In our first conversation on the Climate Cloud, we are joined by Amy Francetic, co-founder and Managing General Partner of Buoyant Ventures. Amy dives into detail on why the time is now for investing in digital solutions for climate risk.
Don Fornes: (00:11)
Hello everyone. And welcome to the first official conversation on the Climate Cloud. I'm Don Fornes, the founder and editor here at the Climate Cloud. And I'm excited to be joined by Amy Francetic of Buoyant Ventures today. Hi Amy.
Amy Francetic: (00:59)
Hey, Don. Great to see you. And I'm so excited to be your inaugural guest.
Don Fornes: (01:04)
And it, it makes so much sense because you are a founder and partner at Buoyant, which is a new venture fund focused on this same thesis that I have with the Climate Cloud, which is: "software will play a critical role in helping to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects." So it makes a lot of sense that you would be my first guest here and I want to point out you're not just a venture capitalist, but you are a founder...a serial entrepreneur.
Amy Francetic: (01:44)
I am, yes. I haven't been scared away from the first time or the second time. So, and this may, hopefully this is my last one. I'm hoping that this is something I do for the rest of my life. So this may be my fourth, BUTmaybe my final entrepreneurial effort.
Don Fornes: (02:05)
Well it's such a such a critical background to have empathy for the founders who are starting these companies and starting that arduous journey. And so I think for founders looking for funding that, they really appreciate when the person sitting across the table from them understands their journey, what they're experiencing today and what they're about to experience. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about your background, your personal journey and how you got to starting Buoyant.
Amy Francetic: (02:36)
Sure. I'd be happy to. Well I started out my first effort, in starting a company was actually in the consumer technology space. And so I started a company called Zowie and we actually spun out of Interval Research, which was kind of like the MIT Media Lab, but on the West Coast in Palo Alto and Paul Allen, who was one of the co-founders of Microsoft, was funding Integral Research. And he ended up putting some capital into Zowie. We were putting sensors into toys and connecting toys to the PC and using the toys to control a virtual experience on the PC. And we sold that company to Lego. So I have two girls and I was really a hero in their eyes that I sold a company to Lego. We had a lot of Legos and I think that my girls are teenagers and I think they just stopped playing with Legos like a couple of years ago, but forever we had Legos in the house and, they were always really proud that their mom had sold the company Lego.
Amy Francetic: (03:41)
But after Zowie I started Clean Energy Trust, which is a technology accelerator here in Chicago. And we're writing first checks into really hard to fund deep tech, clean energy companies in the broader Midwest. And then I started energize ventures, which is, a successful, venture fund here in Chicago, that I started with Michael Polski and it still exists and they invest in digital energy and industrial automation, but buoyant is really what I consider to be something that will represent my legacy and my overall goal of what I want to accomplish in my career, which is to make a meaningful difference in this fight against climate change and drive some investments that will create well for investors, as well as these amazing entrepreneurs that are turning their attention to this important challenge.
Amy Francetic: (04:33)
I came to climate and clean energy after having gotten cancer. So I was relatively young. I had just sold Zoe and my husband and I were trying to start a family and we were having a hard time and it turns out that was because I had a rare form of cancer and I had to address that first. And so I took some time off of work and was treated for that successfully. And soon after that we got pregnant right away and we started our family and then we had two girls one after the other. So I had a period of time. This was sort of 2002 to say 2004 when I was dealing with all that and getting started in a family. And when I got ready to work again and I knew I wanted to work again, I thought I have to be doing something that is really purposeful and meaningful.
Amy Francetic: (05:24)
Now that I've had this life experience that makes me really grateful that I'm still here, but also I have these kids and I want to do something that is going to make the world better for them. And I had such a deep connection to the natural world and the environment, and have always looked to nature as sort of my tonic and my therapy. And I'm a runner and I've been a runner my whole life. And I ran on the track team at Stanford. So I thought I really wanted to do something to sort of save the natural environment and to make things better, to sort of slow the effects of climate change. So that's what led me to creating clean energy trust and energize. And then now here and I'm really excited that this is a great time. I think better than any of the 15 years that I've been working in this space to make some tremendous inroads against climate change. And there's so many investible technologies and we're seeing all the right forces combined to make this a very good time to make some real progress.
