Mike Goodfellow-Smith on academics and entrepreneurship

An interview with Mike Goodfellow-Smith – ClimateLaunchpad Trainer

ClimateLaunchpad Trainer Mike Goodfellow-Smith is a long time environmental sustainability practitioner and entrepreneur. He began his career as a social entrepreneur with a mission to address climate change and is now studying for a PhD. He’s been one of our Trainers ever since the start in 2014. We recently had a chat with him about academics and entrepreneurship.

How did you get involved with ClimateLaunchpad?
“Someone suggested I should meet the Climate-KIC Birmingham team and so I did. They asked me to participate in the Pioneers into Practice, ClimateLaunchpad and RIC Accelerator programmes in the UK. Through these programmes I have been able to contribute from my 30 years’ experience in sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

So you’ve been with us since the beginning?
“Yes. I absolutely love the ethos of ClimateLaunchpad itself, the huge engagement and the involvement of people. Virtually everybody involved with the competition has this huge willingness to cooperate and try and get job done. For me this has been an absolutely incredible experience.”

You’ve explored loads of avenues during your career and right now you’re also in academics, right?
“I’ve set up companies in the private sector, in the charitable sector, been involved in think tanks, policy groups, education and now I am indeed looking at an academic career avenue. This came about when I was director of a regional development agency, where we were building environmentally innovative buildings. I was responsible for big office areas, housing developments, roads, rail, ports and an airport actually. Sustainable innovation in building was very, very hard to get done. It led me to look at innovations in financial and insurance support for critical infrastructure. That’s what my PhD is about.

One of the largest barriers for positive actions concerning climate change may actually be the financial system itself which in its essence promotes consumptive activity. Low impact lifestyles, low-carbon lifestyles aren’t necessarily very good for GDP. Since the people that became rich by it run this economic system, the system itself encourages the utilisation of the existing hard-wired, high-carbon, fossil-fuelled infrastructure. So how do you look at that economic system, and utilize the very tools that economic theorists used to support carbon, to revise those same tools to support a sustainable infrastructure?  How do you improve those theories and demonstrate you can produce a sustainable infrastructure? That’s one aspect.

Another thing that happens is that project managers under pressure always default to what they know, rather than try something that might be challenging. How do you make a project manager’s life easier by giving that person tools that help rapidly assimilate the requirements of a low-carbon infrastructure? Those two aspects are the basic thrust of my PhD.”

That sounds really interesting. Does this research help you in your experience with ClimateLaunchpad?
“First of all of my academic work is leading me into a huge circle of funding that I never really appreciated before. So that’s useful for the participating teams. Also, the academic links are extremely good for providing credibility to developing teams.

One of the biggest issues in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship is linking great ideas with university research. When I come across a great idea in Norway, I linked that team with people in the UK. And I connected people from a team in Sweden with a company I’ve been working with in Scotland.

For me ClimateLaunchpad is a very good way of getting to know people, getting to know teams, helping them and evaluate whether I can connect them with the academic world.”

It’s good to hear you talk about the academic side. We live in times where it seems to be regarded as cool to drop out of school to pursue your ideas.
I think it depends on the individual. Some people are suited for the academic arena. I was in theory suited, I had a first degree, then went onto do a masters but after four years in academia, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to get out to get my hands dirty and so I went off building drystone walls and leading practical countryside management teams. Now I’m ready again. A lot of the entrepreneurs I have been working with in ClimateLaunchpad are actually academics. They often come up with great, brilliant ideas, but they’re in doubt whether they can make a business out of it or not. In some cases our programme may scare them silly, in other cases it may be just the confirmation they need to build their start-up.”

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