Interview with Allison Myers of Buoyant Ventures | A Women-Owned VC Fund that is Digitalizing Climate Solutions
What was it like to close a $76 million climate tech VC fund backed by Microsoft & Bank of America? In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with Allison Myers, one of the founders of the 100% women-owned firm, Buoyant Ventures, about this, as well as how Buoyant is advancing global sustainability initiatives by enabling startups to digitalize climate solutions. Think: software, AI, & machine learning. Some of Buoyant’s portfolio companies include Audette, which is streamlining the process of decarbonizing buildings, & Reeldata, which is creating sustainable aquaculture through AI. Allison also spoke about her transition into climate tech from healthcare & consulting & why she loves running a climate-focused VC firm.
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Allison Myers. Alison is joining us from Denver, Colorado, one of the hot spots in clean energy industry. And she is the co founder and general partner of Buoyant Ventures. Thanks so much for joining me, Allison.
Allison: Thank you, Catherine. Excited to be here.
Catherine: So for those of us who don’t know, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your current role?
Allison: So as you mentioned, I’m co founder and general partner at Buoyant Ventures. Being both a founder and a general partner means I do a lot of a lot of everything. Started the fund in early 2020 and built it from the ground up so I really split my time between diligence, portfolio support and the fund itself. So thinking about in terms of like diligence being sourcing companies, doing research on companies were most interested in getting to the point of like doing the deals, and then probably have support being helping the companies we’re already invested in in a number of different ways, whether that’s internal operations and strategy sales support or recruiting. And then lastly, Buoyant is a company ourselves and a startup. So really, how can we do things better every day? So I get to work with a lot of really cool people both on my team and the really inspirational entrepreneurs at our portfolio companies.
Catherine: Great. Sounds very multifaceted. So I want to talk a little bit about your transition into being tech. I know you previously worked for Acumen Fund and Accenture. How did you make your way into the industry?
Allison: And I have to back up just a little bit from there. So not to go too far back. But I grew up in Colorado and from a mountain town originally, and just have always had a love for the outdoors in nature. After college, I helped start a nonprofit, and then was part of a startup that got acquired by Walgreens. It was called Take Care Health. They were looking at matching the cost of care with complexity of care. But I was the Chief of Staff to the CEO of the company who reported to the CEO of Walgreens, and all of this sort of startup experience as well as the juxtaposition between a huge big company and the startup company gave me a really interesting lens into how companies operate. And also the energy and really excitement behind the startups today. I mean, there’s just so much in terms of innovative thinking and inspiration that come from that type of environment. I really liked, but it also taught me I didn’t want to be in healthcare in any way, shape, or form. Went off to business school and had an experience with the Acumen Fund, as you mentioned, as well as the Michigan Social Venture Fund. So both impact investing groups and really love the additional data that we looked at thinking about both opportunities and risks for a little bit of a broader fashion and sort of just solely focused on the financial data. And then after that experience, went into consulting at Accenture and really this is where I really found my way into climate, mostly focused on energy, but broadly sort of built environment mobility. And customers are waking up expecting more from corporations and utilities, corporations were making moves to sort of make their operations more sustainable. And everyone was becoming more aware of the issue around climate change, social issues, a lot of these things that were just really exciting. So I loved the nerdiness of energy in general and the grid operations in terms of how we match energy usage with energy supply, and just fell deeply in love with it. So I really started my transition into climate tech while in consulting.
Catherine: That’s great. I mean, I see so a lot of people that were in health care that came in to clean energy. I did a master’s in public health as well, because I think it’s one of those areas where you are passionate about people and like helping people and so it’s still the same sort of thread. You’re doing it in sort of an environmental way instead of maybe like a healthcare way. But even though the two are kind of really tied.
Allison: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. You’re also working with experts that are deep like a deep expertise in their fields. You have regulations that you have to deal with, you have sort of physical constraints in terms of that you’re having to work with when you develop solutions, which is all just very corollary across the team. Yeah.
Catherine: Can you talk a bit about Buoyant and why you decided to found the company? Yeah.
