Are our green brains facing something of a glass ceiling?

By Tom Byrne

Issues surrounding climate change and fossil fuel security have paved the way for what would be our species’ third industrial revolution. The transition from fossil fuels to low carbon alternatives will have to happen.

These are truly exciting times, and no one enjoys watching new, emerging technologies enter the market as much as I do.

Nonetheless, I can’t escape the nagging sense that the UK may be lagging behind in the race to stay right on the cutting edge of any revolution that’s kicking off.

This feeling has been seconded by a report by the WWF and Cleantech group who assessed 38 countries over 15 indicators to rank their ability to produce and bring to market entrepreneurial, innovative start up companies.

The UK ranks 10th in the Innovation Index (not so bad you may think) but this could be so much better when you look at the countries giving us a hell of a beating.

Unsurprisingly the Nordic countries lead proceedings with Denmark (1st) Sweden (3rd) and Norway (4th) making up 3 of the top 4. These countries seem to have the perfect mix of not only producing innovative startups but also backing them with both public and private money to deliver them to market.  There are lessons to be learned from these Northern Europeans who certainly seem to be leading the march in the world’s emerging industries.

Israel was the surprise package, ranking an impressive second. Although their relative economy is much smaller than many of the top 10, the low carbon entrepreneurship taking place is growing pretty astoundingly. The issue for Israeli clean tech startups appears to be the barriers stopping them from getting to market and entering the commercial arena.

The USA ranks 5th followed by Germany, Canada, South Korea, Ireland and the UK, holding down the rear spot of the top 10.

Interestingly, the four top scoring countries have small economies, but are renowned for coming up with new ideas. The report highlights how they manage to scale up their sparks of inspiration through collaboration; compensating for modest domestic markets and inconsistent availability of finance.

According to the report, the main reason behind the UK’s slightly disappointing rank, is the apparent lack of support our clean technology start-up companies are receiving.

While some elements of UK cleantech infrastructure were praised, like our growing community energy concerns and local  investment, we ranked 11th overall on the ‘clean tech innovation drivers’ list which assesses both public and private support of creating and supporting low carbon industries.

Added support for Research and Development now can prove a huge boon later. This isn’t about spinning a roulette wheel, it’s about supporting technologies that are at a proven stage and just need a little kick to take their place in the mainstream.

It’s also about getting the balance right in the way new developments are financially supported – and a lot more working together in pursuit of getting similar technologies winning over the public.

Samantha Smith, leader of WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative, has the following to say on the great finance issue:

“The overwhelming majority of capital required for making the transition to a low-carbon future will come from a variety of private sources. Developing a working recipe for strengthening the flow of public-private finance towards early as well as later stage cleantech is key for countries that want to taste the economic success of cleantech.”

My view is it’s a wonderful time to invest in our own green industries, helping young entrepreneurs who are battling to make this world a more sustainable place. But with the banks reluctant to lend and the mantra of ‘austerity’ looming over both public and private, it makes you wonder where the economic stimulus to rise that table may come from. Indeed, the worry is that the coming years could see creative visionaries from below overtake us.

It seems that only time will tell if we’ll take the plunge and back our own innovative industries to be the leaders in the third industrial revolution that’s just around the corner.