“If society is to be sustainable, it must transform across the board”

Blog published by CW (Cambridge Wireless)

For the third event in the year-long CW Unplugged: Tech for the Environment programme, CW assembled a plethora of technology and engineering experts to discuss ‘Tech for Fire’.


Led by social responsibility heavyweights United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and impact innovators Allia and sponsored by local tech giants Arm & u-blox, Tech for Fire gathered teams of entrepreneurs, engineers and enthusiasts to address the technical and business challenges set by two start-up ventures from Allia’s Future 20 programme: Lambda Stretch and Phycofeeds.

Before the start of the event, Dr Tim Moore, VP Smart Devices at Coty Inc introduced attendees to the upcoming ghd Sustainability Challenge which will be a light-touch way for start-ups to demonstrate their expertise to potential investors/customers during three ‘on-site’ days.  The challenge is: how do ghd decrease material and energy usage to make their products more efficient?


Anna Karbownik, Programme Support Lead & Executive Assistant at Allia and Mike Harfoot, Senior Ecosystem Modelling Scientist for UNEP-WCMC set the scene for the day, giving us key insights into technologies contributing to sustainable energy generation and the impact of these technologies in developing and emerging economies.

From all their centres, Allia run a venture support programme, Future 20, which is a programme consisting of the most inspiring, motivational and impactful start-ups, who will help to inspire the next generation of minds to use technologies for purpose. Anna explained that within this programme, Allia and the start-ups take inspiration from the sustainable development goals to help them on their mission to create a better and more sustainable future.

Introducing the risks imposed on the earth from the increased demand of battery technologies, Mike Harfoot outlined three major ecosystems which have been affected by human activity:

  • Warm water coral-reefs: Extreme stress has been placed on the coral-reefs due to global and local threats including coral bleaching
  • High altitude ecosystems: Occurring within mountain systems, usually of warmer conditions, these systems are sensitive indicators of global climate change
  • High latitude ecosystems: Dependent on freezing conditions, these systems are sensitive indicators

Between 1970-2090, the seven oceans that populate the earth are continuously changing due to varying factors, represented in the illustrative graphs below, and will continue doing so if we do not change our ways.

CW Unplugged Tech for Fire UNEP-WCMC Mike Harfoot

  • The black line indicates the change in sea surface temperature. Throughout the years, all of the earth’s oceans temperatures have risen with even the cooler oceans (Arctic Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean) matching the temperatures of the warmer oceans (Indian Ocean, Southern Ocean).
  • The green line indicates the growth in productivity (largely refers to the organic matter ‘phytoplankton’, plants suspended into the ocean, most of which are single-celled). For the majority of the oceans, the growth in productivity is slowly declining.
  • The red line indicates the change in biomass of fish. Fish biomass refers to the primary drivers of coral-reef ecosystem services and has a high sensitivity to human disturbance, which includes fishing. Shown above, the majority of biomass of fish has slowly been declining and will continue this trend.

Throughout the years, UNEP-WCMC have determined the directional trend of nature’s contributions including energy, materials & assistance and food to people across a 50-year timescale across varying regions.

To mitigate the damage being done to the planet, governments, businesses and consumers are moving to renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. However, renewable energy comes with its own challenges. Batteries are required to store energy produced for powering buildings and cars. This is resulting in a huge increase in demand for minerals – in 2050, lithium, for example, is expected to be 965% of 2017 demand.  These minerals are often found in areas of high biodiversity – lithium production is currently centred in Chile, Argentina and Australia. Further reserves of essential minerals are known to be on the seabed. Accessing these necessary ingredients that will enable a renewable future is key – but doing so in a manner which least impacts the natural world is the challenge.  While the electrification of activities (such as transport) and associated energy storage will play a key role in reducing or preventing the emission of greenhouse gases there are huge technological opportunities to help sustain the planet such as:

  • Evaluating and tracking impacts: these include siting, monitoring, restoration and supply chains
  • Design of storage: this includes resource efficiency and reuse/recycling

Recognising that the future requires a major transition in how we live

 - Mike Harfoot, UNEP-WCMC

What can the industry do to try and make changes? Phycofeeds, the first start-up venture of the event, use concentrated solar power to convert waste biomass into biofuels and fertiliser. They reshape the energy balance to favour an efficient production system using solar heat, waste nutrients and microalgae harvesting in a cost-effective biofuel production system.

The business and technical challenges proposed from Phycofeeds were:

Business: How do I exploit IP and patent PCT optimisation?

