“The time for action is now.” These are the words of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has warned that we have less than a decade to make significant strides in reducing carbon emissions if we hope to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

The CleanTech sector stands as a beacon of hope here, offering solutions that could transform the energy landscape. However, traditional innovation cycles to date have simply been too slow, characterised by lengthy development phases and cautious incremental improvements.

Learning from other industries

While not common within CleanTech, the concept of rapid innovation is far from new. In fact, it’s one of the main things tying the world’s most successful companies together. Tesla, Intel, Google, Amazon, NVIDIA and Apple, for example, all exemplify rapid innovation by continuously pushing technological boundaries, swiftly adapting to market demands, and fostering cultures that prioritise agility and creative problem-solving.

Granted, the energy sector grapples with a heavy reliance on long-standing physical infrastructures, outdated systems and processes, and strict regulatory frameworks, while tech companies often have more flexibility in this regard, able to upgrade and replace outdated systems more easily.

That being said, there is much to be learned from other industries, particularly the technology sector.

Top strategies for boosting rapid innovation

Know what the consumer needs before they do

For the world’s top tech firms, innovation isn’t just a response to market pressures or current consumer preferences. It’s about knowing what their consumer needs before they do, so that what they create is genuinely useful and desirable. This strategy of staying one step ahead with innovation is certainly something CleanTech companies could benefit from. 

When it comes to climate change, many do not fully grasp the urgency to develop sustainable solutions – does this mean they’re not needed? Absolutely not. The critical need for rapid innovation in the CleanTech sector remains, regardless – which leads us on to developing demand.

If demand is lacking, develop it yourself

Where demand is low or non-existent, tech firms often play a significant role in creating it themselves, especially when introducing brand new products or services that address previously unmet needs. Think about the time just as smartphones were released – no one knew they’d want or need mobile apps until they were educated about the benefits. 

A new market demand was created, and it’s a point that easily translates across to the CleanTech sector. Green hydrogen, for example, has emerged as a key component of European sustainability and decarbonisation goals, driving innovation in electrolysers, which have the potential to revolutionise its production. 

And while there has been policy emphasis and recognition of the importance of green hydrogen, actual advancements and implementation of innovations in this field remain slow. 

EnviroTech 50 – UK’s most innovative green tech creators for 2024

Shorten innovation cycles – fail fast, learn and move on

Pushed by competitive pressure and high customer expectations, many tech startups operate with very short development cycles to quickly bring their products to market and iterate based on user feedback. While some benefit from the digital nature of their products – meaning they can update and distribute almost instantaneously – others rely on physical goods with longer production and distribution cycles. 

This is where a high investment in research and development (R&D) comes in. Allocating significant resources to R&D enables much faster cycles of ideation, development, and deployment; something that’s crucial with climate-friendly technologies and strategies. At the moment, however, circumstances and industry norms are leading to very static responses, slow recognition of the benefits or failures of implemented solutions. To counter this, fostering a culture that values continual innovation, taking calculated risks and learning from failures is key. 

Let expertise lead expertise

Any successful company – whether in the technology sector or not – will know that business models play a crucial role in determining how quickly companies can innovate. If a company adopts the right model with expertise leading expertise and a deep immersion in the details from top down, it can significantly accelerate innovation. 

With this in mind, it would be great to see more CleanTech firms foster a collaborative ecosystem that includes diverse teams with complementary skill sets – researchers, developers, and industry partners – and encourages open communication across the entire organisation. This way, they’ll gain insights into emerging trends, challenges, and use cases, and in turn, end up with a valuable feedback loop, enabling rapid iteration, and products or solutions that are aligned with evolving needs.

Positive shifts

The energy industry as a whole certainly has room for improvement when it comes to speed of innovation, but there is positive change afoot among several CleanTech developments. The automotive industry, for example, is experiencing rapid innovation in electric vehicle technology, including improvements in battery performance, charging infrastructure, and vehicle design. CleanTech developments in biotechnology and agriculture are also addressing environmental challenges such as soil degradation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. 

At Bramble Energy, we’re making real headway in achieving a more compact, efficient, and cost-effective electrolyser by applying the same rapid innovation strategies embraced by the tech industry. By fostering continual innovation, an expertise-leading-expertise business model and a focus on demand-driven advancements, we’ve been able to integrate Printed Circuit Board (PCB) manufacturing techniques with AEM electrolyser technology. 

The end goal is to lower the capital and operating costs of electrolysers enough that green hydrogen production is comparatively cheaper than fossil-based hydrogen. The expectations then are that widespread demand follows, and grey hydrogen production – which releases significant amounts of CO2 – phased out completely. 

It’s a feat that, if achieved, will certainly take us significantly closer to combating climate change. But if more CleanTech businesses embraced this rapid innovation approach, then hitting those ambitious net zero goals will be far more achievable, and perhaps we can revolutionise the energy landscape much in the same way the smartphone revolutionised communication and connectivity.

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