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On December 4, 2020, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center hosted Wade Bitaraf, the founder of energy and sustainability practice at Plug and Play, as part of its EnergySource Innovation Stream, an online series that highlights new energy technologies with the potential to reshape the global energy system. Bitaraf delivered a presentation on how his company supports startup development through accelerator programs, corporate innovation services, and in-house venture capital. Randolph Bell, Richard Morningstar chair for global energy security and director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, provided introductory remarks and moderated the discussion.
Bitaraf began his presentation with an overview of how Plug and Play operates as an open innovation platform and advances its objective to “accelerate the adoption of new technologies.” Plug and Play invests in over 250 startups a year, connecting entrepreneurs with its network of venture capitalists and nearly four hundred corporate partners in thirty-five offices globally. According to Bitaraf, the platform acts as both an incubator and an accelerator for early and growth-stage startups, running vertical programs that facilitate market access and help them develop faster. Plug and Play also operates industry-specific innovation platforms that link corporate partners with startups relevant to their value chain.
Bitaraf then elaborated on how Plug and Play’s energy and sustainability practice enables the adoption of new green technologies. He described the platform’s intelligence tool, which gives corporate partners access to Plug and Play’s market information and allows them to receive horizontal feedback from one other on pending technologies that may affect their businesses. Bitaraf also highlighted the platform’s success in obtaining “ready for today” technologies for clients through acquisition, outsourcing, and licensing deals.
Bitaraf detailed how Plug and Play’s accelerator program works with energy partners to provide intelligence in different technology areas and specific use cases. The platform identifies startups through an application process and via one hundred scouts across the globe. Plug and Play then compiles a list of one hundred startups and elicits partner feedback to further narrow that list. This corporate interest barometer serves as an investment signal for Plug and Play’s venture capitalists and informs its efforts to convert pilot energy projects into marketable products that help clients trim costs or explore new service offerings.
Bitaraf gave examples of how the platform furthers sustainability goals. Plug and Play partnered with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste to work with forty of the world’s largest petrochemical and chemical companies in order to find innovative solutions to forge responsible supply chains and improve recycling. He also recalled how his division brought companies like British Telecom and McDonald’s into its green innovation platform to digitize and decarbonize their operations.
Bitaraf then chronicled how the platform has found success even in the challenging circumstances of the pandemic. He explained how the platform has pivoted companies into adjacent new industries, including a micromobility robotics startup that became a last-mile delivery solutions partner for grocery and logistics firms, and a radar chip maker that transitioned to biosignal monitoring. Bitaraf compared the pandemic crisis to the climate crisis, for which Plug and Play’s corporate partners will need to find new technological solutions to achieve their net-zero goals, and predicted a coming wave of startups within the next five to ten years to help achieve those goals. Bitaraf noted that 2020 was, improbably, a record year for the platform, stressing that their clients are long-term investors who are not put off by short-term market downturns.
The Q&A session focused on the demands of large actors in the area of green tech investment. Bell asked if there was an appetite for advanced nuclear technologies among private sector investors, such as there is among governments and nonprofits. Bitaraf explained that while there are growth opportunities among advanced nuclear startups, Plug and Play’s corporate partners have not demonstrated interest in that field. Bell also pondered the challenges of getting clean energy technologies to market at scale, to which Bitaraf emphasized the need for the small number of players in the market, including governments, research labs, and the private sector, to collaborate. When asked further about government’s role in green technology investments, Bitaraf welcomed public sector support as a complement to the private sector. Finally, when questioned about Plug and Play’s presence in fossil fuel hotspots in the United States and worldwide, Bitaraf lauded the efforts of fossil fuel-producing companies and countries to adapt to the clean energy transition.
Paddy Ryan is a Spring 2021 intern at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.
Wade Bitaraf, founder of energy & sustainability practice, Plug and Play
Wade is the Founder of Energy & Sustainability practice at Plug and Play, which is an active earlystage investor and one of the largest corporate innovation platforms globally. He works closely with entrepreneurs, corporate innovators, and investors with a focus on the energy industry value chain. Previously, Wade published articles in Desalination and Water Treatment as well as AIChE Journal. He led business development at Green Air Solutions and iTutor H2H, a Silicon Valley startup. Wade holds an M.S. in chemical engineering from Lamar University and an M.S. in petroleum and natural gas engineering from West Virginia University. His passion is serving founders at the intersection of technology and business.