ClimateLaunchpad trainer Ron Bloemers shares the basics of cleantech start-up training.
We sat down with our Boot Camp trainer of the first hour: Ron Bloemers (founder and managing partner of cleantech business accelerator Start-U-up in Amsterdam). His 25 years of hands-on experience with cleantech, renewables and start-ups is of unparalleled value to our participants. Today we get to dig into his knowledge and wisdom.
“We kick the teams out the door as soon as possible and coach them to interact with customers.”
You were involved with ClimateLaunchpad from the very beginning. Did you expect it to grow on such a scale?
‘Our first year, 2014, we had 10 countries in the competition. In 2018 that number has grown to 45. Did I see it coming? No. Did I recognize it as a brilliant platform to unlock cleantech potential? Yes, definitely.
The fact that it grew so big has to do with the outstanding curriculum, for sure. But there is something else too. I like to call it the heart and soul of ClimateLaunchpad. With our founder Frans Nauta in the lead we created this energy, this vibration that a lot of people relate to. It’s solution oriented, not problem oriented. And I know our central team has been working hard behind the scenes to make the growth possible and connect with as much countries as possible. They don’t usually get much of the credit, but without that team ClimateLaunchpad would not be possible. And also in the team of trainers, we all share that same energy and we are led by the guiding principle that we want to fix climate change, one start-up at a time.’
“It is a brilliant platform to unlock cleantech potential.”
What is your preferred topic during the Boot Camps?
‘All topics are interrelated and work together to get teams ready to really build a viable start-up. All the building blocks in our training lead to a coherent set of hypotheses. It’s literally the whole thing that makes it fly. But if you were to make me choose one, it would be the Value Proposition. If I would have 30 seconds to valuate a start-up I would ask about their value proposition. That, and the Deal. The Deal is the transaction at the heart of your business model. It enables you to iterate very fast during Boot Camp – and beyond. The Deal tells me what are you selling to whom and at what price. The most important question for the Value Proposition and the Deal is: what value are you delivering to your customer?
It is harder to iterate on your idea if you already have an entire business model built around it. During Boot Camp almost all participants make changes to their initial idea. Using The Deal makes that easy and fast. Because if the deal changes, everything around it changes.
“What value are you delivering to your customer?”
The thing about the Deal is that you need to talk to potential customers to validate it. That is why we kick them out the door as soon as possible and coach them to interact with customers as often as they possibly can.’
Can you tell if a team is going to win the competition when you train them during Boot Camp?
‘I used to think I could, but to be honest I really cannot. Of course, I do get a good impression of the start-ups during the 2 days in Boot Camp. Not so much on the first day, though. They need to go through all the building blocks to get to a coherent set of hypotheses and for the full proposition to emerge. Because everything in the training is interdependent, you usually get to see the full thing on the second day. That is why I reserve time on day 2 for feedback. Feedback is way more valuable if you see the full proposition clearly. This is also the moment where I tell participants that this is just a Boot Camp. Sometimes teams come up with a fantastic proposition, but then don’t continue to validate it and fail during National or Global Finals. Another team with a less perfect proposition during the Boot Camp that does continue to put in the work of validating and iterating, may end up a winner. It is really about the progress they are willing to make after Boot Camp that makes the difference.’
Is there a recipe to win ClimateLaunchpad?
‘Over the years I’ve come up with my own definition of what a good start-up is, besides the famous start-up definition of Steve Blank: “Good start-ups are high performing problem solving machines, constantly testing and validating their business models with real customers”. Once you have a proposition that is sort of okay, it boils down to this high problem solving machine. You need people who have outstanding and complementary problem solving skills, who can work together as a team really well and who don’t have a lot of ego. The first 2 years of a start-up, you will constantly face new problems and challenges – that is a given. Success depends on how fast can you solve them.
“It doesn’t end with a good proposition; it starts with a good proposition.”
The other part is about the testing and validating. Validation is really crucial. You need to be able to deal with rejection. I always smile and say: ‘Guys, if you’re going into new cool stuff expect that 8 out of 10 people will not understand what you are doing. So you are likely to get 8 negatives and 2 positives. Learn from the negatives but go for the positives. Not the “false positives”, but the “real positives” as the MOM-test of Rob Fitzpatrick teaches. Teams that do this well with real customers are the winning ones in the end. Provided that they have a good proposition of course. It doesn’t end with a good proposition; it starts with a good proposition.’
A lot of this is about long term. So how do you spot these qualities early on during our competition?
‘In ClimateLaunchpad I only look at the quality of ideas. That’s the beauty of our programme. Each year in the Global Grand Final, we see world changing ideas with potential. The first example that comes to mind is Desolenator. That’s such a cool start-up. They use an affordable solar panel to turn contaminated or salt water into drinking water for individual customers on the micro level. You should know that water is the new oil. These guys, regardless whether they make it or not, they are really ground breaking with what they do.
“If you win in our Global Final and you don’t take the next step after that, your win doesn’t mean shit.”
During ClimateLaunchpad we generally see 2 co-founders with their idea. We give them the foundation to turn that into a start-up, we teach the basics of entrepreneurship. But after that it is really all about the 3 stages of the Climate-KIC Accelerator: refining your hypotheses, finding paying customers with the right business model, building a balanced, high performing team, finding finance for growth, stuff like that.
