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Corporates turn to strategic investments to drive sustainable innovation



When Amazon announced its $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy, it became the latest in a growing number of corporates using balance sheet capital to invest in and spur sustainable innovation. In the past year alone, Microsoft, Citi, Merck, Splunk, and Unilever have announced new approaches to invest with an impact-oriented thesis.

Corporates are distinctive for their potential to adopt, scale, and ultimately, accelerate impact. Thoughtful design and execution of impact-oriented investing strategies can future-proof competitiveness, activate purpose, and unlock new avenues for innovation. 

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Over the last decade, private market investors have developed strategies to originate “impact investments” with the “intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return,” according to the Global Impact Investing Network. The market initially consisted of small, niche asset managers. Today, the impact investing market encompasses some of the world’s largest private investors such as Blackstone and KKR, representing roughly more than $700 billion in assets.

Emerging in this context is a cadre of corporates that are executing strategies to invest in ventures that drive social and environmental impact. “Solving our planet’s carbon issues will require technology that does not exist today,” wrote Microsoft’s Brad Smith when he announced the firm’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund to invest in technologies and expand access to capital to carbon-tech entrepreneurs. “A significant part of our endeavor involves putting Microsoft’s balance sheet to work to stimulate and accelerate the development of carbon removal technology.” 

Beyond Buybacks: 10 ways to put corporate cash to work

With more than $22 trillion of balance sheet cash – and the ability to raise significant capital through instruments like green bonds – corporates have an immense opportunity to accelerate sustainability by leveraging their core businesses, operations, and global supply chains. 

Strategic alignment

Corporate investments to spur innovation can be expressed through many channels, including research and development, internal incubation, and even mergers and acquisitions. Perhaps the most widely recognized avenue is through corporate venture capital (CVC). With more than $57 billion invested across more than 3,200 deals in 2019, corporates have never been as active in the open innovation economy.

CVC generally refers to a direct equity investment in a startup company using balance sheet capital or through an intermediary vehicle. CVCs typically seek to achieve two objectives: an expected return commensurate with the corporate’s cost of capital and “strategic” value. Highly contextual to a specific company, strategic value can accrue to a corporate in a myriad of ways such as garnering technical insights, driving revenue growth through partnerships, or inspiring employee engagement.

SoftBank, Salesforce and Orange signal corporate venture capital’s tilt towards impact investing

By marrying the scope of CVC and logic of impact investing, a growing field of corporate investors are seeking to generate financial return, strategic value, and impact

Salesforce is an early adopter of such an approach. “Social and environmental impact is core to who we are as a company,” says Claudine Emeott of the $50 million Salesforce Impact Fund. Launched in 2017 with Salesforce Ventures, “the Impact Fund is uniquely positioned to catalyze the growth of companies who are building products and solutions to benefit society.” Through the fund, portfolio companies receive funding to accelerate their growth, in addition to the credibility, access and advice that comes with an investment from Salesforce Ventures.

For mission-driven entrepreneurs, credibility is key. Recent quantitative research suggests that when compared to traditional venture capitalists, angel investors, or investment banks, CVCs are “uniquely more helpful” to impact-oriented startups by conferring legitimacy and signaling those “poised to be disruptive winners.”

More than capital

As a strategic investor, says Emeott, “we believe that our capital is just the start to a deeper relationship, and we are excited to roll up our sleeves and work alongside our entrepreneurs to help them leverage the power of the Salesforce ecosystem.”

Corporates chase impact and innovation with venture investments

Unite Us, a Salesforce Impact Fund portfolio company, believes Salesforce can spot long-term value in companies that are driving change and impact. “Salesforce understands and supports our mission to use combined technology and community engagement to transform how integrated healthcare and services are delivered in communities,” says Unite Us’ Dan Brillman.

Danone Manifesto Ventures (DMV), the $150 million corporate venture arm of global consumer company Danone, launched in 2016. To help signal its impact commitment to entrepreneurs and co-investors, Danone Manifesto Ventures became the first corporate venture fund to receive B-Corp certification, a business certification to meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability. While not a prerequisite for investment, B-Corp certification has helped facilitate meaningful conversations with entrepreneurs around mission and values. 

