Origin Story Interview w/ Will Wiseman, Climatize

Origin Story Interview w/ Will Wiseman, Climatize

Brighter Future

 / 

May 10, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #ClimateAction #CleanEnergyInvesting #microinvestments #appdevelopment #impactinvesting

Brighter Future

We’re joined by Will Wiseman, CEO and co-founder of Climatize, an app that allows users to contribute pocket change from every purchase toward micro-investments in profitable, eco-friendly projects.

Thanks so much for being here, Will. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your company?

My name is Will Wiseman, and I am the CEO and co-founder of Climatize. We offer a mobile app for individuals who experience climate anxiety, and want to do something about it. Climatize provides easy and transparent investments directly into solar projects in your community or energy efficiency upgrades for multi-tenant buildings. In addition, we offer investment opportunities in a broad range of climate solutions where you can earn a return on your investment.

For example, unlike a carbon credit, where you might purchase a nature-based solution like planting trees, we provide more transparency around the project's location, the communities it can help, and its potential impact. You get to witness projects come to life and take pride in knowing that your money has contributed to their creation.

Our offering is different in that it supports climate action and can provide a return on investment. We’re excited to be here today and to share more about our mission.

To whom are you directly speaking through Climatize? Are you addressing the investors, or do you have a different target audience?

Our product is aimed at consumers— the average person, really— and can be downloaded from the Apple App Store. Its purpose is to assist everyone in taking climate action. On the backend, we collaborate with project developers.

We also partner with the US Department of Energy, and so far we’ve secured approximately $2 billion worth of climate projects. These projects have a significant environmental and social impact, making them a great intersection. What we do is help these projects obtain funding and enable them to accelerate their project deployment. Interestingly, our research showed that projects under $10 million were frequently financed entirely by equity— or, barring that, they weren’t financed at all.

So we identified an underbanked segment of these projects, and we believe that there are significant opportunities to provide investment opportunities to retail investors. We accomplish this using the crowdfunding framework, which is a non-traditional approach in the US, but a well-established business model in the EU.

During my master's degree studies in Europe, I observed the potential of the crowdfunding model, and noticed that it had recently grown into a fairly exciting industry. Crowdfunding has only become a viable business model in the US recently, after regulatory rules were modified in 2021. After that happened, my co-founder and I decided to relocate the company to the US, which is why we are here today.

Did you initially start in Europe before pivoting to the US, or is the US a second location for you? How did that process work?

We began building our product in Spain. My co-founder and I started working together while pursuing our first master's degree in energy engineering at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona, a polytechnic university. We recognised that regulatory constraints would make it very difficult for us to succeed in Europe: for instance, if we were headquartered in Spain, we would only be able to execute projects in Spain; if we wanted to fund a project in Germany, we would need regulatory approval from German regulators.

As you can imagine, the complexity exponentially increased as we considered cultural differences, language barriers, and other regulatory approvals, and it became a pretty large challenge to achieve scale.

We decided to pivot to the US because we realised it was a much larger market under one regulator, one primary language, and one currency. It was much easier to envision a clear path to scale and impact by launching our product in the United States.

Where did your career in the climate space begin before starting Climatize?

I have been a lifelong climate professional, and my journey in the climate industry started when I was 17. To pay for college, I began putting solar panels on roofs and saw it as an opportunity to learn the trades from the ground up. This experience helped me pay for my mechanical engineering degree while gaining a holistic approach to the industry. I started as a solar installer, doing the wiring for panels and inverters, and eventually I moved into designing systems and running CAD models. As I gained more experience, I recognised that capital was a major enabler in the industry and shifted my focus to the financing side.

I have worked in various roles, including at a seed-stage AI for a renewable energy power forecasting company named Nnergix, in Barcelona. I also worked in large-scale electrical project management with Helix Electric in San Diego. During my project management work, I recognised that I wanted to have a greater impact on the industry. This realisation drove me to pursue advanced education, and I obtained two master's degrees with the aim of creating as much impact as possible.

Through my classes and reading, I studied various technologies— such as wind, solar, hydro, battery storage, hydrogen, and nuclear. Still, I recognised that it was almost impossible to be a master of them all. At that point, I decided to take a zoomed-out approach and focus on the financing side of the industry. My goal was to enable specialists to do the work they’re passionate about and help accelerate their journeys from a financing perspective.

