At Greenfish, we actively look for the latest innovations and trends in sustainability. This year, we organised Impact Sessions, interactive conferences that aim to share knowledge and debate with specialists on sustainability-related topics. This is an opportunity for our consultants to learn more about their work field and feel more integrated into our Greenfish community. Of course, the doors are also open to the public, making it an interesting discussion that includes different aspects of the topic.
On the 27th of November, Greenfish welcomed both Nikolay Dentchev, Professor of Entrepreneurship & CSR at the VUB, and Pierre-Yves Pirlot, Managing Partner at ECCO NOVA, to discuss the benefits, challenges and risks of crowdfunding in sustainable finance. The session was moderated by Emilie Gysels, Energy Consultant at Greenfish, who has a background in Business Engineering.
What is crowdfunding really about?
Crowdfunding is quite simply a web tool that helps entrepreneurs raise funds in order to develop their business. It is based on participative funding, meaning that everybody can take part in the activity by providing money. It is a good complimentary solution for entrepreneurs that do not want to use a banking institution or that wish to test their project with a market composed of potential users or customers.
This is nothing new. In 1885, it was actually thanks to crowdfunding that the Statue of Liberty was erected on New York’s Liberty Island. It had been decided that the United States should finance the monument, but when the American Congress refused, it was Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the New York World newspaper, who encouraged the wealthy classes to participate in the project financially. It also thanks to private donations in the past, and now crowdfunding, that the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona is standing. The internet has enhanced the power of participatory financing tenfold.
What is a sustainable project?
More and more people are willing to invest their money in sustainable projects so that they may contribute to the transition. The definition of a sustainable project is not straight forward and can evolve over time. Let’s take the example of biofuels. During its early years of development, fuels derived from crop plants and wood seemed like a solution to decrease our gas emissions and solve part of the climate crisis. Now we are realizing that biofuels are not the perfect green alternative to fossil fuels. Indeed, regulations must be put in place to ensure that there is no risk of deforestation through indirect land-use change.
It is therefore difficult to guarantee the sustainability of new technologies or projects and it is a challenge for the entrepreneurs to ensure this to the community willing to invest. The first step when launching a business is benchmarking. In the specific case of sustainable business, it relies on innovation most of the time, which means that few benchmarks are available, and the risks of investment therefore increase. But this is actually the purpose of crowdfunding: supporting projects and giving them financial security to help them expand and succeed in their objectives.
Different types of crowdfunding
Depending on the level of support and on the expectations of the investor, crowdfunding can provide support to a budding business in 4 different ways:
Whatever the means of support, crowdfunding’s interesting characteristic is that many eyes are watching the evolution of the project. The community’s motivations can range from simple self-interest to altruism or financial gain.
Crowdfunding requires the entrepreneur to provide detailed reporting on the activity, transparency being an important pillar of the concept. It is thus a demanding and time-consuming system for the project leader. Communication is a key factor in getting people’s interest and trust as we have recently seen with the cooperative bank NewB.
From sustainable crowdfunding to the emergence of ecosystems
In order to boost the sector and help entrepreneurs launch and scale up their businesses, they can rely on crowdfunding ecosystems, which are dynamic communities where online and onsite environments are developed and put into action. This environment stimulates an interchange with other existing ecosystems, hubs and initiatives, in order to set up a platform for web entrepreneurs. A typical ecosystem for new business owners could be universities where online tools (i.e. platforms) have been created, or where offline events are held to facilitate the expansion of the concept. Our guest Nicolay Dentchev is actively working on the VUB Social Entrepreneurship platform to unite both academia and business in the search for sustainable business models for social entrepreneurship.
The reputation of platforms and the crowdfunding market itself are at stake when promoting projects. As explained by Pierre-Yves Pirlot based on his personal experience at Ecco Nova, a platform focused on sustainable projects for the energy transition, they cannot thoroughly assess the risks of project finance funding yet.
A few words about NewB
The session culminated in a small debate on the subject. At that time, the NewB project was a hot topic on the table. In a nutshell, the NewB cooperative had to raise €30 million to bring to life its ethical and sustainable banking project. Their idea was to use the unused money in bank accounts on finance projects that benefit society and respect the planet and human rights. In other words, renewable energy projects rather than coal mine funding. One donation (minimum 20€) equals one vote in NewB’s decision-making process. It is thus quite different from crowdfunding, but these two concepts are linked in the development of social, local and economic solidarity.
One interesting aspect is that most people do not feel like worrying about where their money goes, making it much easier to just let bankers take care of it. NewB allows any person concerned by the state of our planet to make a better impact on it. Crowdfunding is a powerful tool for those who want to grow their business, but also for investors who want to target sustainable projects.