Allison: So, plan is an early stage venture fund. We focus on seed in series A, so under single digit millions or under in terms of revenue annually, and we look for both adaptation and mitigation solutions. So how do we adapt to the impacts that we’re feeling today as well as mitigate from reducing emissions? So that we’re preventing the worst impacts from climate change broadly. So we focus on those two areas, but we’re very broadly generalists. For me personally, when thinking about founding Buoyant I wanted more ownership than what I was finding in consulting. As much as I love the client services relationship. Where I really liked the idea of both founding Buoyant and being a part of that, and then also still having the ability to support founders and entrepreneurs that are doing the really hard thing. Of starting new companies and tackling these big, audacious goals and, and problems. And so co founding Buoyant really gave me that opportunity of ownership along with sort of the support aspect that I really liked.
Catherine: Could we just talk a little bit about your co-founder, as well as give her a shout out? Is that okay, Amy?
Allison: Oh, yeah! So I co founded it with Amy Francetic, who’s been in the climate tech industry a long time. And she and I met because someone who used to work for me went to work for her at her last fund. And so we met and got talking and I was looking at a number of different roles across the space. And then we started talking about doing something together. And I was so excited because she brought the thesis of digital solutions for climate and it immediately resonated with me. I’ve done a lot of work at Accenture, focused around digital strategies within the Energy and Climate space broadly. And really what I saw particularly with utilities being the best example, like people think about solving for climate change and going after solar or composting or trying to fix these big physical things, when in reality, you think about the business models and the software that can really drive speed both things about like, how long does it take you to install some software on your computer or access something in the cloud versus how long it takes to build something? Those are very different timelines. Amy saw that a lot at the Clean Energy Trust, which is now Evergreen Climate Innovations that she founded until we really coalesced around that idea of digital solutions. Knowing that we’d need some small bits of hardware, whether it was a control or a sensor to connect the physical and digital worlds, but really trying to say like, how can we be the most near term impact? Again, going back to that adaptation and mitigation, trying to say like, what can be done right now today? There’s lots of cool things in the labs that are going to take time to really bring out of there and deploy. But if we can start now, if we can use software to get that speed and scale, that’s where we’re really going to have an impact and be able to tackle what is the largest problem facing humanity.
Catherine: That’s really interesting. I never really thought about it that way. That’s really an interesting take on it. What are some of the portfolio companies that you work with and what makes them unique?
Allison: Yeah, I love talking about our portfolio. I’ll give a few examples. And they’re all unique in their own way.
Catherine: Like your kids.
Allison: Yeah. So Audette is a portfolio company of ours, they’re based out of Vancouver. They essentially provide virtual energy audits. So it’s in a way where a lot of times you had to put boots on the ground to traditionally do an energy audit in the past. So instead, if you think about having 1000 buildings or 2000 buildings that you need to go look at and prioritize which one should you touch first? Audette really helps with that upfront piece as well as later down the line saying, give us the 2000 buildings will tell you the top ones that you need to go look at more deeply. And then help model out: here are the changes that you can make, and very specifically and in a detailed way say, here’s the energy savings, carbon savings, the benefits that you’re going to drive from taking these actions at these buildings. But really limiting upfront the work effort, time required to say which buildings should we go touch and really look at first, so it helps change the capital planning process. A lot of large real estate owners as they think through man, I got to decarbonize my building footprint here. What should I go do first? Something that is just an overwhelming process right now, and not digitized in any way, shape or form. So that’s one and that’s very much on the mitigation side of reducing, reducing emissions.
Flood Flash is another one. This is an adaptation so they provide parametric flood insurance. Think of it as trigger insurance where it’s a sensor that goes on the side of a commercial building, and when a flood occurs and the triggers reached, it sends a payment to the owner of the policy. Their record, I love this is from trigger to payment for hours. But my goodness, that hopefully changes the idea of how you think about like, after an event, after a flood. How do you get back up on your feet like how do you reopen your doors like there’s money in the bank to do it and you don’t need to be thinking about filling out an insurance claim or filing. So really think about business continuity and how we protect lives, or livelihoods around the smaller businesses that really can afford that interruption. There’s really interesting data around the number of companies that are able to open back up after a disaster like that and the longer they stay closed the harder it is to reopen.
Those are two, one more Shifted Energy. They are focused on residential energy usage. So thinking about things like your thermostat, your hot water heater, your EV charger, anything that uses electricity. There are times in the day where that is shiftable energy where you know you could heat or cool your home at different times. Your hot water heater could be sort of pre heating water at certain times. And this looks at both the customer sort of energy usage, but then also when renewables are producing energy and matches the two so that you’re using the most renewable energy possible versus using energy when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing to try and solve for some of the mismatches we’ve seen in energy usage and energy production by renewables.