I’d like to go back and look at your roots. How were these values instilled in you during your teenage years, and when you began your career? Where did that come from?

I had a somewhat unique childhood; my father was a marine biologist and a professional underwater photographer. His work took us to the most far-flung corners of the world, and pristine reefs. I was lucky to grow up immersed in nature and multicultural experiences. I grew up in the ocean, really, and that privilege earlier in my life has allowed me to, unfortunately, make comparisons between many reefs as they used to be, and the reefs as they are today. I’ve witnessed the reefs beginning to die. I am afraid my future children may never see the beauty of these natural resources. This awareness of the problem from a young age drove my concern and climate anxiety.

As I began to wrap my young mind around what was happening, my father guided my journey through biology, and I began to understand natural systems. As we looked at the ocean and the impacts of climate change, such as ocean acidification, I understood that we may, in the near future, reach tipping points where biological systems on Earth could no longer keep up with the rate of change we humans created in the world.

In ocean acidification, excess carbon dioxide in the air creates higher-than-natural quantities of carbonic acid in the ocean by way of normal air/water interaction. This increased amount of carbonic acid raises the acidity of the ocean, and at a certain point, higher ocean acidity stops organisms from being able to form their shells, which simply dissolve into the water as they try to build them. This extends to the exoskeletons of micro-organisms like plankton.

Plankton probably can’t survive in a high-ocean-acidity climate scenario, and they’re an essential part of the biosphere. To pull that card out from the bottom of the metaphorical castle could collapse entire ecosystems— which a huge number of people depend upon worldwide. Awareness of this sort of thing, and other early lessons I had about our natural systems, got me worried at a pretty young age.

But I’ve always been pragmatic, seeking solutions and actionable problem-solving paths. As I became more aware of the problem of climate change, I sought ways to play my hand that leaned into my strengths. I joined engineering and became a systems thinker, recognising that clean energy is a keystone technology that enables us to decarbonise many other pieces of our macro economy. It starts with clean energy, then takes big bites out of the carbon footprint of transportation, manufacturing, logistics, heating, and electricity. All of these are enabled by having a clean energy system.

This is my central passion. It’s like the most interesting Rubik's cube in the world, intertwining the physics of our planet and universe with our economics, social systems, and geopolitics. It is a fun and dynamic space to work in, and fortunately, it is finally accelerating and getting the attention it deserves.

Did you know at a young age that you wanted to create your own business in this space, or was that later?

Given my dad's biology work, I'm fortunate that my parents had more of an entrepreneurial lifestyle. In that sense, I had seen what it meant to be an entrepreneur and to pursue it out of passion. Blending work that you love with what you do every day can bring you enormous joy.

So I had always had that inclination towards pursuing a venture, but I had never really landed on the right idea or understood what would drive that passion in me. Obviously, some major incumbents would be challenging to displace in the energy industry if I went into that, but even so, I would say that it was during my master's degree that my ideas solidified; that was a catalytic moment for myself and my co-founder.

So, rolling it back to 2019, the story of Climatize began when my co-founder, Alba Forns, and I joined the global climate strikes in Barcelona in 2019, pre-COVID. There were 100,000 people in the streets, and both her and myself couldn’t help but be struck by this feeling of hope and motivation. There was a moment when I stood on a bench and looked out over this sea of people, and everyone from every walk of life was demanding action. The sad reality hit us that we would all go home and nothing would change the next day. There was just this glaring problem. We needed to do something better than just make cardboard signs.

From that, she and I started trying to get to the root of this problem. How is it that we could have this public upwelling of demand and yet, at the top level, not actually see the action these people wanted? We conducted over 250 customer interviews, and we asked people: “What is it from a crowd that everyone could contribute?” From that, the idea surfaced that maybe everybody had a little bit of spare change, maybe 50 cents kicking around some drawer in their house, which wasn't a meaningful amount of money to an individual. Yet, collectively, it could be a lot of money.

If everyone from that hundred thousand pitched in 50 cents, that would be $50,000 that day, or $24 million if you did it every day for a year. Then, if you scaled that to the 7.6 million people who showed up for that strike that day, that would be $1.75 billion per year in their spare change, assuming roughly $20 per month per person.

We recognised from this that we needed to create a channel where the public could be active stakeholders in the energy transition. We wanted to help them shift from neutral bystanders to active stakeholders and give them the means to participate in the energy transition where they could share the benefits, not just watch as the world made this transition.