Don Fornes: (06:28)
Got it. Thanks. Thanks for sharing those, that path and that story. It's amazing how these seemingly tragic events and challenges we face can inform our purpose in life. And I appreciate you sharing that. Let's talk more about software versus climate change and why now what I, when some of this in my initial thesis on the climate cloud blog. Can you talk about what brought you to focus on that intersection and why now? Because certainly in clean tech we have the history of kind of clean tech, one dot and that didn't end so well. But I think you and I both believe this is this time is different and we have climate tech, which is the new term being used. And it does capture a very different environment than what we had in 2001.
Amy Francetic: (07:27)
Yeah, yeah, definitely. There's a lot of reasons why I think this is a great time. And from Buoyant in particular, we were really tracking three major trends that informed our thesis. One was, we talked about Cleantech 1.0 versus now is the birth of these digital technologies that are able to turn huge volumes of data into some kind of meaningful insights. And that's due to the advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning and data science. And so that's really accelerated and has evolved over the last five to six years. And we're seeing that across all elements of industry, but is also now being applied to climate change. So that one is that sort of underlying foundation of digital technologies and all of the recent advancements in those underlying technologies. The second is we saw how so many corporations were making commitments to decarbonize.
Amy Francetic: (08:29)
And these big corporations, global corporations were getting pressure from their investors, from their shareholders, from their customers, from their employees. And so they were starting to figure out how to remove carbon from their businesses, scope one, two, and three carbon emissions from their businesses. And that was a trend that was happening without any kind of real federal guidance, regular regulations or any other sort of more heavy handed pressure. So, and that just accelerated tremendously over the last sort of three, four years. And then the last one was how the institutional investment world was moving to start to identify carbon emissions and risk and investment portfolios and calling for more sustainable and ESG related investments. And that was happening in banks who, who needed to sort of disclose what kind of risks they had. It was happening for asset managers and in the insurance world.
Amy Francetic: (09:24)
And we're seeing conformity to some of the emerging standards, like the TCFD standards that are being widely adopted at the task force for climate related financial disclosure. And that's being adopted by institutional investors around the world, but as especially taking hold in Europe, so we thought this is absolutely going to be coming to the us. And we saw so many of these large institutional investors saying, all right, we support this, we're raising our hand to do this. And that they were taking it seriously because they were getting pressure from their investors who were asking these questions, the pensions and endowments were getting pressure from the students at the universities. And so that was another big trend. So Buoyant sits at the center of those trends using digital technologies to identify ways to turn data into something useful, to help either mitigate and reduce carbon emissions and sort of reduce the impacts of climate change, but also to help adapt successfully to climate change. So digital solutions can be helpful in both category. And we strongly feel like this is a moment where some of these companies that we'll be investing in will be the Googles and Amazons of the next decade. And that the opportunity is that large and across all facets of industry. So we want to be placing bets and those kinds of companies that we think have the ability to scale up and be that successful, and that transformative.
Don Fornes: (10:53)
You mentioned TCFD and there's Saxby, and these are largely voluntary climate risk disclosures and footprint disclosures. But I mean now with a Biden presidency and democratic control of the Senate, we may start to see some of these become policy. Can what do you see coming from the Biden administration over the next four years?
Amy Francetic: (11:21)
Well I think in regards first to your point about TCFD the United Kingdom and New Zealand have both started to put regulatory forcement behind those. So we expect that the Biden administration that is quite likely that the US will start to adopt some of those regulatory requirements for investors to make these disclosures into conform to some of their standards. So that's number one and that would happen at the federal level and through one of the agencies related to finance, whether it's very likely the sec would enforce something like that. I think what's so exciting about the Biden administration's opportunity here is that already the, the staff and the appointments have been so favorable to climate change across all elements of the federal government in Biden's cabinet. But the selection of leadership, like Jennifer Granholm for the DOE and Janet Yellen of the Fed and very likely who's going to be in these roles across all different agencies, there's going to be some leadership that we know is very climate friendly and all those different agencies.