Catherine: Yeah, wow. How many companies are there in total?
Allison: So we have I think we’ve announced 11. We have two more that are in the hopper that I won’t speak about quite yet. But yeah.
Catherine: How are your portfolio companies using AI to create digital climate solutions? So AI is literally one of the things I get asked about the most now. Even by LinkedIn, LinkedIn asks me every day do you really want to write that email Catherine? LinkedIn will write it for you. No, I’m good. I’m good. Just a few sentences.
Allison: It would be fun to look at the draft to see what on earth they come up with. AI is a huge topic. And I think generative AI has made it really approachable in terms of like, oh, this is an example of AI but there’s so many different types of AI in our companies. The large majority of our companies have them as sort of a core usage and all of them use them in one way or for one way Audette, which I mentioned earlier. So they’re using AI computer vision AI to look at buildings using satellite data and identify what Hvac equipment and how the building is shaped. What that means for overall its energy usage. And then they’re leveraging proprietary data that they have and it’s a knowledge base of carbon reduction projects. And to really understand, Okay, here’s how we can model how this building is likely using energy. The more inputs that they have, including an energy bill or some survey filled out by the building manager is helpful, but they use all of this along with machine learning, to model out how the building uses energy, and what the reductions would then be if certain actions were taken. So all of that is just general like computer vision, algorithms and in general AI along with machine learning to tune that.
Another one I’d love to talk about I didn’t mention up front is Real Data. So Real Data, they support onshore fish farmers. So if you buy fish from the store, a lot of times it’s farmed and the the farmers that Real Data supports grow fish onshore in onshore tanks, and this is really applicable for any sort of farmed fish because the fish farmed from egg sort of like baby stage eggs to its teenage years spend, spends their time in onshore fish farms. So what they do is they look at a few different things. First one is sort of the the feeding schedule so traditionally, fish have just been fed on the hour a certain amount of food and what they do is they use again, computer vision to identify how much food is dropping to the bottom of the tanks and going out through the filters and look at that as sort of the food waste and when they see more of that they stopped the feeding. And when they see that the fish are gobbling up all the food and really hungry at certain points. They feed the fish more so they’re optimizing the time in which fish are fed to reduce feed waste, and to help grow the fish in the most optimal manner possible. So feeding them when they’re hungry, so we all grow better when we’re hungry, and we get fed they use computer vision and my favorite is fish facial recognition to identify individual fish and measure them. Traditionally we’ve just sort of like grabbed a fish out, feed it on a scale thrown it back in hopefully it lives and they they sort of do that to a subset of the fish to measure how they think they’re growing. This identifies the fish and again through computer vision measures the weight of them and size of them so that they don’t have to disturb the fish or disrupt the whole ecosystem.
Catherine: I am learning something new every single day. And that is super freakin fascinating. And you’re right. I love solar and solar has been very good to me. And I’m not gonna, and I embrace solar, but it’s nice to learn about different kinds of companies and different kinds of technologies because it’s gonna take all kinds of different things to make the world a better, more sustainable place.
Allison: Well, and not just like the invention of solar, that means that all of a sudden that’s what gets deployed or that’s the best solution right? I like to say that the PPA was the best thing and the business model behind financing is really what enabled solar to be what it is today, and we have to think about and that’s where, when we talk about why it’s thesis and that digital solutions for climate, sometimes we get a little pushback of like how do you solve for climate change without a lot of hardware? Well, this is how we enable the things that are hardware to be done in a new and different way. And it also is about adaptation, and how do we protect livelihoods and lives. As well as how do we solve this more broadly in the future?
Catherine: Right, right. I want to shift focus to a topic that’s very near and dear to my heart. And one of the big reasons why I was really interested in interviewing Buoyant is the fact that it’s two female founders, which is fantastic. And so I want to talk about being women in a male dominated VC space. And do you think it’s important for more VC firms to have female representation in top leadership roles? It’s a little rhetorical, but you can expand on that.
