has Social Alpha further deepened its engagement with scouting and nurturing clean energy solutions?
In the last two years when we ran what was then called the Social Alpha Energy Challenge, we were open to the entire universe of energy innovations — in access, efficiency, and renewables — with an intention to identify the blind spots in the sector that needed our intervention more specifically, and the areas which we could prioritise to add maximum value. The first two editions gave us a fairly good sense of this and also helped us realise that the challenge was an effective tool for casting a wider net to scout for promising innovations and enterprises. Our experience so far has helped our strategy in evolving to a stage today where we have attracted meaningful partnerships and further defined the value proposition for startups based on their respective and diverse needs. This year, while the challenge is open to the entire gamut of clean energy innovations, we have also prioritised some focus areas where we see maximum impact, both in terms of the quality of life of the underserved communities and climate impact. The four focus areas for this year’s Techtonic are: Energy for Livelihoods; Energy for Thermal Conditioning (space heating/cooling) mainly for underserved communities and areas; Smart Energy Systems (or Smart Automation for Grid and off Grid Applications); and Energy Storage (battery technology).
Given that livelihoods is one of the focus areas of the challenge, how cardinal is it to the energy ecosystem?
Energy for livelihoods or productive use is a critical component of energy access. For breaking the vicious cycle of energy poverty, where the underserved also happen to be coming from the socio-economically deprived and marginalised sections of the society, it becomes extremely important to ensure availability of reliable and affordable energy for economic growth. Our livelihood focus on innovation converges with four of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG1, which talks about eradicating poverty; SDG7, which is about access to clean, modern energy; SDG8, which focuses on economic opportunities for all; and SDG13 is about climate action. Also, Social Alpha’s overarching equity lens ensures that our sectoral and thematic focus embeds in itself constantly working towards levelling the field for the marginalised and underserved sections. Energy access and livelihood, therefore, assume even greater importance in our thesis. We have also noticed that innovation has been limited and incremental in this area because demand is often latent and markets need to be created. Moreover, there is a dearth of patient capital, handholding, and product validation support with the users on the ground as well as capital to scale. As a result, we see a huge gap in terms of the needs at the ground and the solutions available in the market to address them. And this is why, in our bid to push the innovation envelope further, livelihoods is one of the core areas of our focus.
Smita Rakesh has been playing a key role in Social Alpha Energy Challenge
How has Social Alpha stepped up its game in response to the ecosystem challenges in promoting startups?
We have now curated a spectrum of programmes, platforms and offerings in clean energy to meet the various needs of start-ups in different stages. The diversified set of offerings has been possible thanks to our partnerships with agencies of repute in the public and private sectors, and civil society at the grassroots. The challenge will be funnelling the start-ups into one or more of our incubator, accelerators and investment programmes based on their eligibility and mutual fit.
Early-stage start-ups require very strong handholding, incubation, and more of prototype development, testing and product development support. Our early stage incubation program hosted by Social Alpha’s Atal Incubation Centre (AIC) will be addressing exactly these needs. Our advanced-stage start-up incubation programme under the aegis of our Clean Energy International Incubation Centre (CEIIC) focusses on go-to market support and product commercialisation. A third unique offering is the opportunity to do paid techno-commercial pilots, supported by our Industry partner Tata Power and our grassroots partner CInI for early-stage product validation in the real world context. Social Alpha also runs an SDG-7 accelerator looking at scaling up energy access-based solutions, which is the fourth vehicle of support available to the start-ups that come through this program. And finally, Social Alpha’s investment and seed-funding support is also available to start-ups that require patient capital. We have diversified our range of offerings in trying to ensure that it is customised to the stage and requirement of each start-up. There are special provisions for international start-ups wherein we provide them a soft landing platform at our incubator to help them get familiarised with the clean energy ecosystem in India before diving in.
We have realised that one big gap has been the absence of a fund focusing on climate in India and we are working with a few partners on creating a climate fund, which can provide follow-on investments to clean energy and climate-based tech.
What heartening changes have you encountered in the quest for energy innovations?
It has been an encouraging and promising journey so far. We have seen some very innovative and high potential innovations coming in from many areas, for example in battery storage, biomass to energy, clean cooking and AI-based clean energy solutions. In the last few years we have ensured that social and climate impact remain our focus and we have pro-actively built that into our criteria. Our partners Research Institute of Sweden (RISE) had carried out the assessment of the potential of carbon avoidance of the technologies during the selection process, based on their globally accepted ‘Net-Zero Avoided Emissions Framework’ and estimated a potential to avoid more than 200 mT of Co2 equivalent by 2030. We are approaching climate action through a systems lens and are looking for solutions that have the highest potential to address that.
Social Alpha’s investment and seed-funding support is also available to startups that require patient capital
I am very excited to shared that our portfolio companies have won more than 70 prestigious awards, including UNEP’s “Young Champion of the Earth” which was awarded to Vidyut Mohan from Takachar in the year 2020. Our portfolio has also raised over 9 Cr in follow-on capital from various sources.
Another cause for cheer is that many applications have been coming in from cities other than the metros, and from colleges other than the expected prestigious institutions. This not only shows that the culture of innovation in India is deepening, but also tells us that with greater outreach and a stronger handholding we can significantly contribute to this growing phenomenon. We hope to see more women-led start-ups in clean energy, because not many women co-founders have applied in the previous editions of the challenge.