What big business can learn from startups to tackle the climate emergency

Nigel Sullivan, Chief Sustainability and People Officer at Bupa, tells us why he thinks startups have a lot to teach large corporations when it comes to the challenge of sustainability.

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Written and reviewed by:
Nigel Sullivan

To be efficient and successful in the future, every organisation needs to take action towards becoming a sustainable business. This is increasingly common knowledge, as more organisations are launching or refreshing sustainability strategies to accelerate progress.

But climate change is a complex and multifaceted issue that can’t be solved by working in silos. No single business has all the answers, which means collaboration is vital for innovation and finding new solutions.

Many of these exciting new sustainable technologies are being developed by UK startups. Their ideas could be game changers for cutting carbon emissions in a meaningful and long-term way.

At Bupa we’re early in our sustainability journey. However, we recognise that to play our part in addressing the climate impact of both our business, and the wider healthcare sector, startups are a critical partner in driving innovation and disruptive thinking.

Taking a startup perspective

Amongst many advantages that startups have over larger firms is a clear, fixed objective. Corporate strategies often focus on a number of different areas to compete against industry peers and deliver on company mission statements or corporate values.

When trying to find new solutions or the ‘next big idea’ that can support carbon targets, startups offer a completely different perspective.

Startup businesses are often developing unique products and services which are designed to address a specific gap in the market. Their focus on one area, such as sustainability, means they can utilise tailored expertise and experiences to overcome the challenges of going green, like raising finance.

We’re currently working with a startup called SageTech Medical in the Cromwell Hospital which is tackling emissions by capturing and then reusing waste anaesthetic gases, a potent source of carbon.

Its device is geared towards a particular problem in the healthcare sector, and could have a very real impact on cutting the UK’s carbon footprint.

Harnessing the benefits of global corporates

Large global businesses also have an important role to play in unlocking the potential of startups. We can offer access to an extensive network of useful contacts, resources, commercial expertise, funding from angel investors, and international reach.

Importantly, we can also provide opportunities for startups to improve or develop their solution in real-life settings, to ensure they’re fit for purpose.

By working with a big organisation, startups can also speak to corporate colleagues to understand the practicalities of implementing new products and services into different business environments.

This can help them to position the offering better for future clients, and help them overcome potential roadblocks earlier on in the process.

Emulating the disruptive nature of startups

Many workforces in large corporations across different sectors are often highly-trained and regulated. But these positives can encourage leaders to be risk averse.

When addressing key business challenges, including sustainability, bringing in different approaches and insights leads organisations to explore ideas they wouldn’t traditionally consider.

Startups are very agile in a way that many large businesses can’t be. They can respond quickly to market developments and external factors, pivoting their business model to adapt to changes in demand.

At Bupa, these are skills that we’ve been looking to anchor within our business. We believe that partnering with startup leaders can help us think differently and adapt more quickly to a fast-moving landscape.

It’s a win-win

Partnerships between large companies and startups are a win-win situation. Startups can leverage the network, reach, and resources of global corporations, while the latter can benefit from the agile, disruptive and innovative mentality of blossoming businesses.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, there is a real opportunity to demonstrate the power of collaboration in delivering a sustainable future.

At Bupa, we recently launched an innovation programme called Bupa eco-Disruptive. Our employees identify startups to help solve sustainability challenges, ranging from regenerating nature to tackling carbon emissions.

Now in its third year, there are some clear benefits from the partnerships that have formed between employees and startups around the world. By enabling startups to develop products and services within our facilities, we’ve been able to identify new solutions to reduce emissions in our business.

And, by empowering colleagues to learn from the agile approach of startups, we’ve applied their disruptive and innovative attitudes to our own commitment to become a net zero business by 2040.

More on this: find out how to partner with big businesses to accelerate your business growth in our guide to starting a joint venture.

Written by:
Reviewed by:
Nigel Sullivan
Nigel joined Bupa as Chief People Officer in June 2017 and took responsibility for sustainability in May 2021. Since then, the global healthcare provider and insurer has committed to developing the climate knowledge of its 85,000 employees, and launched eco-Disruptive: a start-up innovation programme focused on the intersection of climate and health.

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