Can you tell us about your other project, Seeds Renewables?

I started Seeds Renewables with my current co-founder; you could say it was the initial kernel of what is now Climatize. We were about to seek regulatory approval for our initial project in Spain when we won grant funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. At that time, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the US increased the ceiling for regulated crowdfunding from $1 million to $5 million. This change presented a meaningful opportunity for clean energy projects, allowing us to build community solar, upgrade energy efficiency, and support various other projects. We saw that the US market had more potential than the Spanish one, so we wound down the company in Spain and reincorporated it in the US. It was a tough pivot, and we had to downsize our team of 12 to 2. It felt a little like burning down everything we had built. But we were committed to our mission and passion for clean energy, and now we’re in the final stages of regulatory approval. We’ll be live incredibly soon.

Did you face any other significant challenges on your entrepreneurial journey besides transitioning to Climatize? Or was this the most significant challenge you've faced since starting your business?

This one was the most difficult. Thankfully, when we arrived in the US, we partnered with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which provided us with grant funding, helped us connect with the right people, and opened doors for us to project developers. As a result, we could get back on our feet, begin signing letters of intent, and rebuild our project pipeline.

Some of the technology and prototypes we had developed were transferrable, as were some of the early funds we had raised from friends and family. First, however, we needed to re-evaluate the market, align ourselves with customers, and become aware of the cultural differences between Europe and the US to communicate with US clients effectively.

It was challenging to start from scratch again after shutting down everything we had worked on for two years. But as founders, it made us stronger, enabling us to learn from our experiences and begin anew with a clean slate. It was a blessing because we learned so much from our mistakes in our first company. When we were able to rebuild the same company from the ashes of its first form, it was a unique opportunity to start fresh, and we learned and grew a lot from the experience.

What were the mistakes from which you learned the most? What were the mistakes and lessons learned from your first company?

One of the lessons learned is to get good legal advice. We're fortunate that we secured pro bono legal representation by Morris & Forster upon coming to the US. They have been our guardian angels through this process, and I am eternally grateful to Kelley Howes and Wonnie Lee at Morrison & Foerster for guiding us through this journey. Seeing how to build a well-founded company from a legal perspective and having all the appropriate corporate documentation, structure, and governance in place has been an excellent learning experience.

Hiring and finding the right people is also crucial. The first time around, we thought it was about getting as many hands on deck as possible to help our mission. However, restarting in the US, we recognised that a smaller, A-plus veteran team could achieve as much or more quickly as a semi-intern team. As we made that transition, we recognised that it's not just about hands on deck but about skills, value and cultural alignment, and abilities. You can have skilled and talented people, but if they're not culturally aligned with the company, they won't have what it takes to work in a demanding startup like ours where you wear many hats. Likewise, to build a great company, you must be very valued and mission-aligned with the team. Therefore, we've transitioned from all hands on deck to strictly A-plus, super value-aligned folks, and this awareness of what it takes to build a top-tier company has been one of the best lessons learned.

It can be challenging to stay grounded and keep a clear head when going through difficult times, especially as a founder and CEO. How do you manage that?

Well, having a co-founder has been incredibly helpful for me. My co-founder Alba has a different perspective on my topics. As a founder and CEO, you can become very emotionally invested in the company, the mission, and the product. As a result, rejections can feel like personal failures and lead to emotional highs and lows. However, Alba can give me tough feedback and help me stay focused.

Living in the redwood forest outside of the Bay Area is also a helpful reminder of why I work in climate and fight for climate action. Sometimes, I have to step back and disconnect, taking a walk and putting everything aside. The pressure on founders, especially CEOs, can feel overwhelming, but keeping perspective is crucial.

Our company's mission keeps us going, and failure is not an option regarding climate change. While balancing the highs and lows can be challenging, experience helps plot a middle-ground path. In the grand scheme, setbacks may feel like life or death, but often they are not. Instead, time and experience teach us to keep things in perspective and move forward.

During the journey of your life, have you had any big epiphanies or “Aha!” moments that have changed your perspective or how you approach certain things in life and business?

One of the most interesting lessons I learned was during my master's degree, a blended program combining entrepreneurship and technical degrees. Often in education and an engineer's path, one must focus heavily on technical skills necessary for designing structures like bridges and planes. However, I've become more aware of the engineer's ability to apply systems-thinking to business.

