Building an effective commercial team for your climate business
Climate startups will play an essential role in the transition to a decarbonized economy, but many fail before they can make a dent in the market. Hardware and deep tech solutions face unique challenges compared to fast-moving industries like software. Common roadblocks in the path to commercialization include securing early partners and customers amidst technical risk, navigating partnerships with slow-moving enterprises, and helping craft a business package for repeatable deployments.
These responsibilities largely fall under the umbrella of business development. A strong BD team is essential for finding the best path to market, ensuring their companies don’t fall into the climate tech ‘valley of death’ and realize their potential to upend entrenched industries.
So how can climate startups build a dynamic and effective business development team? To find out, we talked to nine commercial leaders from some of the fastest-growing deeptech startups in climate. This piece is the product of a collaboration between Enduring Planet and Will Reynolds.
How effective BD fits into your startup
While business development (BD) is pivotal throughout your startup's journey, it changes significantly across two distinct stages:
BD in phase one
In a startup’s chaotic early stages, effective business development teams find early supporters, create a thorough understanding of the industry, and ensure that customer needs are accurately reflected in product development.
Companies without the deep market knowledge and regular and close relationships with customers may raise initial funding and charge ahead with their early product plans, but are doomed to fail when corporate buyers do not actually want their product.
Many of the most successful climate startups have undergone major pivots at this stage. For example, Cruz Foam switched from selling its polystyrene replacement to surfboard companies to serving the faster-moving cold-chain industry. Cemvita’s three commercialized microbial products did not exist during their first fundraise, and were developed while experimenting with corporate partners. Infinium (>$100M raised) shifted its technology to produce electrofuels solely from waste CO2 instead of natural gas as a feedstock.
BD in phase two
Once a deep tech company has early sales or partnerships, the BD team continues to provide market feedback and execute on the initial sales strategy, but also starts to develop mature processes to scale sales and marketing functions. The team must also increasingly support manufacturing and deployment, helping to coordinate a wide range of stakeholders including financing partners, off-takers, and regulators.
BD teams during “phase two” are hugely aided by having team members with prior commercial expertise (i.e. operational and partnerships experience) in similar industries.
BD insights from the best in the business
1. Creativity plus industry understanding is a killer combination
Understanding your industry and customers is non-negotiable, but that alone won’t cut it. Running a thriving climate startup also requires innovation and out-of-the-box thinking - everyone interviewed mentioned their best outcomes stemmed from experimentation.
This experimentation and creativity can (and should) happen at every level of BD, from recruiting to how you structure partnerships. For example, Trevor Best of Syzygy, along with a number of other interviewees, shared the importance of hiring both industry experts and outsiders willing to question typical sales/marketing assumptions. Syzygy is also testing multiple routes to market with their first three commercial trials: each deployment tests a different partnership model, financing arrangement, and geography.
Daniel Betts of Blue Frontier further emphasized the experimentation ethos in the early stages of a company. He advised startups to understand their industry so well that they can creatively “jujitsu it”. In the case of Blue Frontier, they developed their solution to simultaneously meet the desires of all critical stakeholders (consumers, commercial building owners, and utilities) so the whole industry could adopt it en masse with relative ease.
2. Bring the best of Silicon Valley to the table
Hundreds of startups have failed by creating a smart-seeming product that no one actually buys. Just because you can improve efficiency by 10-20%, doesn’t mean customers will actually make the switch, says Daniel of Blue Frontier.
Effective business development teams must work to understand a customer’s pain-points and help the technology team center them while creating an exceptional product. As Adrienne Pierce of New Sun Road said, you could design an incredibly sustainable and efficient mousetrap, but if it doesn't solve the city’s rat problem, it’s sure to fail.
The emphasis on working with customers earlier than you’re comfortable with was a common refrain across experts. Ideally, you should continuously and consistently run interviews across a broad array of stakeholders to understand their needs, test different business models, and prepare to pivot if your product doesn’t resonate.
What these points all have in common, as Tom Richardson, Solugen’s CCO, pointed out, is they embody the product management mindset from Silicon Valley. Even chemical companies can borrow from the best practices developed throughout technology’s last twenty years of prominence. Particularly, SV’s customer-first approach: using clients’ problems as a starting point and iterating alongside them to avoid building your product in a vacuum.
3. Know the difference: practical deployment expertise delivers outsized value in deep tech
While the Silicon Valley mantra of ‘move fast and break things’ might work for sectors like SaaS, deep tech is not as forgiving and comes with unique and unavoidable challenges. These are most evident in the struggles startups face when it comes to deployment, like cost-overruns, difficulties with project fundraising, etc - so, commercialization expertise is critical.
