Becoming Clean #10: Ben Cotton

Ben Cotton, Partner and Head of External Relations at Earth Capital Partners
Ben Cotton, Partner and Head of External Relations at Earth Capital Partners

Six months ago, I happened upon CleanEquity Monaco (CEM), the emerging cleantech conference held annually in the Principality, co-founded by H.S.H. Prince Albert and Mungo Park, Chairman of Innovator Capital. After a mesmeric March morning, kicked off by Living PlanIT’s Steve Lewis in an education about new generation technologies and the “citizen experience” of building cities, I then found myself included in a lunch conversation between a scientist and venture capitalist that escalated to such a level of confidentiality that I was asked to remove myself from the dialogue or sign an NDA.

A similar moment happened two weeks ago when I met Mr Park and Ben Cotton, Partner and Head of External Relations at Earth Capital Partners, for a coffee at a café by Saint-Devote. They were on the collective verge of publically announcing a groundbreaking initiative in the field of sustainable technology. By association, these private discussions make me appear cooler than I actually am, however, as of Thursday, September 22, the secret is no longer mine as the official press release, which comes after more than five years of planning, launched the Nobel Sustainability Trust® (NST), with the support of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco.

The Nobel Sustainability Trust becomes official
Prince Albert said in a statement: “It is essential to ensure energy security for developing nations and to promote mitigation of environmental impacts. It is also a major challenge for developed nations, seeking to maintain current living standards, to minimise climate impact on future generations.”

Earth Capital Partners will manage the fund that will “be seeded by the Government of Monaco, which will be joined by other governments, corporations and prominent individuals, such as SET3 Chairman, Stephen Lansdown”.

Mr Park, whose company specialises in sustainable technology and life sciences, has been cited as ’“a major contributor from the outset of this initiative”. “Sustainable technology research and development will raise awareness of the crucial role innovation plays in the mitigation of environmental impacts,” he commented upon the NST announcement. “We, at Innovator Capital, look forward to collaborating with NST and NSF (Nobel Sustainability Fund®) on CEM and multiple other fronts.”

As well as playing a key role in the development of the NST, Ben Cotton is also a long-time supporter of the invitation-only CEM, which celebrates 10 years next March. In the run up to the anniversary edition, Monaco Life is painting 10 portraits in words about the people who have helped the cleantech conference become the world’s leading event over the last decade.

ML: How does a biologist end up working for a fund management firm specialising in sustainable tech investments?
BC: With a university degree in biology, I quickly moved into the world of finance, initially as a broker, and then in a more executive role. From Société Général, I moved to Man Group – a FTSE 100 listed company, and the largest hedge fund company in the world at that time – tasked to find new products to help Man Group growby recycling products, skills and techniques inside the company to bring it into other profitable markets.

The carbon market was just starting, around 2005, and in Man we were finding businesses that were issuing carbon products that were then traded into subsequent markets. When we looked at what was left behind, there were really good businesses, that were self sustaining and making money, and had the ability not just to make money in the conventional way but to start to meet metrics for social and environmental performance. This appeared to go against the grain of traditional financial models.

I approached the CEO of Man Group at the time, the highly respected, now Lord, Stanley Fink, with the idea of promoting the opportunity to improve Man Group’s sustainability image, to recycle a whole load of skills that we are using right across the board, and to make more money for Man’s shareholders.

When you have a new sector, like environmental finance, evolving, sourcing reliable long-term capital is the best way to pull new and innovative stuff through. What we wanted was a slow steady burn for decades.

When Stanley Fink stepped down from Man Group, I decided to take the Green out of Man and this became Earth Capital Partners. It was a finely cut decision; it was 2008 just before Lehman Brothers went down and not the easiest time to start a business.

ML: To an outsider, it doesn’t seem like much has changed in terms of greed in the financial sector since the 2007 crisis.
BC: It’s a difficult cultural issue. Only ten percent of the issues in finance have been addressed since 2007, like a leg fell off and someone stuck a band aid on it. I was brought up believing that, if you were doing good, that was only achieved through philanthropy, and if you were doing business, that wasn’t necessarily very good. That’s why I left investment banking. Both my son and my wife at the time were furious. I kept explaining to my son that “I didn’t want you to grow up realising that everything you were given in your life had been stolen from someone else”. A difficult concept to get across. My wife thought I was insane.