So it starts with ClimateLaunchpad, but to succeed long term there are a lot of crucial requirements that are being taught in the Accelerator. If you win in our Global Final and you don’t take the next step after that, your win doesn’t mean shit. Luckily that does not happen often. The cleantech ecosystems and the countries are getting better and the Climate-KIC Accelerator does this amazing work. So you sort of have this soft landing on how to build it forward.
That is why winning in ClimateLaunchpad is a big deal. It is not about the money, it’s the 2 years’ trajectory and courses plus the additional money in the Climate-KIC Accelerator. That will basically coach and grant them through what I call Death Valley, obviously the most difficult time. I mean ClimateLaunchpad is all Greenville, everybody is happy, we have great ideas, there’s a great vibe. The real stuff starts after that.’
You are famous for your ‘tough love’ approach. What is it all about?
‘Well, at the start of any Boot Camp I always say: “You did not come here to be patted on the back for 2 days. You will learn nothing if I would do that.” That is why I ask for permission to give tough love, you need to create a safe environment for feedback – a place of trust. My basic attitude is to always be super honest about what I think of an idea, but never to judge.
“I challenge them not to believe anything I say.”
Then I always warn them that I am Dutch. From an international perspective we are probably one of the most blunt people on the planet. And I make it even worse by asking them if they are you okay if I force them into yes/no answers during the problem solving process. And that’s a big thing, it increases the learning enormously if they have to make a clear decision at every corner. With this yes/no polarizing the learning is faster. I call it the application of the Pyramid Principle. For example, I will ask: “Is this really a beach head market? Yes or no?” First the “yes”or the “no” answer, then the explanation. I won’t let them beat around the bush with their answer. And that increases the learning a lot. And I don’t care if 10 minutes later they give me a different answer. I want them to make a decision with what they know at that moment. It will stay like that for at least the next 2 years if they continue with their start-up, so I like to train them in this.”
I also tell them I have 25 years of experience in cleantech and renewables and at the same time I challenge them not to believe anything I say. Basically what I do is I pour out all my knowledge. It is up to them what they want to do with it. Ideally, they take it to the next level and that’s where I am also learning all the time. I always strive to make teams better, to point out where they can learn or improve. You never know, if they don’t click right now, they may do so three weeks from now. What I see happen a lot is that they make the connection between the first and the second day of the Boot Camp. Overnight you just see them open up and just ‘get it’. Or sometimes people get into ClimateLaunchpad with an idea that just doesn’t work and they take all they learnt in Boot Camp to come up with a different idea later, a solid one. To me that is amazing.’
What do you see changing with our competition with the new intake of teams and ideas from so many countries joining each year?
‘First of all, apart from the geographical differences and personal preferences and stuff like that, the trend for me is very clear. Cleantech was traditionally focusing mainly on the energy space, but what you see now is that the definition and scope of cleantech is hugely expanding, the cleantech market is becoming bigger. I recently looked at this while I was doing a project for infoDev/World Bank. So energy is now just one of the aim markets. Besides energy, very important topics in the near future are for example food & agriculture in order to feed a fast growing world population, plus clean and safe water for private consumption and agricultural water irrigation. “Water is the new oil”. Also e.g. (solid) waste and the circular economy have become very hot – especially with the specific topic of plastic waste in the oceans. The scope of climate cleantech is increasing, and what you see is that different countries pick up different parts from their tradition and develop from there. For instance, in Eastern Europe in Ukraine and Estonia, they have a very well developed IT and software sector. I mean Estonia is basically the Silicon Valley of Europe. So what you saw there in the cleantech ecosystem is that their ideas are a little bit more focused on IT than in other countries. But once they start plugging into the global network, you see them converting. So it starts with local needs and competencies, but as the ecosystem develops, they also start thinking about solving problems on a more global scale.’
And how about Africa? Because countries like Kenya for example, are really kicking ass.
‘Africa is the continent of the future, for sure, and Kenya is indeed kicking ass in cleantech as we have seen with their very strong representations in the Global Finals of 2017 and 2018. In a country like Nigeria alone, there are more people born in a month than in the whole of Europe. We also need to take into account the numbers: 60% -70% of the population in Africa is below 30. The growth of world population is there. What we see happening is that cleantech investments are shifting from the western world to these developing regions like Africa and India. The heavy lifting will be in these countries and not in Western Europe. And there’s a good market reasoning for that. If you look at the telecom industry and the mobile phone penetration, the fastest growing regions were Africa, Brazil and other countries from South America. That happened because they didn’t have old telecom systems that were in the way. It might very well be that Africa, one generation from now, will have the most modern cleantech, because Western Europe will still be working with old solutions. Africa has the potential to leapfrog incumbent systems plus markets. So the future is definitely there.’
On that note we’ve reached the end of our questions. Perhaps we can wrap it up with the way you experience our Global Grand Final each year.
‘What I love about the Grand Final is to see solutions as big as possible and unexpected ground breaking ideas that have enormous potential to scale up and create impact on the environment. So far, that has happened each year and increases with each year. The 2018 edition in Edinburgh was no exception; the quality of teams and ideas was impressive. The world will be hearing from our finalists!’