Echoes From the Past: Companies and Themes to Pay Attention to Beyond the APAC 25

Richard Youngman

Maybe you have been following us closely enough to notice that we have been making a stronger push into the B2B future of industrial innovation ecosystem in Asia over the last year? This initial push will culminate with AsiaConnect week, in which we will host our 1st Cleantech Forum Asia in Singapore on November 13-14, 2018, followed by our invite only Next-Gen Energy & Cross-Border Innovation Summit in Nanjing, China on November 15-16, 2018.

Maybe you noticed that, two weeks ago, we released the APAC 25, a new sister list of the Global Cleantech 100 program,  and under the title Mobility, Intelligence, Scooters, Reverse Innovation, and More – our APAC 25 provides us glimpses of the future, I provided commentary on the companies on that list.

And if you are really following closely this Asian thematic with us, then maybe you recall that I ended that post with the wild promise that, “in a follow-up next month, as we continue our build-up to November’s Cleantech Forum Asia, I will pick out some others to watch from beyond the 25.”

A man of my word, here I am, here it is, and here we go….

One thing that has been striking me as I have gotten to know the Asia Pacific innovation scene better is how similar – in high-level terms – the innovation themes and trends are to what we see in Europe and North America.

Electrification of transport, the future of the grid and grid operators, the digitalization and autonomization (is that really a word? Yuck) of everything, clean and usable water, waste to value, open innovation, and the role of the larger incumbent corporations are big and important themes everywhere, it would seem.

But they will play out differently in different places at different times, and the way in which entrepreneurs will design solutions will reflect their starting points. As I keep saying to anyone who cares to listen (if you are still with me at this point, maybe you are one?) do not assume one of the killer internationally-scalable industrial solutions is coming from your backyard, from the innovation ecosystems you are most familiar with. In fact, as someone who visits many across the world, may I humbly suggest that a better starting point – remembering Andy Groves’ famous mantra, and indeed book, Only the Paranoid Survive – would be to assume the opposite?

Another thing that has been striking me are the echoes of the past I have been discovering in the well-rated companies in the region.

Today, I am going to pick out three such themes (I may even find myself writing a part 3, as there are more companies to tell you about – for any of you still caring to follow by that point).

I reference these as “echoes from the past” themes, as we have seen their like before – in past Global Cleantech 100s, for example. This provides yet another reminder that, as the wise Roy Amara observed, in what became to be known as Amara’s Law, We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Echoes of the Past Theme 1: Battery-Swapping
Source: Gogoro

The last time I came across battery-swapping as a business model was in the shape of Better Place, a Global Cleantech 100 alumnus of 2009-11 which, as we all know, ended the way of a number of high profile darlings of Cleantech 1.0.

That was until over the last 2 years I have discovered and gotten to know Gogoro, our 2018 Asia Pacific Company of the Year. As per my post of two weeks back, to think of this as a scooter company would be to misrepresent and misunderstand it. It is a battery-swapping infrastructure company.

What I am now discovering in Asia is that there are many more, that battery-swapping as a concept and as a business model, is alive and well. And before you wave it away dismissively as only relevant to Asia, go tell that to Robert Bosch, who has already brought it to Europe.

Yes, in the case of the scooter, battery-swapping probably does make a lot more sense, right? And so the discovery of Lithion Power in India should not be that much of a surprise, with its Lithion Swapping Points (LSPs) for e-bikes and 3-wheelers.

More of a surprise to me were the battery-swapping solutions being provided for large fleets, fleets of taxis and buses for example, as provided by the Chinese company Aulton.

Echoes of the Past Theme 2: The Future of Automated and Optimized Solar

If Hermann Scheer (d. 2010) could see where the solar revolution for which he was a catalyst in accelerating (through feed-in tariffs) had reached in 2018, he would surely be impressed at the rapidly declining cost curve and the deployment levels the 2010s have brought.

The next chapter of solar is not about whether it will become a critical part of the future of energy and power, but just how efficient and low-cost (and so, how all-pervasive) it can become, and in how many different forms and formats, creating new applications.

Source: AVA Asia

I recall well coming across Qbotix in about 2012-13, a company that was a 2014 Global Cleantech 100, an idea that proved ahead of its time. It saw the future of solar in automation and optimization. It saw the power of improving margins by a handful of percentage points, through its robotic solution to improve solar project economics in the commercial and utility-scale solar power plant sectors.

It didn’t make it, but the general idea certainly will. I was reminded of this by the discovery of AVA Asia the other day, an “under the radar” company in Singapore, performing aerial visual and thermal inspections over solar PV plants with their autonomous flying drone and mission planning software to detect anomalies for maintenance.

In a different way, and as an example of new formats and new approaches, what about SunShift in Australia, a pre-engineered, pre-fabricated, moveable turnkey solar PV solution specifically designed to overcome the limitations of traditional solar PV and enable new users such as miners to adopt alternative energy?

Echoes of the Past Theme 3: Electronic Recycling

My final Echoes of the Past theme is a big problem innovators have been trying to address for a long time now, without significant success at scale. The problem of electronic recycling has only been getting bigger year on year. Early Global Cleantech 100s saw companies like Recupyl, the battery recycler, and Recyclebank, the membership model.

I am glad to report that, despite the growth challenges such companies ran into, innovators of the world have not given up. Beyond the APAC 25, here are a couple of different examples of such.

In New Zealand, in what I can only call the microbe mini-cluster built around the origins of Global Cleantech 100 Hall of Fame company Lanzatech, we found Mint Innovation, the owner of biometallurgical processes that use microbes to capture value from metal waste streams. Mint has developed a biological process to remove gold and other precious metals from electronic waste. Environmental effects of the process are considerably less than conventional methods (e.g. smelting) and the process has promising (and circular) economics, if it can be successfully scaled to city scale, for example.

In China, we found something quite different and something which is expanding into overseas markets in the shape of Aihuishou, an electronics recycling platform and a global online marketplace for trading second-hand digital items. Aihuishou has launched intelligent recycling machines that can facilitate users in recycling their second-hand items and whereby, crucially, the user gets instant gratification – within one minute, being paid some of its collection money (via Alipay, the super-popular Chinese e-payment system).

In a final installment, I will likely look at logistics and the last-mile delivery challenge, plus drones and robotics startups in the region.

Until then.

At the time of writing, three of the above companies (Gogoro, Lithion Power, Mint Innovation) are among the already confirmed 35 company participants to present at Cleantech Forum Asia in Singapore on November 13-14.