Paul Miller is CEO of Bethnal Green Ventures, which he co-founded in 2012. The leading early-stage venture capital investor supports companies using technology to tackle social and environmental problems in a bid “to radically improve millions of lives”. Paul has also previously worked as a researcher at Demos and Forum for the Future and has advised leading companies and the UK Government on harnessing technology for good.
Do you think it’s important we respond to the climate emergency?
Absolutely. It’s more important than ever we come up with radical and fast solutions that can achieve change at scale, both in terms of reducing emissions and effectively adapting to the realities of climate change.
How would you define a green radical?
It is about taking a different angle on the problem – not just incrementally improving efficiency, but genuinely looking at problems in a different way. That’s the direction we’ve got to take, because we need ‘ten- times’ kind of solutions, rather than ‘1%.’
Do you regard your company as a green radical?
I think we’ve got a radical outlook, but we’re more like the backing singers. We’re there to support the entrepreneurs, who are the real people making radical change in terms of deploying solutions. We’re there to invest in and support them as they scale impact.
How has your organisation taken a radical approach to climate action?
We’re specifically hunting for innovations that can make those order-of-magnitude changes in greenhouse gas emissions from a particular industry, whether that’s in food, transport or energy. That’s what we’ve identified as both a really big business opportunity but also a way to address the climate emergency.
How do you build a business case for radical change?
We’re talking about affecting trillion-dollar industries, so actually if you are a business that makes a big change in one of those markets and reduces climate impacts, there’s a huge amount of value to be captured. The issue has been inertia, as a lot of investors have just gone along with the way money has been made in those industries in the past, but actually the way money is made in those industries in the future will be pretty different.
What’s the biggest barrier to engineering change?
In our world, there’s still a lack of capital that’s being pointed at this problem, and so really sophisticated investment for radical solutions in climate is lacking. There are a handful of investors interested in climate, but it’s not the mainstream yet. It is changing – the curve is definitely in the right direction with more capital being put to work to solve these problems – but it isn’t fast enough.
How have customers, employees and stakeholders responded?
There’s a lot of excitement around the businesses we invest in now. And I think more and more investors are seeing the opportunity, because we tend to be the first investors into these companies, and we’re seeing them manage to raise follow-on investment. They also have no trouble in hiring really great people, because these purpose-led start-ups put their values into their work, which is something that’s super appealing to talented people.
How do you inspire others towards radicalism?
I think we’ve got to show it works – that we can build really valuable businesses that radically address the climate emergency. I have no doubt we can. There are a lot of investors who wait for the proof, and that’s fair enough, but we’re willing to take a risk and wait for others to follow, as this is going to be a big market in the future.
How do you take radical ideas into the mainstream?
It will take a little while, but a lot of the start-ups we’re invested in right now could become really huge companies in the future, and when they are, then I think people will start to realise: this is mainstream.
What’s the most radical thing you’ve ever done?
I helped get tens of thousands of people to hold hands around the G7 Summit in Birmingham to raise awareness of third world debt back in 1998, as part of a campaign I helped organise called Jubilee 2000. Thinking back on it, it was quite radical to run a peaceful protest about what was probably an arcane economic issue to many people, but I think we had an impact.
I started out as an activist and then moved into policy with think tanks, but I’ve found over time that start- ups and investing is one of the ways you can have a positive impact on the world. My journey has gone from direct activism to investing, but it’s all been with the same aim of solving these big challenges so we can have a more sustainable and humane planet. There are more activists than you would probably realise in the business world.
Who are the green radicals that inspire you today?
Certainly Jonathon Porritt and Sarah Parkin both had a big influence on me, through helping to found Forum for the Future. That was a very radical idea at the time – that big businesses should address their social and environmental impact. More recently I am hugely inspired by the founders of some of these businesses that we’re working with. They’re amazing people who are genuinely out to build successful companies but also have a positive environmental impact.
What one radical thing would you like people to do right now to change our future?
I do think air pollution in cities is a problem we could solve within five to 10 years. The stars are aligned in terms of city governments, local businesses and citizens pushing the same way, so I think that is a problem we could solve pretty quickly. But it does require everyone to pull behind it.
This interview forms part of a series of interviews that were published in a new report, New Green Radicals: The business leaders responding to the climate emergency. The report follows last year’s ‘Meet the Disruptors’ and 2017’s ‘Secrets of the Pioneers’ reports, and this year features interviews with entrepreneurs, leaders and creators who are providing radical solutions to the climate crisis.
The report is produced by Greenhouse PR in association with BusinessGreen and was launched at the BusinessGreen Leaders’ Summit on October 23rd. Follow live on social media with #NewGreenRadicals.
At Greenhouse, we support a wide variety of organisations pioneering climate action. Whether it’s fashion, finance or farming, if you’ve got a great story and need our help to tell it, get in touch with the Greenhouse team on 0117 214 1250 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.