Business can be thought of and diagnosed similarly to an engine. One can analyse inputs and outputs to identify what levers and dials can be adjusted to maximise desired business outcomes. When engineers apply the same degree of engineering and systems thinking to their business, they can approach business uniquely and effectively.

I've learned that engineers equipped with business skills and understanding are a dual-edged sword because they bring a technical understanding of the world, which allows them to have nuanced conversations with clients while also understanding what is needed from a business perspective to achieve profitable outcomes. Engineers with a fundamental understanding of physics and chemistry plus the operating system of society like finance, legal structures, HR, and hiring can add significant value to any organisation they work for.

Unfortunately, engineers are often under-equipped in these areas. Still, the more they can equip themselves with a fundamental understanding of various operating systems, the more they can contribute to their organisations. With a good perspective on what they're building, engineers can round out their awareness of the world and create more effective solutions.

What do you consider to be the most fulfilling aspect of your work?

To be frank, the most fulfilling aspect of my work is proving people wrong. So many have told us along the way that our idea is completely crazy and that it will never work. Despite this, we persistently take steps forward and focus on each deliverable that leads us closer to a milestone. Looking back on where the idea began, it seems simple: the ability to contribute spare change to a clean energy project. However, someone told us it was a terrible idea on the first day. Yet, here we are, still building and impacting the world. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to show the world that even when people say no and tell you your idea won't work, you can continue to take steps, be committed, and build what you believe the world needs. It's an extremely gratifying journey.

Another fulfilling aspect is being able to build clean energy projects. I am the ideal customer persona for our product. As we shipped the beta and got the product out into the world, linking my credit card and contributing the spare change from my lunch to help build solar projects for low-income families gave me enormous satisfaction with every transaction. It made me feel amazing to know I contributed to something good with every purchase. I want to share that emotional experience with our customers daily and tell them that every purchase builds a better world. It's just hugely gratifying. I can't wait to share it with the world.

Have you ever taken a completely different direction than planned, unrelated to your career, and pivoted into something unexpected?

My first job ever was in a particle physics lab. It was not a typical high school internship for a 16-year-old, for sure, but I found it fascinating. We were working on the smallest concepts of the fabric of the universe, and it sparked a genuine curiosity in me for astrophysics and particle physics. The US Department of Energy’s announcements about fusion, like the recent achievement of fusion ignition, ignited my passion and curiosity for that field. I am thrilled for the Department of Energy and the Lawrence National Research Lab for their remarkable accomplishments in this area, which we had thought would take decades to achieve.

Although it was a step away from the world of clean energy, the engineering work I did then helped frame my awareness of energy as an industry. It made me more aware so that when I dug into solar energy, I could apply the lessons from particle physics to my early understanding of how solar panels work, including the chemical doping of those panels. This cascaded into my interest in clean energy.

In college, I led a group of engineers in designing a semi-autonomous robot for pulling plastic out of the oceans. The concept resembled a giant Roomba for the ocean, with a conveyor belt attached to a catamaran. We designed the conveyor belt system to trawl through the Pacific Ocean gyres, collect plastic, and offload it to a shipping container. It was a cool project that helped us become more aware of plastic pollution and contribute to solving it. Although it was not ultimately what I pursued in the long run, it was a valuable experience.

That sounds very interesting. If you weren’t in your current field, what job do you think you would be working on now?

If I had to transition out of clean energy, I would consider working in the startup ecosystem, perhaps in the accelerator space. I felt fortunate to have gone through the Techstars Boulder accelerator and built a close relationship with our managing director, Elle Bruno. Witnessing the impact these people can have on a startup's journey was incredibly rewarding. Helping entrepreneurs find their paths and build their dreams would be a fruitful and satisfying opportunity. It's an interesting industry that encourages curiosity and problem-solving and demands various skills. The challenge would be highly rewarding, and I would love to support entrepreneurs in any way possible during their early journeys.

What were your most significant compromises to get where you are today?

When you're founding a company, it becomes all-consuming. It takes up your mental space, time, and resources. Building the company has taken priority over some social activities. Frankly, it takes time to prioritise a partner or even friends at times. I've missed my friends' bachelor parties to pursue contests in New York. There are times where you just can't do both. I'm only 26; while my friends explore and go on adventures, I'm here, fully committed to the company. Sometimes, I want to go to Coachella or backpack through Argentina, but my mission is to build what we're building for now. Although there are sacrifices and trade-offs, I'm here having this conversation because I've decided my path. This startup journey will eventually take me where I want to go.

