Q&A: Sara Chamberlain, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Energy Foundry
Published 6th June 2022
By Kamogelo Motse, Research Associate, Climate Council
I sat down with Sara Chamberlain, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Energy Foundry. We spoke about her role at Energy Foundry, why she chose a career in sustainable investing and touched on recent market trends in clean technologies that she is excited about. Enjoy the interview!
- Can you tell us about Energy Foundry and what the company does?
Energy Foundry is an early-stage venture capital firm that has been investing in the energy, cleantech and climate space for the past decade. We invest in transformative new technology platforms and high performing teams that can disrupt multi-billion-dollar markets with significantly better, lower cost, and cleaner solutions. In many cases we are the first institutional investor into a company and we embrace businesses which are commercializing hardware, software, material science or even business model innovations.
Since a material science startup has a vastly different path than a startup launching a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform, we’ve also developed specific philosophies for how to successfully scale and grow each type of company in the portfolio. Ultimately, our approach to venture capital is premised upon building highly successful, sustainable businesses which are poised to achieve value-enhancing milestones and inflection points.
- What does your role at Energy Foundry entail?
As a Co-founder and Managing Director, I have worn (and will continue to wear) many hats. First and foremost, I am focused on cultivating relationships of all kinds. This includes entrepreneurs, research institutions, corporations, investors, and nonprofits. We’ve proven that when the right partners engage at the right time, it becomes possible to scale cleantech innovation and build the future we need.
Second, I lead investing activity, evaluating thousands of opportunities and drawing upon a decade of pattern recognition to identify the diamond in the rough. Our due diligence is as much about the team as it is about the technology we’re investing in. I look for curiosity, passion, collaboration and leadership in the people we invest in, along with disruptive technologies that can scale and win.
My experience has led me to become an active mentor and advisor to a number of organizations, which in turn creates access to a strong pipeline of innovations and companies. This includes accelerator and incubator programs such as Chain Reaction Innovations at Argonne National Lab, where I sit on their Advisory Board, and the clean energy accelerator program at mHub, where I mentor entrepreneurs; the University of Chicago Booth School of Business where I am an Executive-in-Residence, Evergreen Climate Innovations where I sit on their investment committee, and as a judge for business plan competitions across the country.
Third, I work closely with our portfolio companies to help them refine their strategies, raise capital, solve problems, and build their businesses. Sometimes this means rolling up my sleeves and talking with management on a daily or weekly basis, and sometimes it means being that trusted sounding board to provide clarity of vision or just a bit of motivation and support to keep going.
To that end, I also take a personal interest in cultivating the lean and yet incredibly high-impact Energy Foundry team. We are a very entrepreneurial team, and seeing others achieving both personal and professional growth is one of many ways that I would define success.
- What did you study at University and do you believe it has helped you in your career?
I received my undergraduate degree from Emory University in Environmental Studies and then my MBA from the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business. Undergraduate courses definitely influenced my career path, and provided an important foundation for understanding the interplay between environmental systems, economics and the built environment. Most importantly, it sparked an ongoing curiosity and a desire to solve what I saw as one of the biggest and most important challenges facing the next three to five generations.
- What made you want to choose a career in sustainable investing?
Sustainability was always the anchor of my career exploration, where it took a few cycles to ultimately land on investing. Ultimately, sustainable investing is the convergence of three things I’m extremely passionate about – a cleaner environment, new exciting technologies, and entrepreneurship.
- In 2020, the European Investment Bank found that only 2.3% of VC funding goes to women led start-ups. Why do you think it is hard for women to get access to investments?
I probably tend to think about this kind of data a slightly different way, as someone who sits on the investor side of the table and would love to back more women-led startups. I don’t think it’s a question of access. Rather, I believe it’s a function of proportions we see in the deal flow funnel, where there are fewer women led companies. This dynamic is noticeably changing and so with that I believe we will start to see more VC dollars follow.
- Are there any recent market trends in clean technologies that you are excited about?
As an early-stage investor, we generally invest ahead of the trends which are reaching the headlines. One example is a long duration (12 – 100 hours) grid-scale storage company, E-Zinc. We led their seed round about three years ago, before anyone was talking about long duration. Today, the company is poised for success as major energy companies and utilities are turning to more scalable cost-effective alternatives to lithium ion for integrating renewables and improving grid resiliency.
A massive surge of ideas in a given technology sub-vertical (e.g. hydrogen or carbon capture) may signify a future market shift that could underpin an investment thesis, but it also increases the level of conviction I need to have around a particular technology, team or go-to-market approach.
- What skillsets would you advise young women to acquire in order to become successful in a career in sustainable investing?
My advice to anyone looking to become successful in sustainable investing would be as follows:
- Follow your passion, as this should naturally drive your curiosity for learning.
- Start building relationships and your own personal CRM.
- Set goals and hold yourself accountable.
- Develop expertise and depth of knowledge in some dimension of the field – whether a specific technology or a stage of investing or maybe even on the operating side of a company – then expand your skill set from there.
- Support others be generous (but smart) with your time.
A short bio of Sara Chamberlain:
Sara Chamberlain has worked in the energy and environment sector for nearly a decade, with a core focus on helping energy startups develop commercialization strategies. Working at the intersection of technology and entrepreneurship is a personal passion.
She currently leads Energy Foundry’s investment activity and maintains an active role with each of the firm’s portfolio companies. Prior to joining Energy Foundry, Sara co-managed the government advisory practice for clean technology startups at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, where she successfully led multiple teams through more than two dozen federal and state grant and loan applications, including over $300 million in research grants, loans and guaranteed loan funding.
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