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With Hugo Mkhize

Breaking new ground with climate fellowships

Securing a fellowship can be a game-changing opportunity for climate entrepreneurs. These structured and demanding programs provide you with rigorous training, unparalleled networking opportunities, and sometimes, a sizable sum of cash.

Fellowships can last from a few weeks to years, with the intent to address the challenges faced by hard tech startups, such as longer development cycles, difficulty finding initial customers, and slow initial traction. Ultimately, the role of these programs is to provide the necessary support to overcome these challenges, and give founders access to all the resources they need to develop their technology and kickstart an impactful, successful business. 

In this piece, co-produced with Hugo Mkhize, we’ll look at why you shouldn’t overlook these pivotal opportunities, factors to consider before applying, and tips for winning a highly-coveted spot. This is the first of 5 pieces produced in partnership between Enduring Planet and Hugo, building on his research: A Financial Guidebook for U.S. Startups: Crossing Climate’s Valleys of Death and Achieving Scale.

Why you should participate in a fellowship program

1. Non-dilutive funding with no strings attached
When you embark on a fellowship program, you’ll typically be given a stipend to meet your living costs, as well as a sum - usually six figures - to help get your technology off the ground. All this cash generally comes equity-free, and you won’t have to pay it back. 

2. Tailored training and mentorships 
Fellowships involve an intensive curriculum of training sessions and workshops aimed at boosting your entrepreneurial skills across areas like marketing, leadership, board building, and business development. Throughout the program, you’ll also have access to the support and guidance of experts in the field through mentorships.

3. Exceptional networking opportunities 
As a fellow, you’ll be around a community of like-minded entrepreneurs, spurring connections that could lead to impactful partnerships down the line. The program will also give you opportunities to network with investors, unlocking funding opportunities, and help you build relationships with industry leaders, policy makers, IP attorneys, and fellow innovators.

4. Cutting-edge resources
Part of the fellowship package typically includes access to lab space, research facilities, and state of the art equipment - essentially, everything you need to complete initial development and validate your technology.

5. Exposure and credibility
These programs often provide opportunities for presenting your work at conferences and events, and having this spotlight on your work will increase the chances you’ll be noticed by investors and potential partners. Plus, having the name of a prestigious fellowship in your pitch deck will help you stand out above the crowd and bolster your business’s credibility.

Important factors when considering a fellowship

1. Competition is rife
Because they offer such a valuable opportunity for accelerating your technology and connecting with investors, fellowships tend to have very competitive application processes. Writing an application that’s strong enough to make the cut will require a significant time investment - which may come to nothing if you aren’t selected. 

2. Can you commit? 
Fellowships usually ask participants for full-time commitment. If you’re employed full-time, already running another business, or have other obligations, you’ll have to put them on hold. 

3. Rigid restrictions
Watch out for any terms and conditions which might impact your decision-making powers, business operations, or equity, as well as policies that affect the IP you generate through your work on the fellowship. Some fellowships may impose limits on external fundraising during the program to ensure complete focus on tech development. In this case, founders should be aware of such funding caps and plan their fundraising strategy accordingly. It’s up to you to do your homework and go into the program with your eyes open.

4. Travel and potential relocation
While some programs will allow you to be based anywhere, others are bound to a specific location and will ask you to relocate. Even if you can participate remotely, you could still be asked to regularly travel - potentially across the country - for workshops, training, or networking events.

5. Program focus
Certain fellowship programs, such as Activate, may specifically target science-based hard tech startups. Ensure that your company aligns with the program's focus and is eligible for the fellowship.

6. The devil is in the detail
Make sure you understand the financial structure of every payment you or your business receives. For example, it is not uncommon for R&D funding to be provided through a recoverable grant that will need to be paid back in the future (interest free). Recognize the triggers for grant repayment, such as reaching a specific fundraising threshold. Plan your financial strategy accordingly to avoid unexpected financial obligations.

Tips for your fellowship application

Focus on the tech
Above all, judges will be evaluating your technology, so your application should zero in on the fundamental advance it represents. Don’t get caught up in explaining the market opportunity at this stage - focus on driving home your tech’s innovative potential.

