Q: What do you get if you cross a venture capitalist, an iceberg and a girl dying of thirst?
A: The possibility of a whole new world.
What could truly change the world? There are many events or discoveries that could have a big impact, but few with the potential to transform our existence: a global nuclear war, an incurable fatal disease or the discovery of extra-terrestrial life are some contenders. We are talking about phenomena on a monumental scale - such as the discovery of a free, clean and abundant energy supply. Allow me to tell you a tale.
Act I “The brightest and best”
I took part in a conversation last year that so radically adjusted my perspective on the future, I came away invigorated. The interview was with Justin Hall-Tipping, the well-mannered and softly spoken CEO of Nanoholdings, and what we discussed was so revolutionary, so innovative and so driven, that it totally altered what seemed possible within my mind.
Nanoholdings describes itself as a collaboration between scientists, investors and innovators, working at the cutting-edge of nanotechnology to develop solutions to the world’s growing energy problems. Englishman, Hall-Tipping, founded the company in 2000. He was a successful venture capitalist with an interest in nanotechnology; an area he realised was about to become a major technological force that could have a huge impact on the energy sector.
By collaborating with elite scientists at top universities around the world, Nanoholdings has spawned dozens of patents, and companies that create innovative products such as energy efficient, flexible electronic displays or produce concrete with zero carbon dioxide emissions.
“We find the best and brightest in their field and present the most challenging problems we face today,” Hall-Tipping explains. “Like finding a solution to our global need for clean water. To solve this we ask the most brilliant minds to imagine a device that could take a cup of water out of the sea and without any power purify it to create a drinkable cup of water. We know how really, really difficult this problem is to solve, which is why we’ve chosen to invest in first-rate scientists at universities who’ll take this type of challenge on. And whether they succeed or fail, we know they are reaching far enough to eventually find the solution. “
100,000 smaller than the width of a hair, yet 1,000 times more conductive than copper
It was the TED lecture Hall-Tipping delivered that grabbed my attention. The talk focussed on the incredible breakthroughs the team have made in harnessing the colossal power the sun delivers.
The first involves carbon, they vaporise graphite. It then condenses again but in a different form, like rolled-up chicken wire. This carbon nanotube is 100,000 smaller than the width of a hair, yet 1,000 times more conductive than copper. Nanoscale carbon is transparent, flexible and, if combined with a polymer, can be controlled to allow all the sun’s heat and light into a room, reflect all the heat and light away, or any combination in-between.
The second innovation is a blend of two nanomaterials, again unimaginably thin and transparent. Together, they take infrared light available at night and convert it into electrons to allow you to see clearly in the dark when the film is looked through. By combining this with the altered carbon, they are able to convert the sun’s energy into electrons on a flexible, transparent plastic surface that can be placed anywhere.
This type of innovation enables the creation of cheap, clean energy, efficiently in our own homes. It would also be a big step towards solving the huge energy and pollution problems the world faces.
Act II “The photo stopped me cold”
But there are twists to this tale. It’s not just a straightforward story about a company that could change the world. The motivation behind the company is a story in itself. For nearly two decades, Hall-Tipping has carried a photograph in his wallet, torn from a newspaper: a picture of small girl in Africa, collapsed on the ground from dehydration.
“The photo stopped me cold,” Hall-Tipping recalls. “ You see the child, then your eye is drawn to the vulture waiting behind. I thought, whose child? How did this happen? I put it in my pocket, but I couldn’t forget it. Then I read about Kevin Carter, the photographer. Tragedy is, 6 months after taking the photo he committed suicide. His note says he got to a point where the absence of joy means the absence of life. That became a driving force for me in life. I thought, if I met his parents, I would say ‘ Your son changed what I think and do’, so that’s the path I set out.”
He did not find that path until the year 2000, when another newspaper photograph had a profound effect. An image of the B15 iceberg, over 1000 feet tall and 76 miles long, as it departed the Ross ice-shelf it had broken away from. The accompanying article described this as a normal event.
“I said, this is just wrong, something is upside down and what people are saying it is doesn’t pass the common sense test anymore. I don’t have to be a scientist to know when common sense has been thrown out of the window.”
The suffering and death that dehydration can bring combined with the reality of an altered world due to climate change saw the birth of Nanoholdings.
“Everyone needs to come up with their own answer. I have looked at the evidence and concluded that we are past the tipping point. The amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere today may be past the point of no return. Even if we stop doing what we do today that poisons our world, it appears to me it may be too late to reverse the harmful effects already created. For me, it’s a question of how bad is it and how do we slow it down?”
It can’t be denied that certain experts have been warning us for some time about the potential consequences of releasing lots of carbon. The surprise is how soon we seem to be feeling the effects.
