Q&A with Andreas Wiele, Investor and Co-founder, OakTree Power
Talk of an economic downturn pervades the media at the moment. Every other headline seems to spell recession or something related to the ever-increasing cost of living. But the story for climate-tech companies is quite the opposite. Over the summer, TechCrunch reported that investors are still showing the sector a lot of interest, despite a loss for others. Climate-tech startups in the UK have raised over £6.3 billion since the beginning of the year. “The slowdown has more or less skipped climate tech,” the TechCrunch article reads.
Climate tech companies will continue to attract investor interest for at least the next five years too. One forecast claimed that the sector would grow by almost 9% every year during that period (almost double the speed of the global economy.)
OakTree Power is one of the startups at the tip of this climate-tech spear. With its headquarters in London, the company deploys an energy optimisation solution across commercial and industrial real estate that enables properties such as office buildings and warehouses to reduce their overall electricity consumption, ultimately slashing energy costs and otherwise inaccessible CO2 emissions.
The technology consists of a small device that, once integrated with an infrastructure, identifies and modulates non-essential electricity consumption. These adjustments are made in non-critical non-critical electrical plants and equipment such as pumps, fans and air conditioning chillers for short periods, without impacting performance.
Moreover, thanks to the startup’s partnerships with grid operators, energy reductions help out balance grids during times of peak demand, which entails annual recurring revenues for businesses subscribed to the OakTree Power scheme. A win-win-win at last.
Andreas Wiele co-founded OakTree Power in 2020 along with serial entrepreneur and investor Guillaume Molhant Proost. The company already works with big names including the Financial Times and international law firm Pinsent Masons. Wiele chatted to us about his alternative decision to enter the sector, the challenges OakTree Power is facing, and his hopes for its future.
- People with your experience tend to settle into comfortable senior jobs. Why did you choose to join a startup?
I never had to worry about someone ghosting my calls when I worked at big corporations like Axel Springer. You have the big job title behind you.
I always respected the startup founders who lacked that. They had to hustle, and hustle hard for every success. So I wanted to see if I could do it for myself.
Creating OakTree Power has presented a completely different experience. I’ve wrestled with every challenge that I had expected startup founders to wrestle with. Many other business leaders my age are out playing golf. This has been like learning my own, different sport.
It has taken resilience and motivation. That’s what I like though. I wanted to test myself and that test has rewarded me in so many ways.
- You also changed industry from the media. How has that experience informed your work in energy and clean tech?
It’s always interesting to see how people who’ve led different careers use their past experiences to inform their current decisions. Technology and engineering can be difficult for people to understand. Yet it’s important that, today, they do understand. These things are changing our world right now, and they’ll define our future. My experience in the media taught me how important it is to clarify those topics for the public. We need to be able to speak the same language.
A lot of energy-related topics struggle to excite people. That’s in part because there’s such a high barrier for entry. The energy infrastructure we rely on now is based on very complex systems that the everyday person cannot even begin to understand without specific education. So that’s another aspect, I suppose. My experience in the media has taught me how important it is to engage with people, and that’s exactly what OakTree Power is trying to do today – bringing people and the benefits of climate technology closer together.
- Climate tech has been attracting huge amounts of investment. What does that mean for the sector?
The investment won’t actually mean much in the short term. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine meant that most people are just worried about getting energy, any energy, green or not. It has been a distraction from the long-term transition in one respect.
At the same time, we still lack the technology to exploit the money that’s pouring into the sector. The money’s there. Now we need people who can use it in clever ways. There are some exciting projects going on. We need more.
In the long term, of course, there’s only one direction the sector is headed in. Up. There’s no doubt about that. Intelligent minds will begin pouring in, attracted by the combination of purpose and financial incentive. Putin’s war has also reminded Europe that the problems caused by our reliance on fossil fuels stretches beyond climate change. In the same way that the pandemic prompted the popularisation of video conferencing, the war in Ukraine will accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
An efficient system of distributing and using energy is the only future for modern civilisation. People will still want to be able to travel and do everything that they can do now. We’re just going to need to make that possible with less energy, and OakTree Power is proving time and time again that it can be done indeed.
- How important is technology to the energy transition?
Without technology it can’t be done. Climate technology and innovation are at the heart of everything. It’s as simple as that.
If we aim to complete this transition one day and save the planet, we should be moving away from fossil fuels now, and energy flexibility schemes such as ours have shown that the world can go on without heavily-polluting energy sources such as fossil power stations. I would like to emphasise that the tech is no longer a promising solution, but a proven solution with just as much capacity as dirty energy sources, if not more.
I believe in human behavioural change, but we need action now. We can’t wait for people to gradually change their travel and consumption habits. Technology has helped us live healthier lives in the past, and it will do it again.
- What are the challenges of working in such a hot sector?
This might come as a surprise, but our biggest challenge does not come from our competition. Our biggest challenge is in convincing clients that a new climate technology like ours actually works, and can benefit their business bottom line. Our offer can sometimes seem unbelievable. People struggle to understand how they can reduce their energy consumption without noticing the changes, and create a new revenue stream from this. It’s easy to understand why they might be sceptical.
OakTree Power also works with big corporations and, for them, energy can be a sensitive topic. It’s an essential aspect of running their companies. They’re reluctant to hand the reins over to a young startup. Their size reduces their appetite for risk.
Fortunately though, OakTree Power’s leadership team has a combined experience of over 100 years in the energy and clean-tech sectors. This has given us an advantage over our competitors. It has opened doors at the top level.
Still, we continue to face the challenge of convincing ground workers at the lower levels to buy into our propositions, so we’re working on that.
- Despite all the attention, critics argue that corporate climate action is still too slow. What’s your opinion about this?
There’s far too much talk and not nearly enough action at the moment. Following your previous question, one of the other big challenges we face is in working through chief sustainability officers. The CSOs are keen to work with us. But we find time and time again that their employers have invested them with little actual power. That typifies the energy transition today. All talk, not enough walk.
It is astonishing how much time some corporate leaders spend attending climate and energy conferences, COP for example, and drafting delightful ESG reports. Luckily, at OakTree Power we’ve found more success in approaching individual companies to find out what works for them and met many individuals who truly care about the climate and help us tremendously in pushing our offering.
I am optimistic though. This state of affairs can be expected. We’re going through an enormous upheaval. It’s truly unprecedented, and I really mean it. We’re at the tipping point now where people are starting to take it seriously.
- Where do you take OakTree Power now that you’ve won your first big clients?
We need to scale the company. Size and proof of success will help convince those companies of the technology where we’ve found resistance in the past. I expect this to happen rapidly from 2023 onwards. We’ll also be looking abroad to other European countries. We want to offer international companies the same benefits that we enable here in the UK.
It’s an exciting time and you can expect to hear a lot more from us over the next few years. Thanks for your interest.