Twitter co-founder puts energy into clean tech
SHORTLY before going on stage at the opening ceremony of this year’s Climate Week in New York, Evan Williams tweeted a picture of Tony Blair at the podium, using his most famous creation to share a view of the world he moves in.
As co-founder of two of the most successful social media platforms of the past decade, Twitter and Blogger, Williams has an unassailable status as an internet entrepreneur.
At 40, he is trying something very different. In the words of the Obvious Corporation, the business incubator firm that is his principal focus, he wants "to make the world a better place".
Climate change is "the most important issue facing the world", he says, and since stepping down as CE of Twitter two years ago, he has had more free time to address it.
"Unfortunately climate has become a dirty word — obviously in politics, but even to some degree in my world, in venture capital. People hesitate if they see something that’s purported to be green. That’s not a reason to invest for many people."
He is as enthusiastic about the potential of clean technology as any environmental campaigner, but believes it has often been sold to people badly. The way to sell products and services that are good for the environment, he says, is not to say that they are good for the environment: "You need to bifurcate the message, and appeal to early adopters and people who care about that stuff to prove your technologies, to get scale. But that only works if what you’re offering is a viable alternative. Otherwise you’re just producing guilt, and that turns people off.
"(Consumers) make their choice on what is the selfish thing for them. The media has been manipulated to such a degree that, even if it is better, you shouldn’t say it’s better and it’s better for the world. Just leave that out, because then they don’t believe the first part. Just say: ‘it’s better for you’."
The paradigm for this approach, he says, is Beyond Meat, the developer of meat substitutes made from plant protein. It is backed by Obvious.
"Moral or health implications aside, turning plant protein into what seems like the very same substance, (rather than) growing a whole bird, then discarding most of it, is just incredibly more efficient."
Beyond Meat has its chicken substitute mostly in Whole Foods stores in California, and is planning other products, including substitutes for beef and fish. Far from being resistant to an artificial product, Williams says, consumers are "buying it as fast as we can make it". The move into food production is a return to his roots for someone who describes himself as "a Nebraska farm boy", and who cares about climate change because he understands the significance of threats such as the droughts that hit much of the US maize belt this year.
With Beyond Meat, Obvious is making the leap from processing information to processing matter. It is a step that has proved troublesome for several entrepreneurs who have made fortunes in IT and then stumbled when they tried to achieve similar success in energy and environmental technology.
Williams argues that whether in clean tech or IT, the rules of the start-up game are the same.
"If you look at the internet, the vast majority of start-ups are not successful. But the ones that are, are very, very successful. So you can’t point to the unsuccessful ones and say there’s no hope for this field. It’s just that they had the wrong idea or they had bad execution.
"A lot of the time with clean tech we’ve been trying to solve everything at once, when there’s lots of low-hanging fruit that’s not being addressed, especially in the area of efficiency."
His plans for his new home in the fashionable Parnassus Heights area of San Francisco include design features such as insulation and solar panels that will give the house zero net energy consumption.
"The fact we can now build buildings that use no energy shows the solutions are available. And the benefits are not just in energy. They’re healthier, they will feel better — they’re better in every way."
If some of these technologies can break through to the mass market, the consequences could be profound, for business as well as for the environment — "But my entrepreneurial and optimistic side says it’s also the biggest opportunity."
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited
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