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S2E04: Greentech Alliance with Ilona Ludwig

Entrepreneurs are champions of positive change. Green technology companies are empowering the world via innovative technologies to address sustainability concerns. Join us in this episode as we dive into the green technology landscape with Ilona Ludewig, a serial entrepreneur who co-founded Octopus Energy and is currently the board advisor at Greentech Alliance. Get invaluable insights from Ilona as we explore actionable steps entrepreneurs can take in building a sustainable future, bust myths about hydrogen hype, and tackle the obstacles on the path to green.

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Listen to the episode here and see the transcript below!


Hello everyone and welcome back to season 2 of The GreenHouse. We are Rishi and Ingrid and we will be your hosts for today's episode.


Today we have Ilona Ludwig. She is an entrepreneur in the sustainability space, having co- founded the Green Energy Retailer 400 and subsequently exiting to Octopus Energy.

Currently, she is a board of advisor at Greentech Alliance, an international community of companies that seek to advance Greentechnology businesses. Hi Ilona, could you give us a short introduction of yourself, including your background in entrepreneurship and your current role at Greentech Alliance?


Hello, both. Thank you very much for inviting me on your podcast. It's a very, very worthy mission. I am a serial entrepreneur. And as you rightly say, my, well, the thing I'm mostly proud of is founding an energy company, allowing as many people as possible, the access to clean green energy. So this also then led me to join the Greentech Alliance, which is the community and a network of people in this space of impact investors, green and tech entrepreneurs like me and we support each other.

So my role there is an advisor, which means if there's another business who might struggle with a strategic or operational challenge, they can reach out to me and I have given advice to other companies that way. There are also meetups we get together and basically it's a community of advisors in this Alliance who kind of fight in a positive sense for a better, greener, more climate- friendly society in general.


That's really interesting. If I could just ask like a small follow up, are there any projects that you've worked on at Greentech Alliance that you've, you know, really made an impact on you?


I've worked with a UK company who are tackling waste, specifically in the gastronomy, like restaurant businesses.

So they are providing a tech solution for these businesses to measure their, well, their waste, and then, uh, well, insights into them, how much and of what, and how they could possibly improve to reduce that waste. So that I think is a fantastic mission because it is an everyday challenge that a lot of restaurants have.

And it's not just the sustainability side that I really like about that, but it is technology that is involved in that. And of course, we are reducing, you know, waste in food, which is something that we eat everyday. And, you know, production of food has a massive environmental footprint. So it ticks a lot of boxes in one. So that's why I really liked that specific project.


Thanks for that. I know you're from a tech background, so I wanted to ask you more about artificial intelligence as it's been quite in the news recently. What are the key ways in which you think AI can help to drive sustainability and what new doors has it opened?


Just a general understanding of how I see AI. I am also doing a lot of work in behavioural science, and it's very interesting for me to understand the relationship between humans and their thinking and technology. So it's been really fascinating to see there's been some research looking into how AI and humans really work together.

And I think as humans, we have this almost like an arrogance that we're thinking we are. We think the best. We can do everything the best, and in certain ways that is true, but the bit we're best at is ambiguity, is when it's personal relationships and it's when we have to interpret emotions, et cetera.

So this research that I mentioned, um, looked at interactions between AI and humans, and it came out very, very clearly. The best way it works when the AI delegates to a human. And not the other way around. So basically, if we have AI to kind of do the things that are more obvious, that are more logical, more structured, and then the bits that meet the human interaction, this kind of sensitivity to ambiguity, like that, it comes together beautifully.

So applying this kind of knowledge in a way that the technology is used to bring the best already ordered processed knowledge to a human to then elevate it through this human touch. I think this is where it really is very, very, very powerful. And we all know a research tool is really good to kind of not research as I'm asking you a question, you give me the absolute answer because we know that's not the case because the natural language model just knows the probability of the next word before the one I've just given you.

But, um, kind of bringing together a lot of published information and creating maybe your own language model and say everything on the topic can then be in one specific area, and then I can access it directly and use this knowledge specifically, and then elevate it with my human touch. That's what makes it really, really powerful.


Honestly, the way you describe AI is, like, really so interesting in how you bring in the aspect of behavioural science into it. And kind of, like, bouncing off that question, still on the topic of, like, technology, but this time in the green energy sector. You know, hydrogen energy is something that a lot of people have expressed, uh, excitement about, but I noticed that, like, you expressed quite a firm opposition to it.

Could you, like, maybe share your opinions about this, or if you think there's any other technology that you think it's like distractions in the energy transition.


Yeah, hydrogen is really, really interesting. So, also in behavioural science, you always say context matters, right? And it depends where you apply it.

So I firmly believe that wherever you have access, direct access to the grid. It does not make sense to use hydrogen. So when we're saying personal vehicles or houses should be heated or propelled forward with hydrogen, that doesn't make any sense because the way you produce hydrogen is very highly energy intensive.