When interviewing new recruits for Earth Capital, one of the questions I ask is about Northern Rock, the British building society turned bank [which went bust before becoming nationalised in 2008 and sold to Virgin Money in 2011]. SG suspected that the guys in Northern Rock didn’t always understand what they were buying so we forbade our sales guys from pitching to them. Eighteen months later, the bank went bust. So we had not been extending credit for those 18 months against product. But the question for an interviewee is this: were we smart to do that?

Yes, because you shut down the credit line 18 months before Northern Rock went bust? Or No, because you would have made more money from selling more product in those 18 months than you would have lost if they had defaulted, and could the shareholders have complained about this?

I know what I think the right answer is but it’s fascinating to see interviewees juggle between what they think I might want them to say and what they believe. … and obviously, what I want them to say is what they believe. If they can do that then they’re a very rare commodity. And these are the people we want. We can’t work with people who only see things in black or white. There are shades of grey to be understood also.

Of course, none of us has a monopoly on being right and those who recognise that they are not right all the time are … well, that’s the problem with investment banking, the bankers often thought they were Gods and could do anything they liked and that the rules didn’t necessarily apply to them.

ML: Hedge fund managers are entering into the art world seeking huge commissions and undercutting established art dealers Are we going to see the same thing in sustainable technology, because it’s a relatively new field, where people come along with the environmental jargon, but really they’re just hustlers.
BC: The market has certainly changed. The emperor has got away with wearing no clothes in investment banking and the central banks have just pumped infinite amounts of free money into the system to bail them out.

It is unbalanced. But everyone looks the other way … because the cost of pointing out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, and this is the problem with my career and where I’ve penalised my family, is that I’m the little boy with the finger. I point when I see things that are not correct. But the world doesn’t want to join in seeing that. It’s like the cartoon mouse running off a cliff and continuing to run in thin air until it looks down and then BAM!

Investors and shareholders are similar, they only see the achieved return on paper after the event. They rarely see the risks that went into evaluating an investment decision.

When I was working at Reuters, very briefly, the CEO gave a mandate to buy an internet search engine. They had a choice of Yahoo or Google to invest into, and the analysis that was made was that, for Google to succeed, it had to “roll 6 sixes in a row”, so the Reuters bought into Yahoo. They made good money, but people might think of Reuters as losers if they only judge the decision in the light of what ultimately happened to the respective companies. The fact that it was an incredibly rare series of events that allowed Google to thrive is great for Google but it was not a risk that Reuters was prepared to take, because backing the one that might have failed would have compromised their business model. They needed safe and steady, and Yahoo was going to succeed whatever happened. People forget the analysis that was done at the point of investment.

We are digressing but it feeds into how I’ll answer the last question,

When, as an example, pension funds say they are investing in green, and that they’ve put trillions of dollars into green investment, what they’ve actually done is cheated. Green investment for them means that when they “feel” that one company on the FTSE 100 is slightly more sustainable than one of its competitors, they start to buy a little bit more of that company and a little bit less of the other. It’s relative. They are only the palest shade of green. That’s why when BP went down in the Gulf of Mexico, investors were all scratching their heads saying, “Hang on, if we’re in a green fund, why are we pumping billions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico?” Well, because BP’s green practices were perceived to be slightly better than Chevron’s or Exxon’s. So when you hear pension funds stand up declaring, “We’re putting trillions of dollars to work in green, we’re wonderful, we’re honourable citizens of the world” … it’s hokum.

CleanEquity 2016 Award Winners. (L-R) Mungo Park (Innovator Capital), Lord Paul Drayson (Drayson Technologies), HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, Seth Grae (Lightbridge Corporation) and Alexis Figeac (INNEON).
CleanEquity 2016 Award Winners. (L-R) Mungo Park (Innovator Capital), Lord Paul Drayson (Drayson Technologies), HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, Seth Grae (Lightbridge Corporation) and Alexis Figeac (INNEON).

