This global prize competition is launching small moonshots to save the planet

Each year for the next decade, the UK will fund five climate startups with £1 million apiece.
Public Domain / Adobe Stock / Freethink / Jacob Hege

In September 1962, when JFK delivered his legendary speech urging the country to pursue a moon landing, it sparked a decade-long mission to take “one giant leap for mankind.” More than half a century later, the Earthshot Prize is aiming to follow suit with another ambitious goal for humanity — but this time, setting our sights on this planet. 

The challenge: Globally, we’re not on track to limit warming to the 1.5-degree target agreed upon in the Paris climate accord, and the solutions we’ve proposed to cool down the planet have grown increasingly unorthodox: mechanical trees; solar geoengineering; walls that protect glaciers in the Arctic. As the effects of warming mount, low-lying island nations and developing countries shoulder a disproportionate share of the impact.

An “army of entrepreneurs” is our best chance at solving critical challenges overlooked by Silicon Valley.

Sebastian Groh, founder of SOLshare

The idea: For the next ten years, the Earthshot Prize — founded by Prince William and backed by an alliance of charities and for-profit partners — will award one million pounds each to five climate startups, many based outside the West. The prize, instead of focusing on a single area of climate science, is divided into five science-based “earthshots,” each determined in partnership with climate experts. 

  1. Protect and restore nature. 
  2. Clean the air. 
  3. Revive the oceans. 
  4. Build a waste-free world.
  5. Fix the climate.

The idea is that — rather than putting all our bets on one giant moonshot — the competition will fund a multitude of small projects, funneling capital to founders who have a sophisticated understanding of the problems faced by their local community. 

Dr. Sebastian Groh, the founder of SOLshare and one of the first finalists for the Earthshot Prize, calls this strategy “an army of startups working on climate in the developing world.” An “army of entrepreneurs,” he says, is our best chance at solving critical challenges overlooked by Silicon Valley: tuk-tuk electrification, cleaner air conditioning coolants, alternative heating for cookstoves, and incentives for small-scale farmers to capture carbon in the soil.

How it works: To find its finalists, Earthshot starts with a network of 251 regional nominators headquartered around the world. There’s Africa Climate Ventures in Rwanda, Aeon Environmental Foundation in Japan, Aera VC in Singapore, Abalobi in South Africa, and Advaita Capital in the US — and that’s just a small sampling at the start of the alphabet. 

This strategy helps widen Earthshot’s sphere of influence and startup pool while simultaneously keeping the standards for nomination high. With over 1,000 total nominees, 150 shortlisted candidates, 15 finalists, and eventually, five winners, the prize systematically evaluates and narrows down startups based on four core metrics, including the potential for global impact, the diversity of the team, the scalability of their solution, and the strength of the organization. Winners receive not only funding but extensive support from the Global Alliance.

So far, the prize has funded a green hydrogen startup that operates in Thailand, Germany, and Italy, a coral restoration project in the Bahamas that’s expanding to the Middle East, rentable lithium energy capsules in Nigeria, carbon removal in Oman, floral leather in India, and “strategic wildlife corridors” in Malaysia. 

By the end of a decade, it will have funded 50 startups with a combined £50 million pounds.

Spreading your bets: But why fund a variety of small startups instead of betting big on a single project? 

Making climate technology more local creates a greater diversity of ideas and projects, building lots of small, little bets rather than a single overarching moonshot. We don’t know what the future holds, the thinking goes, so it’s best to test and trial a variety of projects. (Think Google’s “20% Rule” for side projects.) Like a stock portfolio, many tiny bets spread risk over multiple founders and continents — and minimize the loss of any one concept failing to pan out. This tactic also enhances the chance that one idea will reach a tipping point and spread like wildfire, scaling across the world. 

If we think of climate solutions as a portfolio, it makes sense that in addition to big steps like trying to significantly decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, we also allocate time and effort to ideas that tackle less sexy areas of our carbon footprint, such as alternative air conditioning technologies, greener cement, and high-efficiency heat pumps

“The closer you are to the problem, the greater the likelihood you come up with a solution.”

Sebastian Groh, founder of SOLshare

What’s next: Moving forward, the Earthshot Prize will extend its reach, and the diversity of its solutions, beyond the prize itself. Launchpad, a “digital community” that just deployed in beta mode to past finalists, will link Earthshot nominees to a network of international partners willing to fund climate projects. Once it matures, the platform will also feature virtual mentorship, expanding rural access to resources beyond Silicon Valley. 

Fundamentally, the theory behind the Earthshot Prize is that climate innovation can be funded no matter where you are in the world, and with an optimistic move on humanity’s part, we’re not tapped out of the fight just yet. 

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