O Pioneers!

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Nathaniel Bullard's Sparklines

Today BloombergNEF released the winners of its annual Pioneers competition, a selection of early-stage companies with the chance to make a meaningful contribution to global decarbonization. We've been at it for a dozen years now, so it's only fitting that this year, we have a dozen winners, ranging from satellite imagers to digital freight networks to producers of concrete for marine applications.

The competition began in 2010 with an open call for companies that "could play a significant role in the world's transition to a lower carbon, more secure, smart, decentralized energy system," in the words of Michael Liebreich, then BNEF's chief executive officer. Almost a quarter of prior winners—including solar companies, wind technology providers, specialty finance firms addressing funding gaps in clean energy, and many others involved in one or another form of digitalizing energy efficiency—have been acquired. More than 40% were "thriving" or "progressing" as private companies, according to an analysis BNEF conducted last year. Only 10% had gone bankrupt—not bad for a group of early-stage companies tackling big problems.

I have observed every one of the prior Pioneers competitions and was a member of this year's internal scoring team. That history with the program makes me especially excited about this year's results, starting with the work my colleagues did to frame this round of the competition before it even started.

For the 2021 Pioneers, BNEF did something a bit different: It sought entries focused on specific, thorny areas of decarbonization, namely managing and optimizing long-haul freight, including trucking and container ships; advancing materials and techniques for sustainable products; and monitoring and understanding the climatological changes happening on our planet.

Let's consider these problems in more detail. Land-based long-haul freight must optimize movement constantly to avoid "shipping air," i.e. empty cargo space. Long-haul freight at sea is more efficient, but the fuel it uses—bunker oil—is a massive emitter not just of carbon dioxide, but also of sulfur and nitrogen pollutants. Fashioning specific materials, meanwhile, requires matter to be transformed in various ways, and removing the emissions from these transformative processes is generally very difficult, if not impossible. Finally, measuring, monitoring and better understanding our world is a constant challenge, in particular for invisible pollutants in overlooked locations.

Who are the winners? Not solar or wind companies. Not companies making energy-efficient windows or financing distributed energy or improving power-generation technology. That's a feature of this competition, not a bug—the result of a deliberate effort to screen for the extremely difficult problems that urgently need solving.

In the freight challenge, there's Convoy, which provides a digital-freight network in the U.S.; Ontruck, which combines automation and machine learning to reduce partially empty voyages; and Nautilus Labs, a decision-support company for global maritime shipping. In the sustainable-products challenge, there's Cemvita Factory, which uses carbon dioxide or methane as a feedstock for making carbon-negative chemicals; Pyrowave, which electrifies chemical processes; and Via Separations, which, as the name suggests, electrifies chemical separation processes. In the monitoring challenge, there's Pachama, which measures the carbon captured in forests; Planet, a satellite-imaging company with daily frequency; and QLM Technology, which uses camera systems to visualize and quantify greenhouse-gas emissions. We threw in a wild card category, too—a happy consequence of having more than 250 companies to judge. They are 75F, a building-management system; ECOncrete, which develops marine fauna-attracting concrete for coastal and marine infrastructure; and Pivot Bio, which makes products that can replace the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.

This group of winners is a testament, in a very real way, to the success that earlier pioneers have had. The problems they've addressed are far from solved, but at least now they're solvable, at scale and economically, thanks to the companies that have come before and succeeded.

The winners are fitting, too, for a competition called Pioneers. We're seeking the next frontier, and screening for those who can carry us to it.

Nathaniel Bullard is BloombergNEF's Chief Content Officer.

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