What future do you envision to help create with Climatize?

I aim to help people invest a billion dollars annually in clean energy projects within five years. This is what I want to contribute to the world. I believe that Climatize has enormous potential to unlock this capital from the public and give them a meaningful place at the table concerning climate action. We are at a tipping point regarding public awareness, concern, and demand for climate action. This conversation was nonexistent when I started working in the industry in 2014. But now? Companies are signalling their transitions, and we even see electric vehicle ads in the Super Bowl. That was unthinkable in 2014.

As we transition the consumer psyche to being more aware of climate and sustainability, we have a great opportunity to bring them in as investors.

Having been on this journey, I think about the cultural transitions and the global awareness of climate action. We must be aware of these transitions, because yesterday does not equal today, and today does not equal tomorrow. Climatize has a meaningful place in providing everyday people with a chance to benefit from the energy transition in a way that was once exclusively reserved for nation-states and gas exporters like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, whose entire economies are propped up by energy revenues. Private companies like BP, Shell, and Chevron are also profoundly wealthy from the money generated from energy. Now, democratising access to that asset class and offering everyday people the means to benefit financially and potentially build wealth from investing in this asset class is an exciting opportunity.

I look forward to seeing the place that Climatize finds in the market and the impact we can create over the next few years.

What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs in the climate space or to people who are considering building a business in the climate space in the future?

One thing people often hesitate about is thinking they need a background in climate, but that's not the case. Many companies have job opportunities in marketing, finance, legal, and business development, so there is a place for everyone. Check out Climatebase.org if you're curious about climate involvement. It's one of the best organisations for helping people find jobs and transition towards climate.

If you're looking to start a climate company, now is the best time. In 2020 and 2021, more capital was raised for climate venture capital than ever, and an enormous amount of capital is seeking investable opportunities for climate startups. So, if you have a good idea about where there's a disruption opportunity, start validating that idea. Of course, the first and most important thing is to ensure there is market demand and a gap to be filled. Running a thorough scientific process to validate your hypotheses is a great way to start.

Then, take the plunge and start. You don't have to quit your job and go all-in on day one, but you must start. This is the hardest step for most people. Don't expect it to be a three-month or nine-month journey. It's a multi-year journey that may take seven to ten years if you're lucky. However, the path is extremely rewarding in terms of the people you will meet, the ways you will grow, and the opportunities that will present themselves along the way.

I'll share one micro-story from my experience. While doing my master's program in Europe at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, my co-founder and I met Greta Thunberg, whom we had been following on Instagram. We stumbled on her while she was protesting at the parliament building, and it was like meeting a superhero for us. I was a huge fanboy, and admittedly, I was super shy. I'm never shy! But I was super shy here.

So I can say that this startup journey has connected me with some of my heroes. By taking that leap of faith and leaving your comfort zone, you will find that opportunities materialise and surprise you profoundly.

What message would you like people to take from your journey as a young climate entrepreneur?

The time to act is now. We can’t afford to wait. Every gram of carbon that enters our atmosphere eats away at our remaining budget to prevent the worst of climate change. So I suggest taking action and getting up to speed on what is happening. As we move towards macro decarbonisation, there will be opportunities for everyone, whether in activism, underwriting and financing, business development, or event hosting. It's not just for people with master's degrees or engineers anymore. The industry needs more diversity, and all voices must be heard and recognised to ensure that the energy transition is just and inclusive, leaving no one behind. Think of it as catching a wave while surfing; you have to start paddling early to catch it. The wave is here; it's time to act.

If there were one lasting message that could reach anyone, not just entrepreneurs, what would it be?

Well, again: we need to act now. There is no time to waste. Every contribution matters, no matter how small. Whether it's the type of water bottle you choose, the car you drive, or how you invest your money; every single contribution matters because this is a global issue, and there are no boundaries to this crisis. Every decision you make matters: from where you work to where you bank. How you use your money, especially where you bank and how you invest, is crucial to moving the needle towards taking action on climate.

The most impactful thing you can do is think about how you spend your time.

Thank you for giving some of your time to us, Will. Your idea to help the average person invest in climate action for a little as $5 is inspiring, and we wish you a great many productive years in the fight to save the biosphere.

If you’d like to see more from Climatize, his website can be found at www.climatize.earth.

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