So instead of using this energy to produce hydrogen, we could just use the energy, the electricity as it exists, right? So there's no point. I think that's silly, but in places where we don't have access to the grid when we're talking like oversea container ships. If we're talking mining, then that has a space. And then, of course, we can talk about how it's produced, etc. How environmentally friendly it is. But then basically we're saying hydrogen has a place, but it's not the solution to everything. And that to me really is the proper answer. It is really nice to see how very different technologies are trying to solve our energy problem.

And it's exactly that, that we need to say, there is no one solution that would cover everything. It is about balance. It's about the mix. It's about collaboration. It's about understanding rather than an ego game of one specific industry saying, oh, we have the right answer. This is how it has to be. It is a process. We are on a journey. And, uh, we will find, uh, the best mix of all of these resources, but we're not just there yet. So we're still experimenting. So hydrogen has its place, but it is part of the mix. It's not the absolute answer. And I'm really excited about all of the technologies that are trying to solve this issue. And I look for the collaboration between all of these players to actually really, really make it work.


Yeah, I think that's a very overlooked aspect of things like the situational aspects of different technologies. And building off that, I wanted to ask you, what are some main obstacles you think there are in developing and implementing this technology to, you know, create the green transition?


Well, as I just mentioned, right, um, technology development takes time. I was very fortunate to have been at a presentation of one of the world's leading experts. And I'm one of the experts in battery technology, which is another thing, you know, energy storage is a big topic and that is part of this whole package of how do we make this work.

And so the technologies that exist today are not going to be the only ones in the future. So as we are accelerating the transition to electric vehicles. It's a legitimate concern to say, well, do we have enough lithium? Can we make all these batteries? But this expert was telling the audience that it's not just one technology, many, many, many, many others, but they are not just ready for market just yet.

So, I think just focusing on what exists today and limiting our knowledge to what exists now is not correct, right? The beautiful thing is that this demand drives more technological innovation and technologies like the guy described that are in a very difficult different chemical process that is just not safe to use in everyday use right now is being developed to be safe in the future.

And that is really exciting. And I think people who are trying to find a solution for everything right now might just be impatient. And I understand because we want to just be getting on with it. But the beauty is there are more technologies that will come to the market and then the balance, the mix, as I said before, will be what we need. And that will ultimately help us to solve the problem.


Yeah, thank you for telling us about that and about how like different, you know, different technologies, different kinds of green energy have to like come together in order to really drive a transition. Kind of, uh, switching gears here and I'll ask you a few questions about entrepreneurship.

Uh, so do you think entrepreneurs alone can overcome the obstacles there are, uh, to a green energy transition, or are there like other stakeholders, other players who are crucial in tackling these challenges?


I don't think any particular type of company or organization can solve this problem alone. It always needs the critical thinkers. It needs regulation, it needs innovation, and it needs the capital to be able to do this. So again, the right mix of people and, uh, collaboration is, is crucial. So I very much as myself in business, I like to operate in a way that we have 80% of things that we know and that work and we continue doing them, but you need to leave those 20% for experimentation.

Just do things that might seem crazy that might not be proven, but if you never do that, you will never find out anything new. So we could assume that maybe entrepreneurs fill that space in the bigger picture that they just try things. Universities would be in that space as well. They might come up with ideas that don't work yet in the wider market, but that is absolutely needed still in order for them to come to market eventually and then it will attract the capital and then regulation might change because technology has changed. So again, it is this common interest. It's this collaboration, this community, this interest that will come together.

So, no, entrepreneurs alone, I do not think will solve this problem, but they are a very, very crucial part because they are nimble, they're agile, they have new ideas, they're more innovative, and they are faster, and they can just kind of show us, uh, new paths to solving problems.


Right. And if you don't mind, I'll ask a follow up to that. Do you think the regulatory framework that there is in European countries makes, like, the environment good for, like, green energy startups, green energy entrepreneurs?


Yes and no. So I think the role of governments and regulators is to protect society so they cannot be as agile, and changing regulation as often and quickly as we, as entrepreneurs would like. But when you, as we've seen in energy companies, if you have a good example of here is in the green transition and providing clean energy and delivering different pricing structures. You can help humans, you can help households make a positive difference to their lives and then show the regulator here is a way we haven't tried before, but it works. Then working with the regulator, working with government is absolutely the right thing to do.

Because of course, by its own nature, these organisations are not made to be the most, one of the fastest there they have to protect people and that's also really really important.


You highlighted the need to be you know adapting to change and how quickly things can move around So I wanted to ask you what sort of trends in sustainability do you see happening in the next five to ten years?


So we've just talked about the regulator. There is many, many more regulations coming into place. So companies must have a net zero strategy. They must be climate positive. We've just seen at COP, things even shifted. So, um, well, there is the need to comply, which will obviously help those who haven't put it on the agenda so far to move in this direction.

But what I'm personally really, really excited about is climate tech is good business. Right? Because clean energy is more expensive anymore than, uh, well, the fossil fuels. And so if you set out, um, to create a new business, you can put all of the, the clean, the valuable pieces together to create a product and a service that is non-polluting, that is positively contributing.