It’s also about your personal and leadership development
Recognize that one of the fellowship's key goals is to help fellows develop as leaders. In your application, reflect on your potential shortcomings and how you’d like to use the opportunity to focus on personal growth and decision-making skills, understanding that company success is a natural outcome of individual development.

Start customer discovery early
Learning to talk to customers and adapt your product based on their feedback is a critical part of running a business, so showing you’ve already had this experience will set you apart from other applicants.

Reach out before you apply
Reading a program’s website or attending a webinar won’t give you the full picture about whether it’s right for you. If you’re interested in a fellowship, reach out to current or previous participants to learn more about the demands of the program, their experience, and the application process. You can also reach out to staff members to get some early feedback on whether your technology is a good fit.

Get good at communicating your value proposition
Faced with such a selective application process, it’s essential that you can explain your project in a compelling and convincing way. The more practice you get, the better - one way to sharpen your skills is by doing an I-Corps program. 

Examples of climate fellowships

Activate Fellowship
A two-year fellowship aimed at helping entrepreneurial scientists and engineers bring their impactful technology to market. Fellows are provided with a yearly stipend of $100,000 plus benefits, as well as $100,000 in funding for research and development and further additional capital of at least $75,000. 

Breakthrough Energy Fellows
A program designed to spur the development of zero carbon technologies. There’s a one-year fellowship for scientists and engineers, offering funding worth $500,000 to develop and de-risk their technology, and a parallel fellowship for people with deep business expertise who’ll work on commercializing their climate tech solution.

Echoing Green Fellowship
The Echoing Green Fellowship offers leadership development, mental well-being support, $80,000 in seed funding, and a diverse community network, prioritizing leaders and communities less likely to connect with traditional investment and assessing lifelong leadership potential beyond conventional benchmarks. Over 18 months, fellows work across various issue areas, such as education, climate justice, human rights, and health, contributing to Echoing Green's mission of advancing equity.

Halcyon Climate Fellowship
Global initiative uniting founders to address climate challenges through various solutions. The program offers an 8-week in-person session in Washington, DC, providing expert training, a $10,000 equity-free living stipend, AWS cloud computing credits, technical support, access to mentors, bespoke training in business fundamentals and leadership, a worldwide community of impact-driven entrepreneurs, legal workshops, pro bono consulting from Deloitte, and one-on-one coaching with certified leadership coaches.

Year-long fellowship focused on climate solutions, where fellows build startups around technologies licensed from national labs and universities and receive $100,00 in milestone-based funding. The program also offers mentorship, industry access, and guidance in patent licensing, aiming to equip fellows with validated startups and make them competitive applicants for downstream incubators and funding opportunities. 

Larta Institute Venture Fellows Program
9-month part-time program investing in diverse innovators to pilot climate change solutions, emphasizing urban resilience. It provides mentoring, connections, and resources, with two tracks catering to different idea stages, offering $100,000 in funding, legal support, and access to investors and grants.

Newlab Founder Fellowship
Selects 5 climate tech founders from underrepresented backgrounds, offering them a 6-month program with a Newlab full-time membership, storytelling workshops, expert advisory sessions, community support, mentorship, investor connections, and a $30,000 award. The fellowship aims to break barriers and cultivate an inclusive community for founders focusing on mobility, energy, and materials.

776 Fellowship
A two-year program providing a $100,000 grant and support from the Seven Seven Six network for young people aged 18-24. Aimed at fostering early-stage problem-solvers, the program selects 20 participants, offering them the resources and community needed to dedicate two years to developing impactful ideas, particularly focusing on urgent challenges like climate change.

Hugo Mkhize is currently an MBA candidate at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge with a concentration on Energy & the Environment. Prior to that, he completed the Master of Advanced Studies in Climate Science & Policy (MAS CSP) program at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. During this time, he compiled a financial strategy manual titled “A Financial Guidebook for U.S. Startups: Crossing Climate’s Valleys of Death and Achieving Scale.” As part of this body of work, intended for academic founders, he conducted interviews with 44 industry practitioners, Climate Tech founders and CEOs, and funding organizations.

Professionally, he previously spent 5 years at Morgan Stanley, a global Investment Bank. Across both Johannesburg and London, he worked on M&A and capital markets transactions in the renewable energy, environmental services, and infrastructure spaces.


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