“[The B Corporation certification reinforces] our commitment towards entrepreneurs who embrace our view that success is not only measured by profit but also by social and environmental impact,” says Danone’s Laurent Marcel.

Beyond simply financial capital, corporates offer startups and emerging companies business resources, intellectual capital, and a wide network of customers and suppliers. Access to managerial, technical, and business expertise has the potential to better structure and drive enterprise growth. Together, these advantages can be a “multiplier effect” to differentiate performance.

DMV backed San Francisco-based Harmless Harvest, the organic coconut water company, not simply because of its product, but also because of how thoughtful the company was in implementing programs to support the environment and livelihoods of farmers in Thailand.  Aligned in mission, Harmless Harvest launched a program on regenerative agriculture with support from another corporate resource, Danone’s Ecosystem Fund, which focuses on co-creation of inclusive businesses.

Patient capital

Corporates are able to consider both long-term sustainability challenges and the disruptive technologies that could solve them by balancing both returns and strategic value. This resonates with Total Carbon Neutrality Ventures, or TCNV,  the corporate venture capital unit of global energy company Total. TCNV’s mission “is focused on finding, funding and fostering high-potential start-ups which will contribute to creating a low carbon future.”

Should impact entrepreneurs beware the strategic corporate investor? (podcast)

Since 2008, TCNV and its predecessor teams have invested in early-stage ventures with a recognition that energy disruptors require patient sources of capital. “By aligning with longer-term expectations for startups solving the energy transition, corporate investors offer ‘patient’ capital. We can also leverage our patient approach to identify frontier opportunities for impact and to fund enabling technologies,” says TCNV’s Ademidun (Demi) Edosomwan.

Building on its existing portfolio of 35 global start-ups, TCNV’s $400 million fund includes a mandate to invest in providing energy access for people living off-grid in emerging markets. With a corporate footprint in more than 40 African markets, TCNV seeks to balance generating returns with investing in innovations that help Total future-proof its business and provide reliable, affordable and clean energy. The portfolio includes companies such as ZOLA Electric (off-grid energy) and SparkMeter (smart metering). 

Purpose and inclusion

As corporates pursue sustainable innovation, they can activate purpose. By 2025, millennials will comprise the majority of the global workforce, and nearly all millennials want to use their skills to “do well and do good.” Millennials also represent the most diverse generational cohort in US history, and the business case is clear: diverse companies are more likely to outperform less diverse peers, according to research from McKinsey.

Earlier this year, Citi, the global banking franchise, announced the launch of a $150 million Citi Impact Fund. The fund makes equity investments in “double bottom line” ventures that have a positive impact on society, across workforce development, physical and social infrastructure, financial capability, and sustainability. The new effort uses the bank’s own capital to invest in businesses that are led or owned by women and minority entrepreneurs “to not only help these businesses scale and thrive but to also shine a light on the investment opportunities among this pool of often overlooked, high potential entrepreneurs.”

Institutional Shift: Corporate operations are the front lines of sustainability (podcast)

At least a dozen corporate venture funds, including Comcast Venture’s Catalyst Fund, Salesforce Impact Fund, and Microsoft’s M12 invest with a “gender lens” or a broader diversity investment strategy that includes a gender focus, according to the latest research from Project Sage, a Wharton Social Impact project.

Seizing the moment

The sustainability challenges we face today are too profound, material, and time-bound. The United Nations estimates an annual private capital funding gap of nearly $2.5 trillion to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Private capital will undoubtedly have an important role to play, but capital alone is not enough. Equally important is the velocity in adopting innovative technologies and solutions with purpose and intent. 

To seize the opportunity, corporates must collaborate with entrepreneurs, governments, philanthropy, and civil society. I, for one, am optimistic that corporates can play a meaningful role to accelerate a more sustainable future.

Global corporations start to capitalize on ‘positive externalities’


Moses Choi has spent the last decade executing investments and managing sustainable innovation opportunities across capital markets, ESG, technology, and corporate venture capital.  The views expressed in this op-ed are his own. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, please reach out to him on LinkedIn.

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