Amy Francetic: (12:38)
So I think that that is one thing that's very, very hopeful is that it's not just going to be isolated to the traditional agencies like the department of energy or the EPA. The other thing that I think we think a lot about is the increase in funding for research for R&D. And so many of these agencies that had been funding, whether it was NOAH, NASA, the DOE, EPA, even the NSF in some areas, their budgets haven't gutted. In this last administration, we expect that these budgets will be replenished and we'll start to see some deployment of capital that will go into breakthrough technologies. And we already know that has its something that has generally has bi-partisan support, especially some of the programs like RPE that have been very transformative and getting some of these research ideas into market.
Amy Francetic: (13:28)
And then we hope that the tax benefits, the tax incentives will be extended for renewables and hopefully will include things like storage and that we expect that there will be some tax benefits for some of the other underlying fundamental technologies. And then I think the other area that I would just call out is the infrastructure investment. So we never did get the infrastructure week during the Trump administration, but the investment and deployment of dollars and billions of dollars into infrastructure, if it has done also with some sustainability goals in mind, that's a great opportunity to really deploy money into, into jobs and into our nation's infrastructure that can really help position us to better adapt to climate change, but also to make us more successful at fighting climate change moving forward.
Don Fornes: (14:27)
So maybe we could get into a little more detail on what policy might look like, thee presidency, you have a democratic majority in the house, you have 50/50 in the Senate, but of course that, Kamala Harris is a tie breaker there in favor of democratic policy. And of course there are, there are Republicans who get it Republicans who understand the risk of climate change not all. And you have infrastructure and job creation is a bipartisan type of a topic that can get BiPAP, partisan support. But when you look at something like the green new deal, which was broadly criticized as being too expansive where do you think the likely outcome sits on that spectrum? Let's say what we have seen from Trump on one end of the spectrum and the green new deal on the other, what do you expect to see from a Biden administration and how do you see it getting done mechanically?
Amy Francetic: (15:48)
Well, we know, immediately his biggest focus is COVID right. So we even heard that last night in the speech that he gave on this two, almost $2 trillion package that he wants to propose that will include COVID relief, but also includes some spending on infrastructure in there as well as support for clean energy related jobs. So he's capturing that already in this $2 trillion package, but in doing that to get that to pass he is very likely going to use this mechanism called reconciliation, which only requires 51 votes in the Senate to pass something. And so this is sort of his one shot to do that. And I think why they're loading that up with not just COVID relief but also some of these other important items. So we know COVID relief is front and center, but we, we hopefully will get in that budget.
Amy Francetic: (16:43)
Some additional benefits for climate change. And he called that out in his speech last night, which I was really excited to hear as well. And so in that situation you still need to have some Republican support for that as well, but that's your sort of one shot to do it with sort of 51 votes and that after that in a budget cycle, you have to get 60 votes and we don't think he's going to undo the filibuster, which would enable him to pass more, proposals with that 51 majority. So I think that this is, this is it. This is important to get this done now. I don't think we're going to see anything sweeping, like it was related to the green new deal this year.
Amy Francetic: (17:30)
You know, I think that this year he's got a lot on his plate to deal with. But I do think that there was just published today. The New York times published a report on sort of voter support for climate action in 66% of voters are in favor of doing something about climate change and policies that are going address climate change. So I think the hope is that this year we get done what we can taking a back seat to COVID and that in the subsequent years as more and more voter support comes out and Republicans feel like they have to listen to those voters, that we will have another chance to introduce some even broader range policies. And I don't think that some kind of carbon tax or carbon carbon dividend is off the table not going to happen this year.
Amy Francetic: (18:20)
But I think down the line, I think we being able to revisit that I don't think there's a crazy idea. I think that it would have been impossible under a Trump presidency, but I don't think it's impossible. I think we'd still have to see what kind of Republican support there would be to implement something like that. We do know that it has the support of some very large influential businesses who are looking for some way to have more predictability around climate policy instead of this sort of yo-yo of having one administration under the other administrations policies. So I think that that is something that could be taken on in the sort of second half of his presidency, if we can gain more and more voters support that would give the Republicans some air cover on that. And if we had more businesses step up to say that they wanted something like that.
Don Fornes: (19:12)
Yeah, well, we certainly need a price on carbon and a healthy one at that, but that there has been Republican support when you added a dividend to price from a carbon tax. So that's not that's not impossible. We could shift gears a bit and talk about software buoyant, is focused on digital solutions to climate change. Can you tell us, I mean, it perhaps it's obvious, but why software, but also just how far can software go when you think about mitigating climate change? Do you think about the tough tech, the material science, the hardware of solar and wind and energy storage, but just how much of an impact can software have in this?
