“Clean technology is a trillion-dollar business opportunity”- Bill Gross (Founder & CEO of Idealab)

Cleantech, a term defining any product or service aiming to reduce environmental damage through sustainability, is a market predicted to surpass $6.4 trillion in the coming decade. It’s a premise that more and more start-up companies are adopting, combining enterprise with eco-friendly practice. As far as ESG investments go, they seem to be ticking all the boxes and are providing active solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues. With steadily increasing job creation, transparent leadership and a greener outlook on business, the new wave of bright-eyed cleantech start-ups have been cited by many as holding significant potential in forging a better future for all. It’s a fast-emerging industry promising revolutionary change as well as big capital in the coming years, however, the big question is: can it actually materialise?  

Unfortunately, more often than not, promise and potential alone are simply insufficient when it comes to achieving financial success, as well-intentioned ideas frequently fall-short of marketability. The tough reality is that with fierce competition and scarce financial support, as of present, start-ups are failing at a 90% rate.

Cleantech investments done right

This is where the vital need for investment comes in. Whilst start-ups often, as is put by the GEF (Global Environmental Facility) “lack the skills and organizational capacity to transform innovative cleantech solutions into marketable products”, there are a number of schemes willing to help. Most notably of these is the UN-backed GCIP (Global Cleantech Innovation Programme) which takes on cleantech start-ups in their early stages and through professional development transforms bright ideas into a commercially viable business model ready for big investment. 

It’s true that when over-saturated, investment has a tendency to create a climate of cut-throat competition, often at the cost of quality-control and ethical-procedure. Additionally, a too much too soon approach can lead to young companies skipping vital development stages on a cash-fuelled fast track- its destination too often being premature bankruptcy.  However, GCIP’s focus on entrepreneurs whose vision surpasses unconditional capital, along with its dedication to guidance and growth has secured enduring results for its participants, and its proven method is increasingly grabbing the attention of hopeful new start-ups.       

Between 2014 and 2016 GCIP received almost 3000 applications showing a growing demand for investment in this area. With more schemes following this trajectory, environmentally conscious start-ups are much more likely to reach the right investors, and more importantly obtain a better chance of sustainable, long-term success.

2020’s Stand-out cleantech start-ups

Combining innovation with ethics is the Holy Grail of ESG investment, however it’s a delicate balance that has seldom been perfected. Despite this, these up-and-coming companies have presented a way forwards for business and sustainability to merge. With resourceful solutions, operating in sync with the environment, even harnessing existing damage for good, these start-ups may offer a key opportunity for ESG investors to make a real difference with their dollar. What really puts these green and clean start-ups a head above the rest, is their exceptional ability to hit the collective ESG benchmark so comprehensively. With benevolent leadership ensuring fairness for stakeholders, giving back through philanthropy and a core-drive to beat climate change, investors could want to keep a close eye on these lucrative and ethical business ventures in the coming year.                  

Here are 12 stand-out start-ups leading the way in 2020, across the 6 key cleantech principles

  1. Water Equally distributing this vital natural resource.
  2. Transport Efficiently getting from A to B without the carbon-heavy trade-off.
  3. Energy Generation & Storage Cleaning up the atmosphere with renewables.  
  4. Waste & Sustainable Materials – Good quality materials that recycle and biodegrade.
  5. Built Environment – Effective infrastructure using clean-energy with less waste.   
  6. Agriculture & Food Services Avoiding land and water overuse with local sourcing.


BOSAQ: “(For) a world where everyone has access to premium drinking water.”

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, aims for improved Clean Water and Sanitation by 2030 and BOSAQ has dedicated its start-up venture to fulfilling this objective. The concept had an unlikely start in Antarctica with founder Jacob Bossaer having designed a water treatment system for the Princess Elizabeth Research Station, and from this has now developed it into an acclaimed business model.

With approximately 11% if the world’s population living without safe drinking water, BOSAQ has also established Water Heros, a foundation proving vulnerable communities with safe sanitation and drinking water facilities of which they donate 10% of their overall profits to.      

I-Phyc: “Harnessing the natural power of algae for industry”

Presenting an innovative solution to the estimated 1.7 trillion gallons of wasted water per year, I-Phyc aims to harness this rather alarming statistic. With a microalgae-tech fusion, they treat excess water disposed of from agricultural, industrial and municipal sources in an effort to reduce waste. 

They have received a total of £1.2 million in investment, something they plan to direct towards job creation as they move forwards in their venture.  


Lime Electric Scooter Rentals: “Smart mobility for the modern world”

In 2018 automobiles accounted for 28% of all CO2 emissions across the US making it the largest contributor that year. Lime’s strategy, effective yet simple, is to reduce this rate by cutting out the need for shorter car journeys with rechargeable electronic scooters. Their product is currently available to rent across international urban hot-spots including New York, Berlin and London. 

