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Shaping net zero cities: how three British SMEs export cleantech to the world

Urban centres will be at the heart of the world’s efforts to reach net zero by 2050: cities emit 50-60% of the world’s total greenhouse gases – a figure that rises to 80% when including indirect emissions from urban inhabitants, according to the UN. So adopting more sustainable building practices, shifting to renewable-powered electric vehicles and transport systems, and investing in renewable energy infrastructure will all play a significant role in achieving progress over the coming decades.

But this is a worldwide problem, and solutions need to be shared on a grand scale. We spoke to three British SME leaders to discover how they are working to find a global audience for their innovations in construction, transport and energy, to shape the cities of tomorrow.

Trip the light fantastic
In the race to reach net zero, the use of alternative energy sources such as solar have soared in the building trade. But Daniel Pillai, chairman and co-founder of BIPVco, says conventional solar panels weren’t designed for rooftops – they’re heavy, fragile, and meant to be on the ground. In contrast, BIPVco has developed thin, flexible photovoltaic (PV) modules that are more efficient, durable, and can be easily integrated into buildings and electric vehicles. And they’re all manufactured in Newport, Wales.

The international market has been an important part of proving the concept since the company was founded in 2015, with early pilots in Canada, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and India. Exporting now accounts for around a third of its business. “We decided we needed to have demonstrator projects in diverse climates to prove this is a global product,” Pillai says. “The first question we get asked is: ‘Have you built any in our country, or somewhere similar?’”

There are also partnerships with electric vehicle manufacturers in Norway, Spain, France, Ghana and Germany. “As a manufacturing business we do need volume,” says Pillai. “We are a specialist product. Global access gives us a bigger niche than if we just limited ourselves to the UK. It widens our opportunity.”

Exporting has brought some challenges around navigating local regulations, he says, but the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has helped the company identify potential partners, shared leads on projects, and provided networking opportunities. “The Made in Britain brand is recognised as good, high quality and honest,” says Pillai. “You have to be able to offer something local technologies cannot offer, and to articulate the benefits in a way that’s relevant to them.”

Constructive thinking
Simone de Gale set up her eponymous, London-based architecture practice in 2009. Since then, she’s won a slew of awards, managed multimillion-pound projects around the world, and co-invented patented materials technology. Her firm has also achieved gold Carbon Smart certification for reducing its environmental impact, as well as promoting sustainable design techniques, construction methods and renewable energy technologies to clients.

Related: Rising in the East: three UK business owners on finding success in Asia

De Gale’s first international work was in Bangladesh, when a UK client asked her to manage a project there. Since then there have been commissions in Georgia, Croatia and Turkey, with more in the pipeline, from the US, the Caribbean, UAE and Hong Kong.

International projects such as these have grown the business threefold, she says: “As a young aspiring architect, it is difficult to be considered for large scale projects in central London because the competition is so high. Exporting allowed us to build a portfolio of good quality masterplanning, residential, retail and commercial projects … we are now winning those larger London-based projects.”

De Gale has found participating in DBT’s international trade missions helpful. “It gives you the opportunity to meet people but you’re not putting on a huge marketing campaign,” she says. “Travelling to new countries with DBT makes me feel safe and the opportunities to exhibit our work have been fantastic. British architecture is highly regarded across the world.”

Driving the future
The fear of running out of battery charge while driving an electric vehicle (EV) – range anxiety – is still considered one of the greatest barriers to mass EV adoption. But it’s hoped that software that predicts a driver’s energy use, such as that developed by Spark EV Technology, will make it a thing of the past.

“We have a patented prediction engine that adapts to each driver, each vehicle and each journey,” says Justin Ott, Spark’s CEO. “We’re accurate to within around 2km, whereas we’ve seen prediction errors from major manufacturers of 48km. That has an impact on whether you can trust the vehicle on long distances or unknown journeys.”

Because most automotive manufacturing happens abroad, 85% of the Cambridge-based company’s business comes from exporting. It all started with a deal in Japan, supported by DBT and the British Embassy there.

“They helped us identify that market, present information, and provided translation services,” says Ott. “The experience built our confidence that our technology had an overseas market and that an initial language barrier wasn’t a big thing. So we went back to DBT and commissioned overseas market reports to identify other target countries.” The company now has partnerships with automotive manufacturers in Europe, North America and Asia.

Another tactic that’s been helpful is joining international accelerators, adds Ott. “If you have a target customer that’s a sponsor on an accelerator programme, apply for it. It’s much easier to get an audience with them. We’ve done that in the US, Canada, China and Germany.”

Overall, Ott says he’s been surprised both by the amount of support available and the response Spark has had abroad. “There’s a lot of respect for the level of innovation we have in this country, and there are plenty of free and low-cost paid services which can help you target and engage with the right customers.”

Wherever you are on your exporting journey, the Department for Business and Trade can help. Access a wide range of free support and find out how your business can sell to the world at great.gov.uk.