Technical: What could the engineering system surrounding Phycofeeds’ technology look like in order to continuously convert waste biomass into biofuel and fertiliser?

Matt Pearce, the Founder of Phycofeeds used an important quote from Sir David Attenborough on the 1.5°C increase in temperature and what we, as the inhabitants of the earth should do about this:

We should encourage industry to invest in new techniques to generate power. The paradox is that power is streaming down on earth from the sun with no restrictions. ​But we should be able to store and transport power. If we can solve these problems, we can solve the polluting problems of the aircraft and motor car.

The global biofuels market valued at $168.18bn in 2016 and is expected to reach $246.52bn by 2024 at 4.92% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) with the aquafeed market expected to grow to $155 billion by 2022 with CAGR of 13.2%.

Currently, Phycofeeds are taking a structured route to commercialisation by addressing the technology, scaling up and commercial challenges faced within the industry. Having surpassed the pre-seed stage which involved lab-testing and funding of £23k raised, they are now field testing in South Asia with the hopes of being in full commercialisation by 2020 and beyond.

Introducing us to the second start-up venture at the event was Monica Saavedra, CTO for Lambda Stretch. Lambda Stretch are working towards creating a solution to help change the colour of sunlight to better suit the PV (photovoltaic) panels.

The problem: Sunlight is the wrong colour for maximum PV efficiency – it peaks at green and blue.

The solution: Changing the light to better suit the PV panels. Lambda Stretch will use a film that is robust against the environment that can also withstand the heat which will convert the green and blue photons to red photons which will also increase the efficiency by 2% of the PV panels.

Lambda envision a 5% efficiency increase using their active coating in the following 1-2 years.

The material deposition of the film consists of a room temperature solution processing which is shown in the diagram below.

CW Unplugged Tech for Fire Lambda Stretch Monica Saavedra

Currently, the PV panel market is valued at $40bn. Monica explained that within their business model, Lambda would become a joint venture with an established European materials manufacturer such as DSM or Johnson Matthey with 20% royalties on extra value. Using a business model such as this one gives them an advantage against their competitors whose approaches seem to be much more complex.

As well as establishing their primary market, Monica went on to explain that Lambda had also thought about how they could expand their market, with their secondary markets consisting of:

  • Building glass
  • Greenhouses
  • Retrofitting

The business and technical challenges proposed by Lambda Stretch were:

Business: Business adoption – The PV market is very conservative, only adopting new technologies would require very little to no change to their current manufacturing methods.

Technical: Cost reduction – Cost of the active materials is relatively high, currently manufactured at lab scale. Scale-up of materials manufacture & film deposition to be tested.

After many questions from the audience for both start-ups, delegates were split into four groups to answer the business and technical challenges proposed by each start-up facilitated by Cambridge Consultants, Plextek and Fresh Perspectiv.

Following the ideation workshops, the below actions were gathered for each start-up:


  • What is the purpose of the patent and why do they need it? Patents are not great for protecting IP as they would only cover a small piece of the overall technology but are a good way to attract investors.
  • Before thinking about patenting the technology, they must think about whether the technology or the service provided are the best part of this product and what part of the product is worth patenting?
  • Before going into full commercialisation, they must also define the opportunities from the product, what the product can offer and who the product is for. Could they potentially collaborate or partner with other ventures seeking the same thing or end-users?
  • What is the temperature that this product needs to get to work efficiently? Phycofeeds needs to determine what the defined temperature that they need to achieve for this product to work needs to be as well as what the pressure vessels are able to do?

Lambda Stretch:

  • What is the roadmap for the company? As a newer company, they should be starting their partner conversations so when they need to engage with those investors and partners, they are ready.
  • Lambda will need to determine who their target audience are. Although they have determined the various markets they can work with, they have not yet determined who within those markets are the target audience, is it the panel manufacturers, the retrofitters etc., They will also need to understand what the brand of the company is and whether there is an initiative within the company that they can use as a USP?
  • Can they get a first project under their belt which they can show to investors, potential partners and end-users so they can sell the product rather than just the concept?
  • How can they reduce their costs? Also, how cheap do they need to be to make a profit, can they charge more for a customer who is a niche premium equating to less customers but more expensive or more customers and cheaper?

CW will continue to work alongside these start-ups as they progress with their businesses. Thank you to all our supporters and delegates who joined us on the day and provided their insights! We invite you to register your interest for the next event in the CW Unplugged series, Tech for Water, on the 24 September!

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