Allison: I mean, you can imagine what my feeling is on the topic. But I think bringing it back and just making a broad point, representation of perspectives is really important. What you just said we need all of the different ideas to solve for major problems that we’re facing climate change or not, doesn’t really matter, we’re solving for a problem. We need sort of all the different ideas and thoughts in the room. And if you have the same person with the same perspective, writing all the checks, then I can’t imagine that there would be as diverse of a set of solutions funded and whatnot, compared to if it was a more diverse perspective and women are certainly part of it. It is really shocking, sort of the numbers and there’s lots of different ways to measure this but it is a very small portion of women that hold the pen, when you consider that we are also 50% of the population.
Catherine: Do you think that that’s because women inherently are more risk adverse, and maybe they’re more not wanting to go down the entrepreneurial route or in VCs historically, or investing perhaps at a more seed stage? I’m just hypothesizing.
Allison: Yeah, I don’t think it’s one thing I don’t think that it’s really just like, so many different things. Whether it wasn’t it’s not encouraged sometimes at younger ages. It’s something that you know, women may feel more uncomfortable with because certain things aren’t necessarily or just so when you are the gender that like has a baby and grows baby inside of you, that’s a pretty major change. That in itself is like a real it depends on how it’s structured, all those sorts of things in terms of time off and things like that, but I just think there’s so many things that have brought us to this this point, but I’m really excited about the fact that I think it is changing quite dramatically and quickly. I remember when I was in business school, 10 years ago, even more maybe, but there we were 35% women were 35% of the class like it’s 50/50 at a lot of top schools now and not to say that business school is like the end all be all in terms of an indicator but it an indicator. And to sort of say, oh, it’s changing is it’s great to see those sorts of things. And I come back to it’s about perspectives. It’s about like, what are you bringing to the table to help solve a problem or identify an opportunity and making sure that we have all of those in the room and that’s why I think it’s so important. There’s a really great and you can cut this out if you want but I heard this a long time ago where it’s like where do you keep the ketchup? And stick with me, so if you look at sort of cuisines around the world, if you live in the UK, or the sort of our black in the south, you keep the ketchup typically in the cupboard. Right? And if the rest of the United States, we keep it in the refrigerator or in the refrigerator, yeah. And then if you look at the cuisines and what happens when you run out of ketchup, quote, unquote, you have a problem. What do you do? You reach for something next to it. So in the UK and in the south you see a lot of malt vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, things that are next to the ketchup in the cupboard, versus ketchup being in the refrigerator. You see mustard Mayo relish being the replacement and that’s what I mean when I say like difference of perspectives it just like, Where does your mind go? What do you immediately think of what problem are you solving for and how are you approaching it? And I really love that sort of like how do we get both the ingredients in the refrigerator and the ingredients in the cupboard all in one place? So we can pick the best one for the problem that we’re facing.
Catherine: That’s such a funny story. I love that. You’re right, like if I was out of ketchup, so I keep the ketchup in the fridge, even when I lived in the UK. I lived there 10 years. I think I still kept the ketchup in the fridge because I was American. But if I was out of ketchup I’d reach for barbecue sauce in the fridge.
Allison: It is all of those little itty bitty biases and things that are important when we think about sort of how do we get representation and why does it matter that women are check writers. It’s because women have problems that we have a different perspective on as well. And we want all of these solved in the best way.
Catherine: Totally. Have you seen any tangible progress in recent years in terms of investments that are being made and women and BIPOC led climate tech companies?
Allison: There is certainly progress here. I wish I had like data points that I could give you to say like, here’s the progress that we’re seeing, but I think just little by little, there’s more on either founders and individuals saying like, I am so passionate about this or this needs to be solved and I see the problem and I see the solution. And they’re sort of jumping in with both feet and being supported with through funding as well as you know, people that choose to come join them and that sort of thing. I think that it’s probably another good sort of analogy. It’s sort of like melting an ice cube. If you have an ice cube sitting on a table in a room and it’s negative 10 degrees, increasing the temperature of the room from negative 10 to 30 doesn’t really change much in the way of melting the ice cube. But the next two degrees, 10 degrees, 20 degrees changes a lot. So I think that there’s a lot that’s not being captured in the data. Data for startups is really difficult. Because it’s this is observed sort of whether it’s gender or race and how we’re thinking of it, and for that data to work its way into the conversation. Companies just have to be later stage. And so I think we’re seeing it, but it’s more anecdotal.
