Andrew Coburn chose to start his climate tech business in his 60s. Founded in 2021, Risilience is a deep tech firm spun out of the University of Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies, after identifying a growing need for science-based climate analytics.
Risilience works with global corporates such as Burberry, Nestle and easyJet to help mitigate climate risk. It now employs nearly 70 staff, 40% of whom are scientists in the product development division. In February, they closed their Series B investment raise of $26m.
I was 32, had just finished my PhD and was wet behind the ears with some ideas about science-based start-ups.
I’m a scientist and academic and had done spin out businesses from the university. Nigel Payne had come from selling large systems like IBM, which in the 1990s were big mainframe computer systems. Nigel became chairman of my first business, a geographical information system company called CARtograph. He was the business brains, taught me a lot about listening to clients and the problems they needed to solve rather than scientific cleverness.
The business, which started in 1994, was merged into big US insurance analytics player Risk Management System (RMS), acquired in 1998 and bought out by Moody’s in 2021 for $2bn.
Nigel’s key influence was how to shape the analysis, the science and to solve business problems. It has certainly shaped where Risilience is today, one that applies science to businesses that are decarbonising and how to pivot and address climate change.
Some of the old tenets that Nigel put into place of the problem they are trying to solve and working backwards from that has been something that has stuck with us in our business model.
The business risks that Risilience is helping corporates to pre-empt and mitigate against include increasing regulation, potential litigation and changing consumer sentiment, that together could reduce business value by up to 30% if companies fail to act. Our platform helps build a digital twin of their own organisation in order to help them make the investments to reduce the amount of carbon in their business processes.
We work with the likes of Nestle, Coca-Cola and Burberry, all of whom have large international footprints; their business models haven’t been built to mitigate carbon footprints.
We are able to demonstrate to them that if they don't decarbonise their costs will rise. Carbon pricing is going up, regulation is tougher and consumers will buy less products. Our platform guides their decision making.
I could have retired and, at 65, I don’t need to run a start-up. But I am pretty passionate about this. Our young scientists are passionate too about applying their science to the business.
I am helping shape that by saying, "What are the costs and benefits of changing the way I run my business? Don’t focus on the climate, focus much more on the business challenges to meet the challenge of the climate."
Nigel had technique-driven mantras which I adhere to today. Listening was one. He would say, "Andrew, you always remember the salesman’s prayer ‘Oh, Lord, help me keep my mouth shut’. Let the customer think."
Nigel had a mantra of engaging with clients in order for them to tell you what they want. If you build that, then you will have a successful business. He also created a safe space where you could pitch ideas and brainstorm to come to a solution.
When we sold the business, I carried on working with RMS as managing director of the European division. I was nervous about working in sales, but Nigel reassured me. He was right and I was able to remember what Nigel had told me about managing meetings.
There were techniques of where to sit at a table; that you aren’t all sitting on one side and the client on the other. Internally, you have to make sure everyone has the chance to speak and to be gender inclusive.
There is the highest paid person in the room but some of the best ideas may come from more junior staff.
I don’t like people sitting in businesses to absorb information. If you are at a meeting, you are there to contribute as well as listen.
Watch: Why do we still have a gender pay gap?