‘For start-ups, the opportunity and need is in climate and sustainability tech’

4 Aug 2022

Alan Costello. Image: Bord na Móna

Resolve Partners’ Alan Costello discusses working with ‘impactful businesses’, why good start-up data is gold and how there’s no ‘entrepreneur gene’.

With a background in science and commercial strategy, Alan Costello has been working in and with start-ups and scaling SMEs in Ireland and Europe for more than 15 years.

He was a venture investment leader at NDRC before going on to co-found Resolve Partners in December 2020. This Irish entrepreneurship consultancy looks to support emerging businesses when it comes to venture investment and corporate innovation, with an increasing focus on climate-tech.

Earlier this year, Resolve Partners helped to run Accelerate Green, Bord na Móna’s new accelerator programme for scaling Irish businesses in the climate action and sustainability space. A six-week Accelerate Green pre-accelerator is being run from later this month and applications are open until tomorrow (5 August).

‘Increasingly, we are working with companies across climate and sustainability – or impactful businesses that matter’

Tell us about your experience with start-ups and entrepreneurship.

Our role and work at Resolve Partners is based around supporting and challenging start-ups and scale-ups around their commercial and customer orientation. We understand tech and product and how it gets to market – there is often an investment gap or access to corporate gap needed to complete the story and we help with that too.

Increasingly, we are working with companies across climate and sustainability – or impactful businesses that matter.

I have been doing this for over 15 years, getting involved with start-ups and corporate innovation myself, but mostly using the experience I have to help and support founders to drive their businesses forward.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

At the moment, both opportunity and need is in climate and sustainability technology.

Electrification with renewables, industry carbon reduction and capture, and improving the food and agri economies for our scaling population – we think of this as climate-tech 2.0, the second wave of investing and scaling in the sector that aligns with government, corporate and population-wide shifts in market readiness. It’s exciting to see the global tech community beginning to deploy their resources to this sector today.

Bord na Móna have announced a second Accelerate Green programme, which takes place one day per week over six weeks, commencing on 18 August. At Resolve Partners, we’re delighted to be working in conjunction with Bord na Móna to develop and grow the community of companies leading Ireland’s sustainability revolution, and after the success of the first programme we’re excited to meet the next cohort!

For the second programme, we’re targeting companies at an earlier stage of development, and seeking to support entrepreneurs with novel, technological solutions that are designed to solve challenges at scale in renewable energy, carbon capture and sequestration, sustainable food and beverage, and the circular bioeconomy. Programme delivery is a blend of in-person and online. Participants will receive group workshops, one-to-one mentoring sessions, guest speakers and access to our extensive commercial, innovation and investment network.

What are the qualities of a good founder? Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I think increasingly we like to see founder-market fit – a reason, a credibility or a deep experience with the problem and market in which they are trying to grow. Grit and determination are important also, especially when a founder has insight and analytic capabilities.

But absolutely founders can be supported and helped – there is no entrepreneur gene!

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day? What tools and resources are a must?

Engage with customers. Insights that come from such a deep understanding of the use case are crucial. The Five Whys and the Mom Test are great tools for that.

From recruitment to supporting the team in place, building a start-up to get to breakout trajectory is not a linear process. It takes a lot of raw human power and you and your team need to be so much more than 1+1=2.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

It’s going to be people. Ignoring for a moment that the wrong person could damage a start-up, the right person is the one who can deliver customers, the one who can build product better and faster, the one who can motivate themselves and others around them.

How can founders assemble a good team?

Understand what you are, what you are not and what you need. Find that and onboard with a two-way testing period – check each other out for skills and culture fit.

Ask people in your network and in the ecosystem for ideas and suggestions. When you are open you will be surprised how many people you can be introduced to, and your network can build quite impressively with a little effort.

Within the team, consider equity and employee stock ownership for team members, but do it carefully and seek advice

What advice do you have for founders who are starting to look for investment?

Good data on your traction is gold, and communicating the vision and how you are building is also necessary. Without both, investors will quickly look to the next opportunity they have.

When you have a good narrative with traction, then raising investment is much more of a conversation. The investors want to be excited by you and the vision – they only write a few cheques per year compared to the hundreds of options they look at.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Bad ‘future-truthing’ – overselling the change and impact they will have, without data or insight to back it up.

Falling for the sunk cost fallacy – if it’s the wrong product, code or hire, you have to move on it before it drags you down and takes up too much of your headspace. Start-ups need to have the maximum human smarts and skills deployed in the right way in order to succeed. If anything is distracting you from that, it’s going to hurt.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

Mentor/coach/adviser and board director are very different things and certainly different again from an external consultant.

Some of the focus could be on tactical elements – how do I build this, negotiate that? Some of it could be introductions and endorsement to a wider network, and some could be strategic planning or personal development for yourself. If it doesn’t sound like all of these things could be delivered by one person – they can’t!

Mentoring or coaching from outside point of view, or with the ability to pattern match and leverage wider experiences, is hugely useful for founders who have to think about operations, strategy, people, customers, investment, product and all of the myriad of other things!

Key attributes you look for are honesty, respectful feedback and support for yourself, combined with relevant experience. Being challenged is good for you.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

If you have the data and insight on customers problems and needs, everything else follows from that – unless you’re building pocket nuclear plants or quantum computing!

You will be able to build product, build a team and gain investment if you have evidence that customers are buying into you and your USP.

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