Amy Francetic: (20:06)
Well, we're looking for digital solutions. We're looking at them that that are addressing four main industry categories, the ones that have the largest contributions to emissions and that's transportation, energy, and water, and then the built environment. So we're looking at climate tech solutions that can be applied across not a single company that could do all those, but that we're looking across those industries for digital solutions. And so in the case of our first investment, in the case of Raptor Maps, this company is using machine learning to analyze drone footage. That's captured of utility scale solar, and by analyzing footage at different stages, even of construction and operations. They can identify weaknesses in those solar arrays and make recommendations for improving and fixing those weaknesses so that they ultimately optimize the performance of those solar assets. And that's on the margin, for sure it's sort of like the increasing output by a few percentage points, but applied to megawatts and megawatts and gigawatts of solar power, that that can be very, very beneficial and makes the investment in solar power more successful.
Amy Francetic: (21:21)
And the one thing too, that we liked about Raptor Maps and the effect of the digital technologies are creating a system of record to record the performance of that asset. And that's really helpful to have that independent sort of source of truth on the asset when there is a transaction or a new investor coming into play. And so they want to see that independent system of record to give them confidence of what kind of output or almost a guarantee of what they're going to be buying. And that, that will help to bring more and more investor capital into the space. And so that's the kind of like underlying technology that is correlated to what we now have as very cost competitive, fundamental infrastructure in the, in the category and why we can afford to look sort of an optimizing and sort of investments on the margin, because we do have this underlying, asset, which is solar energy, which is, next to wind is the cheapest source of new energy to put on the grid.
Amy Francetic: (22:25)
So we're fortunate that in the last, five to 10 years renewables have made such incredible advances that you can look at. So that optimization layer the other piece that I think about is applied to the financial industry. So that's the trend that I mentioned earlier about the need for financial disclosure, as well as the corporations looking to decarbonize, if a digital technology could make a company, try to get to net zero, and you apply that across, companies and sort of carbon footprint globally, that could be an enormous benefit that is not necessarily about sucking carbon out of the air. It's more about the awareness and then the reduction plans, but applied globally, I think could be incredibly transformative. Especially when you think about trillions of dollars of investment, if it is, it becomes uninvestible to invest in coal and fossil fuels.
Amy Francetic: (23:19)
And if the markets really tank for those assets because of their high carbon footprint, and it becomes much more attractive to invest in cleaner sources of energy, you are helping to displace and make uneconomic those other assets. And so I think that that's that can have a tremendous, tremendous benefit. And it's not necessarily about a technology like carbon capture that is actually removing carbon from the air. It's more making UN unsuccessful some of the incumbent technologies, which are contributing a lot to the problem. So it's somewhat of an indirect applied solution, but it has a tremendous impact when you consider the trillions of dollars that are going into investments in this category and how it can really accelerate all that. And so that's what I think is really exciting.
Don Fornes: (24:14)
Yeah, I mean, going back to your initial drivers for this thesis, the declining cost curves for solar and wind, when you look at the levelized cost of energy have declined to such a point that they're very competitive with natural gas have long since, put the hurt on coal and that's the massive deployment of those technologies for energy generation are creating this opportunity for the software that either unlocks the financing or supports the more efficient deployment or maintenance of that solar and wind. So a lot of things, a lot of great tailwinds for this thesis, like one thing you mentioned Raptor Maps, running AI ML on drone imagery. And that drone is a piece of hardware. And one thing about this thesis I think we both see is that a lot of this software is tightly coupled with some piece of hardware other than the desktop or laptop or mobile phone that we see with most software. There are all sorts of internet of things devices and drones. Tell me about as an investor, how do you think about that hardware element in this thesis? How do you think about an income statement for a company that is selling or reselling that kind of hardware? How does it impact your thoughts about an investment?
