Young researchers and entrepreneurs for climate protection

Dialogue forum special – Klimaherbst 2016

What role do innovations play in climate protection? This was the question we dealt with at the "Young researchers and entrepreneurs for climate protection" Dialogue forum special on 20 October 2016. The Forum was held as part of the 10th Münchner Klimaherbst series of events.

All sectors of society will need to be involved if climate change is to be stopped. Politicians may set the framework conditions, but it falls to business and civil society to bring about the energy turnaround with their behaviour. The electricity and gas supplier Polarstern provides an innovative example. "In 2011, we were the first ones to market gas that was 100% green", recalls founder and Managing Director Jakob Assmann. It was not enough for Polarstern to focus solely on green electricity. After all, around 80% of household energy goes on heating and hot water.

The panel of speakers comprised Prof. Klaus Sailer, CEO of the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship, Thomas Bischof, Head of Group Development at Munich Re, and Dr. Jakob Assmann, Managing Director of the green utility company Polarstern. Alexander Rossner, Klimaherbst, facilitated the session. 

Good life instead of profit maximisation
Polarstern's gas is made from organic residues like waste from the sugar-beet industry, which is generated anyway and does not have to be specially produced. Its electricity in turn comes exclusively from hydropower, with the company ensuring that the power plants have as little impact as possible on the ecosystem. This is achieved, for example, by constructing fish ladders or by funding riparian woodlands in order to create new spawning grounds. In addition, for each customer, the energy supplier helps a family in Cambodia to build its own biogas unit, so that it is no longer dependent on firewood and kerosene. "The energy turnaround in Germany is all well and good, but it only really makes sense if it has an impact worldwide", explains Assmann.  He sees the energy turnaround as an opportunity to restructure the economic system towards a greater common good. "The motto is: a good life for everyone instead of profit maximisation."

The Munich University of Applied Sciences' Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship (SCE) has championed the cause of supporting entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. For many students today are no longer necessarily aspiring to a traditional career, but are wondering how they can help shape the future. The focus is therefore more on personal fulfilment and meaningful work than on earning lots of money. "I think that we, as a University, must encourage these young people to create an impact", said CEO Sailer. He added that the energy sector in particular offered many possibilities, as big groups were, by their nature, slow at bringing new ideas into the world.

Support bears fruit
"Our guiding principle at the University is to create a culture of innovation. We want to train entrepreneurial personalities who can take on responsibility and act on their own initiative", was how Sailer outlined the job of the SCE. Whether the training ended with a start-up was not so important. After all, it was also possible to bring one's entrepreneurial thinking into an existing company. A good example of where the SCE's support has borne fruit is Mobile Hydro. This is a small rotor that produces electricity in flowing water via a generator and is well-suited to use in developing countries. Another project is Pioniernetz, which the founders hope will revolutionise the energy market with a private grid connection. Besides training students and supporting good ideas, the SCE also focuses on finding cooperation partners. "As a University, we can put start-ups in touch with established companies and thereby do a lot to get innovative ideas accepted", said Sailer.

As a globally operating reinsurer, Munich Re has been dealing strategically with climate change for years. This is because, for one thing, higher and higher losses threaten insurers' business models. And for another, insurance companies are seen as part of the solution when it comes to raising risk awareness and identifying possible new solutions. "In the case of renewables, the insurance industry is able to support developments in technology by assuming risks", Thomas Bischof explained. Thus, for example, the owner of a photovoltaic system can take out insurance not only against hail but also against the risk of of the system not providing the promised output.

In lively discussions with the participants we debated further solutions to fight climate change. 

Innovations through climate risk insurance
Other solutions are aimed at better getting to grips with the consequences of climate change. "The key term here is 'climate risk insurance'. Through a partnership between policymakers and the insurance sector, an insurance was created for developing countries which pays out as soon as certain parameters such as wind strength or amount of precipitation are reached", explained the Head of Group Development at Munich Re. The actual damage is irrelevant. This area of insurance provides positive impetus in countries with low insurance penetration and high weather risks.

"Innovation is an elementary component for us. Where we reach limits within the company, we focus on partnerships with universities or start-ups." For example, Munich Re supported the Franco-German initiative POC21 (proof of concept), in which creative minds from all around the world, together with representatives from NGOs, research and business, developed innovative solutions for a climate-neutral and resource-efficient future. Another point of contact is the Impact Hub in Munich, where new ideas also emerge. "Munich Re is currently supporting four initiatives within this framework, and we hope that these will result in four companies that make the world a better place", Bischof emphasised.  

Eight out of ten fall by the wayside
The fact that, out of a total of 18,000 students at the Munich University of Applied Sciences, SCE provides support for only around 200 student teams, resulting in 25 to 30 successful start-ups, demonstrates how hard the process of establishing start-ups is. "That's not so many", Klaus Sailer concedes, "but ten years ago there was hardly anyone bold enough to take this step." And once someone has taken the plunge and created their own company, they also have to establish themselves sustainably in the market. "Eight out of ten start-ups do not succeed, not so much because the product is not right, but because the critical mass is lacking", acknowledges Sailer.

Every year, altogether 1,200 to 1,500 students do an SCE entrepreneurship course. "We could do with even more support from politicians", says the CEO. A lot more money could also be spent on sustainable education, not only in universities but also in schools or nurseries. These would be wisely invested funds for implanting greater awareness of sustainability in people's minds.

One thing is clear: the challenges posed by climate change are so great that it would be foolhardy to believe that one person could solve the problems on their own. Policies will not stop climate change. Ultimately, it will be the many small and good ideas that provide the necessary impetus for a future worth living.

28 October 2016