Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates is a pioneer in what’s known as impact investing—private investment that not only has a measurable bottom line, but also a real environmental or social impact.
That goes beyond ESG investing, which generally seeks to do no harm, and into the realm of more activist capitalism that seeds startup companies with world-changing ideas.
From Technology to Philanthropy
In 2000, Gates stepped away from his role as Microsoft’s CEO and established, with his wife, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—a vehicle they would use to begin the ambitious project of giving away the vast majority of their wealth. The foundation focuses on education, as well as global health and poverty. In 2010, the Gateses joined forces with Warren Buffet to launch the Giving Pledge, a platform for those with extremely high net worth to commit to giving away at least half of their wealth. To date, the pledge has 186 signatories from around the globe, including many of the world’s richest people.
Upping the Stakes with Impact Investing
Several years after founding the Giving Pledge, Gates decided to take his philanthropy even further. Rather than simply donating money to nonprofit organizations, Gates wanted to provide crucial seed money to help fund scientific innovation that could create widespread change in the fields of public health, agriculture and education.
Feeling the urgency of climate change, Gates began to shift his giving from simple philanthropy to impact investing. Governments and investors often can’t afford to take risks on developing experimental technologies, or large-scale pilot projects for the public good. But Gates understood that without taking risks, innovation can grind to a halt. For Gates and his wife, impact investing and philanthropy are two sides of the same coin, since returns from their investments are funneled back into the foundation.
A Breakthrough in Renewable Energy Investing
To increase the impact of his investments, Gates became a key player in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of investors and stakeholders working to fund urgently needed innovation to fight climate change. The coalition’s strict funding criteria states that it only invests in “technologies with the potential to reduce at least half a gigaton of greenhouse gases every year, about 1 percent of projected 2050 global emissions.” Through his work with the coalition and his own blog, GatesNotes, Gates has outlined what he calls the five grand challenges in the fight against climate change.
Electricity: Conserving energy and shifting to renewable power sources like wind and solar is crucial to cutting greenhouse emissions. But for that to work, we need what the Breakthrough Energy Coalition calls “incredibly cheap grid-scale storage with a very long calendar life.” To that end, Gates has invested in major innovation in batteries that he hopes will allow cheap storage of solar power, which of course can only be generated in the daytime.
Agriculture: Today, agriculture accounts for 24 percent of global emissions—much of that coming from cattle, which produce large amounts of methane. Gates points out that if the global cattle industry was a country, it would have the third-highest emissions level in the world—just after the U.S. To help lower this number, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2018 pledged to invest $40 million in research that could lead to higher-yielding dairy cows.
Manufacturing: Global manufacturing accounts for 21 percent of global emissions. To support work in greener manufacturing, Gates has recently increased his investment in EcoLab, a company that helps make industries like mineral and chemical processing more environmentally friendly.
Transportation: Despite recent moves to more efficient vehicles, quick and significant emissions reductions are still needed in the airline and trucking industries. Gates, alongwith Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has recently become a major investor in the trucking startup Convoy, which seeks to maximize trucking efficiency by eliminating empty runs, while improving the quality of life for truckers and their families.
Buildings: Buildings are huge consumers of energy—air conditioners, heaters, and other appliances still mostly run on fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gases. With his investment of $80 million toward the creation of the “smart city” of Belmont, Arizona, Gates could potentially create a model for how new communities can be built efficiently—minimizing emissions from buildings.