Amy Francetic: (25:51)
We are happy to invest in companies that have hardware as part of their solution. As long as it's in the service of the software and data collection. And it's very, it's not uncommon for someone to need a piece of hardware to collect some unique data, to make their data analysis, their software more successful and more have greater efficacy. So you pointed out in the case of Raptor Maps, that they're using the collection of the imagery as through the drones, as sort of the hardware service of what their real solution is, which is this analysis. But we see this also in the agricultural space where folks are putting sensors onto the farm, into the supply chain to try to detect something, whether it is that will help the farmer increase their yield in the production of their farms or reduce the waste.
Amy Francetic: (26:51)
And once they've harvested something and, between the farm and the table, like how do you reduce the waste in that supply chain? So in some cases you need unique hardware to collect that data. Sometimes it's putting hardware into infrastructure that in the case of one company that we really liked a storm sensor that's doing well, they're putting a low cost sensor in sewer pipes, and they can collect information on the flow of water in those sewers. And that's really important because during big storm events, which are becoming more and more frequent the sewer systems, especially the aging sewer systems that we have here in the Midwest, and that exist on the East coast in new England get overwhelmed and they flood neighborhoods. And it tends to be the worst in some of the poor neighborhoods. So by putting sensors in there, you can actually give information to municipal water districts to manage that volume of water before it becomes a flooding disaster for some poor neighborhood.
Amy Francetic: (27:51)
And it also helps them site infrastructure more successfully, but you need that sensor because the software is not capturing high enough resolution information about what's happening in that pipe. We see this also in some cases using LIDAR to capture information or using satellites. And so if a company is using satellites to capture unique data about the earth, a lot of the folks that are measuring climate risks are analyzing publicly available data sources published by NOAA and NASA, and pairing that with some kind of subscription data source they have that is captured by satellites. And so you can see there that the satellites are providing a lot of really important data, but for instance, we're not so interested in investing in a satellite company, we want to invest in the company that's using that data. And in this case a lot of satellites will have a subscription business. They'll sell their their imagery to folks that are turning that into some kind of data product. So just a few examples of different types of hardware that is in service of software.
Don Fornes: (28:57)
Yeah. And you also see it in the built environment with sensors on boilers or HVAC systems, and certainly in transportation from whether it be the automobile itself or chargers and the network. So there's going to be a lot of entrepreneurs who have this hardware component or in an internet of things element, how should they benchmark themselves? How should they think about gross margins and whether they're building their own hardware or reselling what is a venture capitalist looking at in their business plan, in their financial model when it comes to this hardware?
Amy Francetic: (29:40)
So that's definitely something that we think a lot about if they have both right. And I would say they have hardware and software. Sometimes you can have a artificially high revenue stream, but it's not recurring. Okay. So we're looking for annual recurring revenue. And if there's a hardware sale and a software sale, usually that hardware is being sold once. And then the software is on some kind of annual subscription. So we care much more about the subscription revenue. And then we also are really careful to sort of piece apart those sources of revenue. The one other thing I would throw in that you didn't ask me about that comes up a lot as we're looking at these businesses is consulting revenue. And it's very common for companies that are trying to build a software solution to have some amount of consulting revenue, especially in the early years, because there's a need to help their customers use what they have.
Amy Francetic: (30:43)
And there's a heavy need, especially in the beginning years to customize what they have to the needs of the, the use cases that the customers have. So you want to be able to charge for that. So that's a key thing is like, you don't want to just leave all that money on the table or have that customer go to a consultant that implements what you have. You want to be able to get some benefit back to the company for that. So we oftentimes will see some revenue split into the software that is annual recurring. We might if it's a hardware software company, then we'll see that one time hardware sale. And sometimes it's the land and expand like where they might sell a few sensors. And then once they have that customer, they have other locations. If it's a farm, they've got other farms and they'd would start with a handful, but then they could also sell more hardware to them once it's proven itself.
Amy Francetic: (31:30)
And then we also see the services component and we're looking for software margins are sort of 70% or better type margins in a business. So eventually you want to see that really emerge as the leading business model, but I think it's completely acceptable in the early years, sort of seed a and even at the stage where you have some of all of that. And you'd have the services component as well. But you're really just looking for that eventually to become recurring and to be more automated. And in our space traditional SAS companies, once you've hit that, varies, but 10 to $20 million of annual recurring revenue, you become an, and you start to become an attractive acquisition target to a tech buyer or in our case, it might be an energy buyer. It might be somebody that's in the financial, it might be a FinTech play. So we see a lot of companies that we're considering now that might find an exit through more of a financial buyer. So you've then start to become attractive to them because they can see that as enough revenue to make a difference. And these are quite good for these kinds of businesses historically. So you get a pretty nice valuation firm at that point.
