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

Bill Gates speaks with Rodi Guidero, Breakthrough Energy executive director and managing partner, at the 2022 Breakthrough Energy Summit. (Breakthrough Energy / Steven Walter Photo)

Inside a Seattle waterfront center cloaked in wildfire smoke, climate tech innovators and investors came together this week at the Breakthrough Energy Summit.

The event was a chance to share news about cutting-edge technologies being developed and deployed to help save a warming Earth. They included dairy proteins produced by plants, fish-safe hydro-power turbines, airplane fuel made from corn waste, and carbon-negative cement.

The summit was organized by Breakthrough Energy, a Bill Gates-led initiative that is providing funding, research, mentoring and policy support for decarbonizing tech. The platform’s venture capital arm has raised more than $2 billion in funding and invested in 105 companies. An additional $1 billion is being issued as grants and low-return capital to companies in its catalyst program. Its fellows initiative has matched 63 business and innovation experts to develop nascent tech.

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.

More than a dozen entrepreneurs exhibited their technologies, and some of their planet-friendly food products were served in conference meals. There was enthusiasm about the growing VC appetite for climate and clean energy ventures, which last year attracted a record-setting $64.6 billion in investments, according to PitchBook.

But excitement over progress in the sector was tempered by concerns around troubling current events. The war in Ukraine. Supply chain choke points. Economies in recession. 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.

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The summit provided viewpoints on climate progress and prospects from leaders in corporations, government and VC. Here are some of the takeaways.

Bill Gates, founder of Breakthrough Energy and Microsoft co-founder

Cipher executive editor Amy Harder and Bill Gates at the Breakthrough Energy Summit in Seattle on Oct. 19, 2022. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Gates acknowledged the massive challenge of climate change, but mostly focused on advancements.

  • “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

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

Smith spoke about the essential role of corporate action in 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. We have to decide whether people get to use it, 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. The company thought long term on software, and is now doing the same on climate and clean energy investments.
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John Kerry, U.S. climate envoy and 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 is on the front lines of international climate policy, acknowledged the scale of the challenge that the world faces in essentially electrifying every aspect of modern life and running it on 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

Breakthrough Energy Summit 2022 panel, from left to right: Vijay Vaitheeswaran, global energy and climate innovation editor of The Economist; Jennifer Granholm, U.S. secretary of energy; John Kerry, U.S. climate envoy; Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock; and Christoph Schweizer, CEO of Boston Consulting Group. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Granholm promoted the three significant U.S. climate bills that have passed during the Biden administration (Inflation Reduction Act (IRA); CHIPS and Science Act; and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law), and noted that globally, the Ukraine war could help drive the installation of clean energy.

  • “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, CEO of the BlackRock investment firm

Fink is concerned that not enough money is being spent on climate solutions, and called out global financial organizations including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to focus on clean tech 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.”
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Main hall at the 2022 Breakthrough Energy Summit. (Breakthrough Energy / Steven Walter Photo)

Eric Toone, investment committee partner with Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV)

Toone, an entrepreneur and former professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Duke University, gave a data-packed presentation on untapped technologies and the scale of the climate challenge.

  • The options for responding to climate change are mitigation, which means reducing emissions; adaptation to a warmer world; and suffering, Toone said. “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: Updated to add comments from Toone.

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