ML: When I went to CEM in March, I was wondering why it wasn’t all over the media. The people involved were brilliant and bringing technology to make the world function better together with investors seems clever, and more engaging than reading about what clothes people wear at the Cannes Film Festival.
BC: The world of asset management and investment has a negative image currently, but at CEM over those few days, everything is positive and open. Money is needed for the technologies, so yes, why are people not talking about this?

The simple answer: human nature. We have comfortable lives, good health with an average life span increased by ten years since I was born. What we have now is unimaginable even 20 years ago.

Our comfort is disturbed by talking about new products such as renewable energy, waste recycling, as this can appear fundamentally to challenge our current way of life. In one way it does, in another it doesn’t. The whole point about sustainability is that we can use it now; but we’ve got to make it attractive so that others can see this as a viable, unchallenging alternative. The sledgehammer approach is to give subsidies, while the other, more long-lasting approach is just to make stuff that works and which people buy. This is why CEM is so important. Every single huge corporation currently makes billions of dollars per year out of doing things in a way that is based in the past methods that we are challenging.

What is more important is that you reduce or completely eliminate production of C02 from the way we live our lives. We are all high CO2 producers. It doesn’t need to all be about tax or subsidies but we can’t go on doing what we are doing now and expect our children to enjoy the same quality of life. None of it is sustainable. You can’t have 20-mile flotillas of plastic bottles without there ultimately being consequences. You can’t pump raw sewage into Monaco’s harbour without people’s lifestyles being changed. Each industrial revolution is a challenge to the previous. There’s a lovely quote that says “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones”. We are not going to run out of fossil fuels, the problem is the consequences of using fossil fuels to obtain this incredible lifestyle we enjoy. … No one is saying that we are not going to be able to go on using the output (electricity) forever, it is just that we need to take a hard look at the inputs that we use to achieve the desired outcome.

CEM allows people to step out of the current normal into what the new normal might look like and, in a safe environment, explore scenarios and ways that this might come to pass. On the one hand, you’ve got really smart companies meeting up with really smart investors. People, who feel comfortable coming because they’re amongst wise peers, and investee companies that are prepared to spend money to attend because they feel they’re meeting people who will listen and understand what’s driving their business forward. Not just “here’s a projected IRR of 30%” but “this is what is actually happening in industry”. This is why it is important not just to say “you must recycle water, or clean up nuclear plants”. CEM provides a context and this is important as it helps people move investment capital into the new version of normal. No one’s saying “you’ve got to do it this way” but here are scenarios that might play out and this is what will happen.

If the mechanics in the back room can work with us to get things right, you don’t have to see that in the front room and people can go on living their lives and slip into the new normal, with a more sustainable future for our planet.

Mungo Park is very good at finding “grown ups”, people who have done business before, or, people who know their technology well, so we could afford to spend ten times as much time with CEM companies because they are already pre-screened and selected.

ML: How do you interpret “global technology”, a term promoted more frequently by media?
BC: Part of the problem with the green industry is that it’s fragmented and localised, so we might find five different technologies around the world that are basically achieving the same end. Part of the ethos behind the NST is to de-risk this for investors. We seek to take something that works somewhere and basically give it the capital, the management, the marketing and the manufacturing expertise to grow out from safe hubs elsewhere in the world and to expand their business by selling more product to different parts of the world. If it works in Monaco, there’s a pretty good chance it will work in Shanghai. H.S.H. Prince Albert, although He doesn’t get the credit, is brilliant at helping people to understand what is common and where cities are different underneath the surface.There are generic solutions, but, in their application, the devil is in the detail. He helps others to understand what works, what’s common and what’s different – and why the differences matter.

So, Global Technology for us would mean what we call “technology transfer”. Finding a technology that works in one place, helping the management team to strengthen the product, to get all the proofs they need to get deployment – for example, get their first customers – and at that point, taking some very simple tools, basically wrapping the management team up in cotton wool, and helping them to move that business forward. If it’s appropriate, to manufacture in Sao Paolo and distribute in Brazil, or in Toronto with a local installation partner or whatever.

Mundane and boring but this is what make businesses work, without taking complicated risks with investors’ money.

And we believe that the 30% return that our CIO has had in the past is achievable again in the future. We’re discussing 15 to 20% on gross, net a bit lower, which feel is achievable at relatively low risk.

