Does Shell’s Acquisition of Sonnen Represent our Netscape Moment?

Richard Youngman

There were milestones on the internet’s journey to becoming what it is today, namely an all-pervasive, essential and normal part of consumer, business and now, with the rise of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things), industrial life.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, it wasn’t clear-cut that the Internet would become mainstream. Netscape was a critical part of changing that. A web browser company, it brought the power of the Internet to millions and was able to IPO in 1995 with excitement and acknowledgement from both the mainstream and Wall Street that ours was to be a web-enabled future. The IPO sent out a signal that the analogue age was about to come to an end in relatively short order.

It is a long time since I had thought of Netscape, but that is where my mind went last week when I heard that Shell had reached an agreement to acquire sonnen, a company we have been excited to know since its early days, and to have in our Global Cleantech 100 five times, including the most recent edition released three weeks ago.

To be clear, my thought process had nothing to do with how the Netscape story panned out and how some public market investors who did not get out in the early years were crushed by 2000. It had everything to do with it being a defining moment that those who were part of the web 1.0 innovation ecosystem will recall as the moment when the mainstreaming of the web into every facet of society was no longer a question of if, but one of how and when.

A new moment of acceptance

The acquisition of sonnen, a next-generation energy company, offering storage, intelligence and flexibility, by Shell, a leader in the oil and gas markets for more than a century, feels to me like a moment of acceptance that ours is to be a cleaner, digitized and de-centralized energy future and that we will indeed transition to a post fossil-fuel industrial future during the first half of this century.

We have been close watchers of the oil and gas companies of late. Their surge back into clean technologies and sustainable innovation for the transition to a very different 21st century future has been very clear to see. Initially, we saw it with the set-up post Paris of OGCI (the Oil and  Gas Climate initiative) in 2015, and now at an individual company level, with both BP and Shell leading the way in reversing the backing off from renewables in the early 2010s, to putting the energy transition front and center of a go-forward strategy in the latter part of the 2010s.

Accelerating progress

Recently, Shell has taken it to another level. In just the past three weeks alone, they have acquired Greenlots, the EV charging company and another 2019 Global Cleantech 100 company, and invested in three other companies:

  • Makani, representing the idea that airborne and offshore wind energy has much further to go than today’s incumbent operating technology.
  • Aurora, representing a belief that self-driving is a core part of next generation transportation.
  • Nordsol, representing the idea that biogas from organic waste streams is part of the future energy mix, especially for heavy duty, long-distance transportation.

In 2016 I provided some background in my Back to the Future, Back to Cleantech Group blog, on my belief that the next decade would be the time in which the mainstreaming of the innovations and technologies would make ours a great business ecosystem to be a part of. When I hear from the IPCC we have 12 years to get our universal and planetary act together, it is easy to lose faith. When you see Shell, a company with the financial and market muscle to take de-carbonized and resource-efficient technologies mainstream to scale, showing real leadership by taking actions like these, and with founders and investors also doing well out of the sonnen sale, there is every reason to be optimistic.

There is every reason to believe we will see more such win/win moments in the months and years to come.

(P.S. How many showed their age – or showed up mine – by having to google Netscape and find out who they were?!)

Meet Christoph Osterman, Co-Founder & CEO of sonnen, this May in Stockholm at Cleantech Forum Europe.