They have attracted many high-profile investors since starting off in 2017, most notably Uber, granting them $170 million and bringing their total market value up to $510 million.

Kodeco: “Mobility, innovation & eco-design”

A 2015 GCIP finalist from Turkey, Kodeco is another start-up zoning in on automobile generated emissions. Their solution: 100% solar-powered electric vehicles which can reach to up 90km per hour. Their fresh take on modern transport has earned them the Siemens Award of Excellence and Best Eco-Technology in which their ECOTOUR model was invited to be displayed in Silicon Valley.

Energy Generation and Storage

Zolar: “Generate green energy at home with a solar system.”

According to the GEF cleantech’s “adoption within many carbon-intensive sectors is falling far short of the scale and speed needed” meaning energy providing start-ups like Zolar are in high demand. Their premise is simple: providing an accessible, all-inclusive solar panel service however their mission goes far beyond just reducing carbon dependence.

They are also heavily customer-centred and encourage self-sufficiency from the largely centralised fossil fuel industry. As of 2020, they have raised €15 million in investment to fund their next venture in expanding globally.      

Bulb: “Making energy simpler, cheaper, greener” 

Named “the fastest growing start-up in the UK”: since its humble beginnings in 2015 clean energy provider Bulb has found itself fast catching up to industry giants- namely British Gas. Whilst Bulb now supplies one 1% of the market, in other words, “enough homes to fill the size of Leeds”, British gas seems to be on a losing streak having seen their share prices plummet by 40% in 2017.

They also maintain social awareness as they source their energy locally from small-scale providers and sustain direct relationships with business partners.  In addition to this they are also a certified B corporation, dedicated to tackling poverty and building communities, and a member of the Living Wage Foundation, promising a fair payday for employees.

Waste and Sustainable Materials

Saathi pads: “Good for your body, community and environment.”

Another GCIP entrant, this time 2018’s winner; Indian start-up Saathi Pads offers a 100% biodegradable sanitary towel made from banana tree fibres. It’s not only eco-friendly friendly but also highly absorbent and kind to skin.

In 2016 they launched their One Million Pads initiative aiming to help rural women access safer and healthier menstrual options.     

GOT BAG: “Because future generations will also need the sea”

An estimated 14 billion pounds of trash lands in our oceans each year, a large portion of it plastic-based, however, German start-up GOT BAG has a solution: their stylish bag collection repurposes waste which would otherwise cause significant harm to sea life and each unit aims to recover 4kg.

They have also launched a philanthropic initiative Clean up Indonesia, educating locals on waste separation and are active supporters of seven of the UN’s 17 SDG’s.

Built Enviroment

Sustainer Homes: “Cut from the right stuff”

Considering aesthetic as well as sustainability, Sustainer Homes offer an end-to-end service in eco-friendly home construction. Their expert builds save on 90% on CO2 and use recycled and renewable materials including shipping containers. They have completed a total of 21 projects including The Green Village,a student housing complex “built for a sustainable future”.

Modulus Housing: “Redefining housing in the name of modulus”

This progressive Indian start-up began as a social impact innovation during the Chennai Deluge, a devastation which displaced hundreds from their homes. Their idea of ‘foldable’ prefab structures, installed with efficient solar-powered electricity has now turned into a successful venture and gained the company much recognition.

Their most recent development, the Medicab is designed to be an instant medical facility in response to Covid-19 and is able to fulfil high levels of demand as it can be installed within just 2 hours.

Agriculture and Food Services

Impossible Foods: “Grill burgers. Not the planet.”

The plant-based diet has gained much support in the past few years with varying motivations, a primary one being environmental. Studies state that “the world’s livestock sector is responsible for 18% of the global emission of greenhouse gases.” and for many, this has been a wakeup call to make the switch.

Impossible Foods’ self-described mission is to “drastically reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the global environment by completely replacing the use of animals as a food production technology”, something they intend to fulfil within two decades.  With astronomical success rates since their 2011 inception, their famous burger is now available in numerous large restaurant chains and with this, they are on track to realising their goal- maybe sooner than they think.

NOQUO FOODS: “Re-inventing The foods we love.”

Those of us already following the plant-based diet will be familiar, and possibly a little tired of the commonly uttered statement “I could never go vegan, I’d miss cheese too much”. With NOQUO foods there’s neither reason to miss it, nor sacrifice the environment for your cheese-fix as they are on a mission to “reinvent the foods we love while fitting within planetary boundaries” with the “next generation of vegan cheese”.

The Stockholm-based business has secured a total of €3.25 million in investments from a number of prominent financiers, renowned vegan and vegetarian brand Quorn being one of them.  

Cleantech is certainly an area deserving of more investment, and start-ups are often where the most innovative of solutions can be found. Though it doesn’t come without financial risk, its potential advantages for the planet are worth seriously considering. With increased support for newcomers ideas can be developed into marketable products and perhaps achieve an outcome from which we can all benefit in the long-run.