That’s the sheep-nature of people. Once they see it working, then on they go.

This is why, after Monaco’s leadership, China [Guangdong FTZ] is so important for us. One of the things that was agreed in China last week to create a government supported showcase for new technology: an area of land where we can show these proven technologies and people from all the provinces in China can come and visit and see what rooftop solar looks like, or inductive charging and so on.

ML: Can you give an example?
BC: We’re working on a wonderful idea at the moment in Hong Kong. Each air-conditioning unit there apparently produces 4.5L of water a day, which goes straight down the drain for processing in sewage plants. We own a business that produces smart toilets that do two things. They reduce by about 80 to 85% the amount of water they consume, and because they flush using more air than water, they have a seal to prevent bacteria from being released into the air. This toilet uses 1 to 1.5L to flush compared to around 8 or 9L in a conventional toilet. So,if we could find ways to take the waste water from the air-conditioning unit that could correspond to around 3 flushes, completely free.

Tech transfer and CEM is so important. CEM allows people and academics working in isolation for years and years to aerate their idea in a safe and protected forum. It’s a sort of bubble where you can rehearse ideas that would get you marked out as crazy anywhere else in the world! Here people will listen, and not laugh. More importantly people at CEM have proven skills at taking your idea into commercial success.

Purism is big problem. Everyone wants the best but we just want to make things work better. If you come up with what is identified as the best now, by the time you’ve gone through all the approvals, something else will have appeared which is better. The Holy Grail in all of this is to get your kit out there, even a little bit, so people can see it work and that it’s not “threatening”. And that’s the critical point: where a private equity or venture capital funded company takes off, when lots of customers are buying the product because each time they do buy the product the resultant profit margin is fed back into the company.

ML: Let’s talk about the NST. Trust Chairman, Professor Michael Nobel, said: “The Family traditions of innovation, smart business and philanthropy find their best expression in this new initiative where we collaborate with leaders around the world to promote innovation and to reward excellence”. How did he become involved ?
BC: The Nobel family were fundamental pioneers in the last industrial revolution. Nobel oils [Branobel] was the second largest oil company in the world at the turn of the last century just behind Standard Oil, and they were responsible for creating the first oil tanker and the first oil pipeline. What the descendants of the Nobel family are saying is that there’s this massive history of innovation, and our name still represents one of the most trusted brands, so we want to be looking forward. By encouraging the world to look at alternatives to fossil fuels and create a new industrial revolution more efficient in its use of resources, they want to create an ecosystem and an award to recognise achievements in sustainability, research, development and implementation of renewable energy, through to general acceptance. This is emphatically not an official Nobel prize, it’s an award made by the Nobel Sustainability Trust®, which is a group of trustees taken from the Nobel family, formed in 2011 and chaired by Professor Michael Nobel.

They asked Mungo Park to find an asset manager and he found Earth Capital Partners.

To support that award, we’ve created a fund, the Nobel Sustainability Fund®. All we are doing is helping them finance their programme, which is a symposium that highlights best practice in resource efficiency, a ceremony at which an award is given, the location of which is to be determined.

This is an initiative by family members not a Nobel Foundation initiative. The Foundation, which has given its blessing to the NST, is keen that the Sustainability Award remains independent from the famous prizes that are awarded annually through the mandate of the will of Alfred Nobel. Nevertheless this is something new. It’s a big step.

ML: Part of the NST mission is that “renewable and sustainable energy sources will be available to all members of society”. Why are energy generation and sustainability so slow to take off in Africa and other developing countries?
BC: There is a screaming need, and a growing one, for energy generation and development in Africa. The technology is there and the models to finance it are there, it’s just hard to get things done for many reasons, partly the complexity of Africa itself. Although not so many blockages come from within Africa as those outside Africa would like you to believe. There is a process attached to development capital that makes it unwieldy and hard to deploy and many current development models are driven by goals that are not necessarily correlated to what is needed on the ground. A huge mismatch between intent and what actually happens. We should maybe let Africa get on with being Africa …”

CleanEquity Monaco takes place March 9th-10th, 2017.

Article first published September 16, 2016.

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