“There are two types of companies — those who create growth through climate and sustainability initiatives and those who will go out of business.” - Rob Majteles
As a Mach49 Board Member-in-Residence, Rob Majteles pairs breadth and depth of venture expertise with unmatched enthusiasm for the potential of climate and sustainability growth initiatives to drive the growth that matters.
With decades of operating, investment, and board experience, Rob is widely respected for his focus on impact as the driving factor in entrepreneurial success and his passionate advocacy for climate and sustainability-focused growth initiatives that both serve the planet and create enormous financial wins. In addition to his work with Mach49, Rob is the founder of Treehouse Capital, a personal investment firm, and was a long-time adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley’s HaasSchool of Business.
We sat down with Rob to learn more about his work with Mach49 and what climate and sustainability trends he’s watching.
Over your decades as an entrepreneur and in the venture world, you’ve seen interest in climate and sustainability rise and fall. What’s different about the climate and sustainability space today?
I’m a Cleantech 1.0 survivor. That shows my vintage, but it also gives you a sense of my experience in the space. I left that era demoralized, not because of the money lost but because the behaviors of companies and markets at that time were really depressing. Cleantech 1.0 left me despairing whether companies and markets would adopt new behaviors in time to address obvious and urgent climate and sustainability needs and opportunities.
I’ve been massively rejuvenated in the last several years. When I accepted the invitation to be a Board Member-in-Residence for Mach49, I didn’t expect to be working on climate and sustainability initiatives. But many of the innovation projects I’ve worked on have real and potentially massive climate impacts. I’m now seeing corporate and market behaviors that I dreamt of decades ago, and I’m devoting the rest of my career to climate and sustainability initiatives to capitalize on all of this.
There are many ways to approach climate and sustainability. Why should corporations prioritize new ventures in this space?
A vast array of climate and sustainability growth initiatives are in the money today, and profits are there for the taking. Public investors are eager to see companies address both risk and growth in climate and sustainability because they know that’s the only way forward, and they’re ahead of their portfolio companies in many ways.
Too often, leaders succumb to a false binary that has defined climate denial for 30 years: are you in it to make money or are you in it to save the planet? The only answer to that question is: “yes.” If a company’s leaders today can’t see that climate and sustainability are where their most significant growth and profit opportunities are, they’re already behind.
You’ve worked on a number of climate and sustainability-related client projects for Mach49. What effort stands out?
There have been many, including projects I am lucky to be working on right now. A few come to mind quickly:
Among the first projects I got to work on at Mach49 was the first phase of our work with Schneider Electric. We helped them run a large-scale internal venture competition called Dare to Disrupt, which focused on climate sustainability initiatives. The company hadn’t succeeded with this model in the past, and they were surprised and delighted by the talent that emerged in this competition. We had thousands of individuals lining up hundreds of submissions in the climate and sustainability space. It was overwhelming to choose a few to bring to the venture competition and select even fewer to be incubated. One of those finalists became Grain Ecosystems, a promising startup that’s streamlining the creation of science-based and meaningful carbon offsets. There were five to ten other proposals that also had great potential in climate and sustainability — compelling people with compelling projects. It was such an eye-opener for me.
Early on, I also worked on a project that showed me both the awesome potential of Mach49 in climate and sustainability and the challenges we face. Our client was one of the world’s largest corporate enterprises. We helped author a brilliant growth initiative, one the client remarked quite freely was among the best they’d seen in over 20 years of effort in these areas. The proposal was brilliant because it laid out a specific and executable impact roadmap that paired massive and positive climate and sustainability impact with world-class venture capital goals. Yet, it was rejected. I can’t go into the reasons, but none of them were good, even remotely, for the client. That one will stay with me forever.
I am working on an initiative right now that is thrilling. After a long struggle, this project has really started to hit the mark, with fantastically defined, compelling goals on an executable impact framing roadmap. It marries market/customer needs (trillions of BTUs in reduced fossil energy grid demand in a very specific industry vertical) to planetary needs (millions of tons of carbon reduced or abated) to growth initiative needs (massive costs savings for clients, which the new company will share in an outsourced model). This project is notable to me not only because it is current but also because of the worthy struggles it took to get there with this client. We had to learn a lot, fast, about how climate and sustainability growth initiatives need to be defined, aligned, and executed.
There’s a huge amount of potential in the climate and sustainability space, but many efforts continue to fall short. What obstacles do you see most often in your work?
Too many companies simply pretend they’re addressing climate and sustainability needs and opportunities. The bottom line is this: if investments in growth and innovation initiatives aren’t driving a meaningful portion of your net-zero and nature-positive plans and goals, your pledges are just not credible.
A lack of executive willpower is the primary challenge keeping companies from making real change and progress happen. As a Board Member-in-Residence, I work to find harmony between growth initiatives and the organization’s appetite for risk. Ultimately the company’s CEO and board need to be willing to take that risk and make meaningful investments to create growth that matters.
Right now, there are a number of promising climate and sustainability innovations on the horizon. What excites you the most?
When companies create net-zero and nature-positive plans, they typically allocate resources to several categories of activity. Some of their work might be changing company behaviors around emissions, water use, and so on. Some of it is allocated to developing new tech — and while that’s essential, we can’t, and do not need to, wait until new technology solutions are ready to create impact. What’s missing right now is a meaningful allocati onto growth initiatives we can launch today, focused on business model innovation and current technology, that will deliver near-term and longer-term great outcomes.
For example, mining companies might switch from selling the output of their mines to leasing it. This embeds economic value in a circular business model, creating incentives to recycle that are foundational versus additive to how mining must work as a sustainable industry, and not the dangerously extractive industry it has always been. A billion examples like this come to mind.
Ultimately, corporations must create portfolios of growth initiatives that include both near-term initiatives that can win today and longer-term bets that will accelerate their own growth and create opportunities for this great planet and all of the humans on it to thrive.
Get in touch with the Mach49 team to learn how your corporation can get started with climate and sustainability venture building and investing.