Catherine: And I feel the same way about my job, so much of what I communicate is going on in the market, is what I observed. It’s gonna be like, Oh, do you have data on that? I’m like, No, but I feel pretty confident that that is the truth. I see it all day, every day kind of thing, like whatever it is that we’re talking about topic.
Allison: I mean, we do track in a Buoyant we have 50% of our pipeline is either BIPOC or female, in terms of every company that’s coming through. And this is, of course, observed, but something that we try and track and it’s important for us to just track the metrics starting to try and get exactly to your point like, I feel it. I see it, but I don’t necessarily have the thing to say this is what I mean by that.
Catherine: Yeah, yeah. You gotta go to management consultancies for that. Yeah. So what are some of the top challenges facing the climate tech VC space at the moment?
Allison: Yeah, we have been, climate tech has been more resilient than most of the market when it comes to venture in the past year, which is really great. And I think shows that there’s been an under investment in this space over time. I think interest rates, like anything really, are one thing that sort of, as you think about it being sometimes a mix of software and hardware, there’s sort of that upfront investment that’s needed are generally just upfront investments. Interest rates make venture just generally more hard, specifically for climate tech. Climate is something that has been bandied about in terms of political football that people love to argue over and I I think that prevents some of the real conversation from happening like it shouldn’t be something that’s political, we should work on solutions, and building really great businesses that solve for problems that we know we have. There’s some really great studies out there on talent in terms of, we have amazing expertise I see in individuals terms of the founders that we back, the people doing really amazing work, whether it’s at startups or nonprofits or corporations, but there’s a shallower expertise across sort of broadly within corporates or you know, we have a shortage of shortage of electricians and sort of like labor or is that we do like go in touch things and fix things and upgrade things physically. Some of the research on the corporate side, I think it’s BCG and Microsoft and put out some really interesting reports there in terms of how you think of upskilling and that when it comes to sustainability knowledge. I think, honestly, one of the more exciting things is how many amazing people we see when they come into the space. That is that is just that, I mean, we need all solutions. We need all copper bullets because there is no silver bullet. And like talent is a big one that I’m super excited about. And I think there’s more transparency now. There’s more alignment. There’s a lot of really good things happening within the climate techspace broadly.
Catherine: It’s really something I’m just so extraordinarily passionate about just trying to get diversity but not just diversity, just people who are really great thinkers and doers into our space. There’s a real perception I was talking about it today on LinkedIn with this interview I did with Nico Johnson, just talking about how like, we’re still at this point where we want like for like, because it is safer. But maybe not the right answer, right? Eventually, like we have 9 million jobs to go. We don’t have 9 million- they don’t exist. At some point, there’s gonna be some sort of tipping point. And I think the companies that are really embracing people from other industries are really going to be getting some awesome talent.
Allison: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s interesting there are times when those with super deep expertise in areas say, “man do I have enough generalist skills to go out as well?” This I think is almost like the flip side to a certain extent of saying anyone, if you are in marketing or in sales or you have expertise in operations or HR or any of that, all of us do have general skills that I think can be shifted towards climate. We see this a lot, there are uniquely in climate tech a lot of very deep domain expertise founders. And they need, surrounding them, the best teams that they can possibly have, whether its a CFO or a head of sales or any of those sort of more general functions to make sure that they can really apply their skills or expertise in the right way. And I’m excited by that, broadly. No one should think I don’t have something to add to this because there’s really an opportunity to a lot of different types of adding skills and providing opportunity.
Catherine: Do you have any advice for those looking to transition into climate tech investing, from other industries?
Allison: I would try not to separate out climate tech investing, too much from the more generalist space. We need all of those same skill sets whether it’s people working at startups or people working on the investing side to bring them in and apply them in a lot of the same ways. In terms of the transition into climate tech investing, there is a certain amount of domain expertise that’s needed. There are similarities, like we were talking about healthcare and climate, there’s regulations and there’s physical constraints. There’s a lot of things to be aware of and making sure that you’re pulling the right expertise at the right time or have it as a background. Those are all things that can be learned and leveraged and it is really just about the passion to go figure it out.
Catherine: That’s great. Well thank you so much for your time Allison. I wish you and all your portfolio companies all the best.
Allison: Awesome, thank you so much.