So it's a massive business opportunity. The clean tech market was $5 trillion. If you're not going for it, I'm kind of thinking you must be mad. Um, now for some companies, it's easier to do because they're more nimble. Um, it is possibly more difficult for the bigger players, but that's where regulation and helps to kind of push even these people into the right kind of direction.

So yeah, I think there will be a lot of positive change and I think technology obviously has a big, big part in that and maybe we have to be worried about more about the humans in the picture rather than technology, but there's going to be moves into the right direction into climate positive office.


And you spoke about how different companies will sort of move in that direction into that green energy market and building off that, I wanted to ask sort of what makes a tech company sustainable and how would you go about measuring a company's environmental impact?


Well, there are obviously established tools and measures.

You can be certified in different ways. I mean, B Corp is also part of that, I would say, because we also shouldn't forget people and community and our governance responsibility in that. Um, which way to choose to measure one's own environmental impact is partially down to, uh, to companies themselves. How would you measure that? There can be many, many, many ways. I say personally, if you are, because we're talking about the perspective of the entrepreneur, meaning you are still discovering, you're creating something. I think for me. That would be the obvious choice in the beginning to say I set it up so it's non polluting in the first place. So I use clean energy. I, I host my data somewhere that is powered by clean energy. I mean, there's ways to do this already when you set it out. And I think that is how we should influence people who are just going into that space.


All right. Thank you. And, um, I'm just going to be pivoting to more, maybe like slightly more personal questions.

And, um, I was just wondering, like you wrote that the values of leaders in tech companies really, is what determines if the company itself would have a positive impact. Do you think this is particularly relevant in the sustainability sector?


Absolutely. Absolutely. Values are important in any organisation because what you want to happen is you need to be very clear what your purpose is in society as a company. What is the goal you want to achieve? Because that also gives anyone who joins you kind of a guiding star if it aligns with what they want for themselves and their own personal lives. So the purpose is the one piece, but as leaders and companies themselves, values will then be the expression of what does it mean for me.

So if your purpose is, as it was for us in 400, to provide the benefits of clean, affordable energy to as many people as possible, our values were do good, be honest and treat everyone fairly. And that's something that means a lot to me as a person, but it also was something that guided us as business principles that helped us as KPIs to make our decisions as in, are we going to acquire this company? Yes or no. Are we going to offer this tariff? Yes or no. Are we going to talk to our customers this way? Yes or no.

And, hence, the values are very powerful for my own behaviour, um, attracting the right kind of people to join us. They are a guiding star for kind of developing our own culture and people. And on top of that, they are a KPI that guides us as a business on the, on the bottom line, which is beautiful and wonderful. And that's what the value really, for me truly means. It goes through everything.


Thank you. That honestly sounds really inspiring about how you really stick true to your values, even with all the, uh, I'm sure obstacles you face, based on doing a startup, right? And, okay, so this will be our last question for today. Now, based on your experience, what advice would you give to students interested in a career in green technology or entrepreneurship?


So it is, as I said, becoming more mass market, so to say, the climate tech space is really big, five trillion dollars worth. It's wonderful. Um, so I would say, don't be afraid to go into it.

If you're worried about making it work for you financially, because that is not a contradiction anymore, great. Um, I've had these conversations actually with people setting out into business saying, I'm going to work for an investment bank. And I asked them, why is that? Oh, because you make lots of money.

I was like, Hmm, is that the right way to operate nowadays when we really need to be more conscious of how we contribute and how we live and how we consume and so on. And there's nothing wrong with going into investment banking, but there is no impact investing. There is, you know, looking specifically at roles that are ESG focus. So, um, I would say look at even traditional roles that you're interested in and find the angle that has the sustainability already built in. Uh, because this is not a contradiction. This is going to be the absolute normal and then try to find what, what really attracts you. I personally think that finance also is something that is so exciting for sustainability, but because where your money goes will have an impact on your carbon footprint, right?

If you're banking with a certain bank who finances coal to still be dug out of the ground without knowing you contributing to something that is polluting, which is not great. So going into even traditional sectors and innovating from the inside can be a very green career. So, yeah, there is so many more opportunities now, and as I said, doing good and doing good business is not not a contradiction.

So what advice would I give everyone is be curious, find new solutions. If somebody says no to you to say why, um, if you already have an idea, say, this is how I would solve this problem. And if you really feel passionate about it, you could just go and do it yourself. You could find your own company to solve that problem. There are so many, many, many, many options, but stay curious, try to solve problems in new and interesting ways. That's really, really the key.


I think that's a really inspiring message for all the students listening to this. As they're looking to shape their careers. Thank you so much for your time, Ilona, for giving us an insight about your work and sharing your expertise about sustainable entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, we have come to the end of this episode, but I'm sure everyone has learned a lot from the wonderful experiences you have shared. This has been Rishi and Ingrid from The Greenhouse, and we hope you visit again.

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