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Go inside the invite-only, climate tech summit in Seattle hosted by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy

Bill Gates and Rodi Guiro are Breakthrough Energy’s executive director, managing partner and managing partners at the 2022 Breakthrough Energy Summit. (Breakthrough Energy/Steven Walter Photo

The Breakthrough Energy Summit brought together climate technology innovators and investors in a Seattle waterfront location.

This event allowed people to exchange information about the latest technologies that are being used to save our planet. The list included milk proteins from plants, fish-safe turbines and plane fuel made of corn waste.

Breakthrough Energy was the organizer of this summit. This Bill Gates-led organization provides funding, mentorship, and policy support to decarbonizing technology. The platform’s venture capital arm has raised more than $2 billion in funding and invested in 105 companies. The platform’s catalyst program is offering additional funding in the form of grants and low return capital. The fellows program has brought together 63 innovation and business experts in order to create nascent technology.

BE outside
Breakthrough Energy Summit on Seattle’s Pier 66 on a smoky October day in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

One would expect an upbeat vibe at the event, which hosted 700 attendees from around the globe — and it largely was.

Over a dozen entrepreneurs presented their technology, while some of their earth-friendly foods were featured in the conference dinners. PitchBook reported that the record amount of investment in clean and climate ventures by VCs last year was $64.6 billion.

However, excitement about the progress made in this sector was dampened by worries over current events. Ukraine’s war. Chokes in the supply chain Recession in economies Devastating flooding in Pakistan. Many cautioned that while the world is making some progress pulling carbon from the energy grid, transportation, buildings, agriculture and manufacturing, it’s not nearly enough to reach scientifically-backed carbon reduction goals.

Summit participants heard perspectives from leaders of corporations, government, and VC on climate progress. Below are some key messages.

Bill Gates is the founder of Breakthrough Energy, and Microsoft cofounder

Gates and Harder
Cipher’s executive editor Amy Harder was joined by Bill Gates, at the Breakthrough Energy Summit which took place in Seattle, Oct. 19, 2022. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Although Gates recognized the immense challenge of climate change and emphasized progress, he largely ignored it.

  • “Innovation is one of the final bipartisan things — new, more efficient ways of doing things, great new companies and great new jobs. Everybody’s for that,” he said. If we were to tackle climate change only with mandates and expensive solutions, it wouldn’t work politically.
  • The amount of talent going into climate will “climb dramatically,” he said. “And be right up there with these other big domains — not exceeding the digital or health domains, but joining them as a huge area of investment and positive surprise.”
  • “My belief in human ingenuity, even beyond the digital realm, it’s really been reinforced by the whole Breakthrough experience.”

Brad Smith, Microsoft President

Smith panel 2
Breakthrough Energy Summit 2022 Panel, left to right: Rich Lesser (global chair, Boston Consulting Group); Brad Smith (president of Microsoft); Irina Gorbounova (senior executive at ArcelorMittal); and Greg Guyett (co-CEO global banking and market for HSBC). (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Smith spoke out about the importance of corporate involvement in combating climate change.

  • Investing in clean energy and climate solutions, “for our business, our industry, and for others, this is almost becoming an indispensable part of a license to operate.”
  • “The worst thing that can happen for us — or any industry — is to see some of the headlines that have appeared in the U.K. over the last six months. There’s a shortage of electricity. It is up to us to determine whether electricity will be used by people or computers. [do]…. We have to be thinking ahead,” Smith said.
  • Dating back to Gates’ leadership at Microsoft, “the philosophy of the company was, if we build the software now the hardware will eventually get there,” he said. Microsoft was a long-term company that focused on software and now is doing the same for climate and clean energies investments.

John Kerry U.S. climate envoy Former secretary of state

John Kerry, U.S. Climate Envoy talks with Andy Lapsa CEO of Stoke Space Technologies at the 2022 Breakthrough Energy Summit. (Breakthrough Energy/ Steven Walter Photo

Kerry, who works at the international frontlines of climate policy, recognized the magnitude of the challenges that humanity faces when electrifying modern life using clean energy.

  • “This is the biggest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution, and maybe ever.”
  • “I’m convinced we’ll get to a low-carbon economy. What I’m not convinced about is that we will do it in the time that the scientists have told us we have to do it in order to avoid the worst consequences of the crisis.”
  • Regarding the Ukraine war, COVID-19 and global economic challenges, Kerry said, “this is a rough spot, but this will pass. We will get through this and there is a very large amount of money now circulating in venture capital.”

Jennifer Granholm (U.S. Energy Secretary)

Kerry panel
Breakthrough Energy Summit 2022 panel. From left to right: Vijay Vaitheeswaran is the global energy editor and climate innovator at The Economist. John Kerry is the U.S. climate ambassador. Larry Fink, CEO, BlackRock, and Christoph Schweizer, CEO, Boston Consulting Group. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Granholm praised the three important U.S. climate legislations that were passed under the Biden administration: Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS and Science Act; and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. He also noted that the global impact of the Ukraine war could drive clean energy installation.

  • “Climate is a sense of urgency. But energy security and being able to be independent from Russia, it’s an existential energy security. The combination of the two is an accelerant.”

Larry Fink, Chief Executive Officer of BlackRock Investment Firm

Fink expressed concern that too little money is spent on climate solutions and asked global financial institutions, including the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, to put more emphasis on clean technology in low and middle income countries.

  • “If we’re going to really reshape the world, there’s just not enough capital to change the emerging world,” he said. Legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act could rapidly create new technologies to help low-income countries, but funding’s an issue. “Right now, there’s actually less and less capital going into the emerging world. That’s just a fact.”
The main hall of the 2022 Breakthrough Energy Summit. (Breakthrough Energy/Steven Walter Photograph)

Eric Toone, partner in the investment committee at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Toone is an entrepreneur who was formerly a professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Duke University. He presented a detailed data-packed talk on the untapped technology and the magnitude of the climate problem.

  • Toone stated that there are three options to address climate change: mitigation (which means reducing carbon emissions); adaptation to a warmer environment; or suffering. “If I’m telling you mitigation is not going to get us there and suffering’s unacceptable, we’re left with adaptation. And so while BEV’s principal focus will continue to be mitigation, we will now work on adaptation as part of our portfolio.”

Editor’s note: Toone has updated the article to include comments.

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