SWITCH Singapore 2021: Driving renewable energy impact through better business models

L-R: Moderator Edwin Cheang, Solar AI CEO Bolong Chew, Place co-founder Virginia Brumby Ferreira, ORKA co-founder Asim Qureshi ©Enterprise Singapore

Startups need to communicate the business benefits of green solutions to their customers, rather than just pitching the hi-tech

Can present-day technology help us to be more sustainable and stave off climate change’s negative effects? Startup founders at the Singapore Week of Innovation and TeCHnology (SWITCH) conference on November 8 argued that what’s urgently needed goes beyond cutting-edge science and technology. Instead, better business models can boost adoption of sustainable practices.

In a panel titled “Why Sustainability is Not Just About Science,” Bolong Chew, CEO and co-founder of solar power installation startup Solar AI Technologies, said that even mature, proven technologies such as photovoltaic panels suffer from low adoption rates due to barriers in consumer knowledge. 

“It’s widely quoted that over the past 10 years, the cost of solar has fallen by 89% and in the past two years it’s become cheaper than fossil fuel energy. But the share of solar power contributions to global energy grids is less than 5% and penetration of rooftop solar power in Southeast Asia is less than 1%," he said.

“What’s needed is a lot of education, advocacy and ultimately operational deployment, making it easier for consumers to understand the benefits, compare the options available and install solar panels on their rooftop," he added.

Virginia Brumby Ferreira, co-founder of office energy optimization startup Place, shared her own experience in learning what office managers are truly concerned about. 

“When you look at the office buildings lit up at night, you might think that the office managers are dying to get the energy costs down,” she said. “But when we met them and asked how we could help reduce their energy costs, they said they usually don’t pay separate energy fees, as they are included in the fees they pay to the landlord.”

Despite that, employers are keen to learn more about achieving sustainability goals, while at the same time helping employees become more productive and more interested in coming back to the office, Brumby noted. “That is why we started developing tools to make office spaces more sustainable but also more attractive to employees.”

Customer education is key

Asim Qureshi, co-founder of energy efficiency startup ORKA, said that technology should be relatable to customers and packaged into the right business model for their needs. He notes that ORKA’s own business model focuses on addressing customer concerns like return on investment, cost savings, and even helping customers improve their profits.

“Customers are willing to spend on [sustainability] solutions, but they first want to understand how it can help their business,” he said. “Customers often see these solutions as a cost to their business, but we need to help them see that it’s an investment." 

While customer education is important in building a market and approaching prospective clients, startups do not always have the resources to reach a large audience or to work closely with each prospective client. As such, digitizing informational resources and giving customers the freedom to explore that information can help develop interest organically,  Qureshi said.

“We digitized a lot of information for customers to go through so they can understand for themselves how the technology works and whether it can help them,” he said. Customers can use simulations to understand how sustainability solutions can benefit their business. This way, startups “remove the sales pitch pressure” and give prospective clients the freedom to choose the solution they need.

Chew said that in the case of his company, creating more localized content is important to develop the market and attract potential customers. “Over the last year and a half, we’ve written a lot of localized content to improve the search results and this has been a strong customer acquisition channel for us.”

Edited by Matt Stanley

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