“The cost of this harm will ultimately be felt by our children. At some point most of us will be saying, ‘we’re sorry for the harm we’ve done to this world, and now you’re going to have to fix it’. Or, we can do better ourselves. We should. We must. And in the doing better, we can find solutions.”
Act III “Refrigerator size, refrigerator price point, for everybody’s home”
Well, since they can capture the sun’s energy, Nanoholdings is now working on a storage device that parks an electron then releases it when the energy is required.
“At the moment it has lead acid batteries as it’s just a prototype power storage unit,” he expands. “We built the whole thing to see if we could do it: plug a wind turbine or any power source into it to feed the electrons into the storage unit.”
It works really well, so what are the next steps?
“We’re cycling through different materials to replace the lead acid battery, to come out with an electron storage device. When we get those two pieces together it will be of refrigerator size, refrigerator price point, for everybody’s home. The first prototype was about $80,000. The second is going to be about $17,000 to make. That says to me we’re already within spitting distance of solving that problem.
“Our whole mandate is to get power at the house and stored at the house, that at the margin each unit of electricity is free, because that’s what changes the world. There’ll be hardware costs to install, just like a refrigerator, but we’re shooting for those price points.”
And now, for the infinity-dollar question: how long until these products could be on the market?
“We work on a plan that says, when have we got to deliver this by? I originally chose 20 years. We’re 8 years in and our first products are already coming out. I have no doubt that most of the key pieces will be discovered in this time period. But the time frame has to be now because I believe we are in the urgent time.
“Our company has raised $30 million, so far; we’re doing another raise at the moment. If I said to you, with $30 million we’re going to change everything in energy, that that was my business plan from day one, you’d say, ‘you’re crazy!’ Well, we’ve got 15 pretty incredible ideas, but it will take more money to get it done.”
And here we meet the cliffhanger. Since I interviewed Hall-Tipping, the investment arena has become even more challenging. Investors’ two main questions are about returns: how much and how quickly? The economic climate dictates that financiers are even less willing to invest in longer-term, more experimental projects. Yet, if the Rockefeller Foundation had not provided a grant and 10 years patience to a certain Dr. Fleming, who had an instinct to investigate mould in a petri dish with no certain outcome, we would not have Penicillin.
Hall-Tipping still frequently receives emails of encouragement from around the world. Ordinary people who have seen his TED talk want to encourage him and thank him for the hope he has given them in trying to solve this vital issue. That is one of the reasons I contacted him. Nanoholdings’ Rockefeller may be just around the corner.
Let’s not kid ourselves that Nanoholdings is a purely humanitarian venture. It’s a business, with patents and licences. But in the days of widespread shortsighted and self-interested business practices, this company and its ethos demonstrate there is another way of doing things.
Over a coffee in South Kensington one cold morning, as the energy of the sun streamed through the glass windows, warming my skin, it felt like I was being presented with the perfect fusion of capitalism, compassion and entrepreneurism. A company led by a venture capitalist out to create a profitable business, made-up of top scientists from around the world working on projects that together open the door to awesome possibilities. All of them aiming to solve perhaps the greatest problem humanity has ever faced and make the future less bleak for the generations that will inherit the Earth.
To hear such optimistic thinking and positive motives is more than refreshing. If Nanoholdings exists, surely there must be other brilliant, compassionate minds out there striving to achieve similar goals. Granted, there will always be powerful forces pursuing their own agendas in the background, but it is encouraging to know that there are some crusaders trying to save Gotham from villains and itself.
“I do believe people are willing and actually asking for change,” Hall-Tipping considers. “They’re asking it of our leaders and they’re asking it of our companies. You’re seeing some of the questioning: why does the top 1% take everything?
“I get entrepreneurism because I am an entrepreneur. But the difference between the haves and the have-nots has never been wider; that can only go on for so long before the have-nots take it from the haves. I believe there is a fundamental there - what it means to be human; and it does mean to be compassionate, to have empathy and to do the right thing.”
Energy supply issues are hitting the headlines repeatedly and we need to be forestalling problems that are surfacing today. Shortages of fresh water are already causing issues in the Middle East, and it is estimated that the future cost of desalinating seawater to meet our needs will be up to $19 trillion - not going to happen.
Hall-Tipping makes an interesting statement: “Energy and water drive human existence. If you don’t have to worry about them, I think society changes.” It does make you think how different the world would be with those pressures removed.
I more than hope that Nanoholdings survives and succeeds. At the same time, I also hope that if they do triumph, the human race is capable of dealing with such a gift; that in a world with many material barriers removed, we would make the most of such an opportunity, without abusing the privileges such freedom would bring.