Whether you have the knowledge in-house or approach consultants early on, BD teams need to have a solid understanding of the fundamentals and stumbling blocks involved in putting together a deep tech project. This includes everything from the design of the supply chain, to financial structuring, to crafting (and modifying) engineering plans.
Keep in mind, this knowledge is not just about managing risk but can also bring other benefits. According to Deanna Chang and Sam D’Amico of Impulse Labs, co-developing with overseas manufacturing has cut their costs by an order of magnitude and enabled them to speed up their product deployment by hiring extra capacity from their partner’s team.
4. Remember, deep-tech sales are still sales
The value of fundamentals like using a quality CRM or segmenting customers cropped up in every interview, highlighting that even with highly technical deep tech solutions, you can’t overlook traditional sales tools.
While your revolutionary product may pass techno-economic analyses, good sales still require leveraging human psychology - as illustrated by a story from Trevor of Syzygy. While trying to raise a Series C, conversations with investors (and customers) were dragging on. But in the eight hours after closing a deal with their first major customer, Syzygy’s team closed a $76M fundraising round and finalized negotiations on the next two rounds of commercial trials. Because they had already taken steps to cultivate these relationships, the Syzygy team could quickly parlay the validation of that first major deal into pressure, finally getting key stakeholders to take the leap.
5. Show, don’t tell
No matter how comprehensively you describe your technology, many customers won’t trust what you’re doing until they see it with their own eyes or feel it with their hands. But once they do, say Cruz Foam and Cambium Carbon, things start to become real - and so does the money on the table. This is why providing product samples to early customers is an incredibly effective tool across the industry.
Another way to build trust is to invite investors (and customers) directly into your lab, like the Cemvita team did early on. It’s much easier to believe in the impact and reality of a frontier technology if you can see scientists working in real time.
If showing people your technology in real life isn’t possible, consider creating videos to show off its capabilities but be mindful of potential drawbacks. If the video feels gimmicky or too “market-y”, buyers might be turned away. Stick to the key factors that your customers care about and don’t overproduce.
6. Authenticity is core to conversions - and long-term success
When you’re selling in niche industries with a limited number of major players, everyone knows each other. And as Sylvatex’s Brooks Chiongbian points out, if you don’t prioritize honesty, word will get around these tight knit industries.
This is where a consultative sales approach can be invaluable. Consultative selling, as opposed to transactional sales, prioritizes relationships and open dialogue to address a customer's needs. Toby Corey of Cruz Foam, former Global VP of Energy Sales at Tesla, found it both lowered their costs and boosted conversions compared to outbound sales.
The linchpin of this strategy is authenticity. Every customer has different pressures and priorities. If you approach the sale with a focus on understanding and addressing these pressures and priorities, the customer will want to work with you and consider you a part of their extended “team”. Be transparent - if the product isn’t a fit for this particular customer, say so. You’ll lose some sales, but far outweigh that in saved time and trust for long-term business.
This work was led by Will Reynolds. Will has worked with climate investors across various stages, including Aera VC, Helena, SOUNDWaves, and Enduring Planet. Responsible for sourcing Aera’s first India investment, analyzing sectors ranging from ocean alkalinity enhancement to green hydrogen, and building partnerships across EU/US incubators, Will is passionate about bringing science to reality. His journey started interning in operations for startups in San Francisco, London, and Hong Kong, and he completed a B.S. in computer and environmental science at Duke University. Will is a skiing and coffee fanatic, offers barista and waterskiing lessons, and can be found singing off-pitch during Arsenal football matches.
And a huge thanks to our suite of interviewees from extraordinary climate companies who contributed insights. These contributors are reshaping our world as we speak, with a collective $900M raised for their companies:
- Tom Richardson, interim CCO of Solugen (creating green alternatives to chemicals usually derived from crude oil).
- Adrienne Pierce, CEO at New Sun Road (better micro-grid solutions with partnerships including PG&E and Microsoft)
- Toby Corey, Executive Chairman at Cruz Foam (replacing polystyrene and cold storage packaging). Former CRO at SolarCity and VP of Energy Sales at Tesla
- Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita (leveraging microbes’ strengths to decarbonize heavy industry and create new fuels).
- Daniel Betts, CEO of Blue Frontier, Inc. (backed by Breakthrough Energy and 2150 to reshape commercial air conditioning)
- Trevor Best, CEO at Syzygy Plasmonics (disrupting chemical manufacturing with low energy reactors)
- Deanna Chang, VP of Marketing at Impulse Labs (recreating electric home appliances)
- Charlie Nelson, independent commercialization specialist (with project development experience across deploying fuel infrastructure and hydrogen)
- Brooks Chiongbian, Corporate Development at Sylvatex (disrupting the production of cathode active materials for cheaper lithium batteries)