Don Fornes: (32:46)
Yeah. So Buoyant, it's my understanding, is focused primarily on Series A, maybe Series B rounds. That's your chosen stage?
Amy Francetic: (32:58)
Yeah, yeah. Series A, I would say is our sweet spot. And the good thing is in this space companies can get pretty far with seed funding. So I think the prices are starting to creep up. The round sizes are starting to increase, but I think, a company that has raised a few million dollars call it sort of $2 to $3 million at the seed stage can get to a minimally viable product and to have a few customers for us to be able to diligence. And then at the Series A round maybe they've got $1 million or so or less in revenues. And they're looking to raise anywhere between say $5 and $10 million. And they're trying to grow their business to be able to try to get to closer to that $10 million in annual recurring revenue with that a round investment.
Amy Francetic: (33:50)
So you can get quite a bit of traction. And what I think we really like about investing at the round is we have a lot of customer relationships and care a lot about bringing value to our investments and my partners Daniel Hullah and Allison Myers have deep customer relationships that we can help bring to these customers, but they have to be ready for that. So if they don't yet have a team if it's only just a couple of people, then they may not be able to really service those customers very well. And if the solution is not yet baked well enough that they could sell to a larger customer, we won't be able to help them as much. So we want to see some more development and also see them get some more staff members so that it isn't just a CEO taking every sales call and also trying to run the business. The other thing I was going to say about the stage was, and I just forgot what the other thing was.
Don Fornes: (34:48)
Sorry. One more question. We've covered a lot here. Well maybe we just... you pointed out your, customer relationships and that's certainly one differentiator, one piece of value that you can bring to your investments, but this Climate Cloud thesis or digital solutions to climate change, apparently it's not a secret anymore. We're seeing more and more funds. Union Square Ventures just announced 160 million dollar climate fund. How will Buoyant differentiate... Make its money greener for founders?
Amy Francetic: (35:38)
I think being very, very clear about our expertise we do these deep dives. So when we are considering an investment area we've kind of carved up our thesis into some sub-sectors and we'll go deep and understand very well, what are some of the drivers in those sub-sectors. So we've done one deep dive on aquaculture, we've done another mobility, and now we've got this enormous one that we're doing on climate risk intelligence. And as part of that, we will just read a time talk to experts. And then the important part of this is mapping all of the startups and high-growth businesses in that category. So we understand the emerging landscape and the competitive landscape, very importantly, for these businesses. And then we go talk to all those businesses and we'll end up, making some investments in that space, but we come to it with such a thoughtful approach that when we talk to these CEOs I think what's what makes a difference to them as they know how expert we are.
Amy Francetic: (36:45)
Well, I don't even think we're expert yet because every time we uncover, we are learning so much more, but we are trying to be expert at their space. And in the course of that expertise, I think we can be very helpful thinking through the business model. But we also know really well, the competitive landscape and in the customer landscape. So in the case of Raptor Maps, we're making customer introductions, we've made a number already for them. And we understand what they're up against, and it is what it will take to succeed in this area, in this climate risk intelligence space. I think in, in particular, we really want to be the experts in that. And our goal is to be the Sequoia of climate tech and to be that good at it and get those kinds of results into the that experts, in this space. So that's our goal and you just don't get there unless you really put in the time to read everything talk to everybody, talk to CEOs form opinions about what it's going to take to win and to have like a really great group of advisors. And so we've got a growing group of advisors that are on the front lines at insurance companies at banks and they're helping us think through this.
Don Fornes: (38:02)
Great, Amy, I think this call went well. It was really good to speak with you. And I appreciate you joining me for this first Climate Cloud conversation.
Amy Francetic: (38:13)
Don, we are so thrilled that you're working on this problem and that you're taking your success from your software career and, and using it to, to address climate change. We feel like we're kindred spirits and we are very excited to work with you and to find some deals to do together. So thank you so much for having me.
Don Fornes: (38:34)
All right. Thank you, Amy. All right. I guess that's that.