Subak Co-Founder, Gi Fernando MBE (BEng 1992): “Data is a source of truth and numbers don’t lie”

Subak Co-Founder, Gi Fernando MBE (BEng 1992)

After the extreme weather events of this summer and the stark warnings of the recent IPCC report, the climate crisis feels more pressing than ever before. But could data be the key to us living in greater harmony with our planet? Bristol alumnus and serial entrepreneur Gi Fernando (BEng 1992) certainly thinks so.

This summer, Gi and Co-Founder Baroness Bryony Worthington launched Subak, the world’s first global non-profit tech accelerator dedicated to combatting the climate emergency. Subak acts like a business school by helping to speed the growth of climate focussed tech start-ups; the organisations that Subak supports share data and collaborate in the fight against climate change.

As well as being a social impact entrepreneur, Gi is also an engineer, investor and a father-of-three. He was awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to the digital economy and has also been named as one of the UK’s top 100 Asian stars in tech. We caught up with him to hear about his newest venture, and to learn more about how data could save the world.

What was your time as a University of Bristol student like? Could you share one of your favourite memories?
I had an amazing time at Bristol Uni and in terms of a favourite memory, it’s difficult to pick just one. I often look back and remember my lectures with Professor Burbridge. He really ignited my interest in electrical engineering and made me think about energy and electricity in a different light. Many years later I’ve converted my petrol-guzzling Land Rover Defender into an electric vehicle and I’ve been installing solar panels on my house. I’ve also launched a transport research group called New Automotive, which is helping to accelerate and track the transition to electric vehicles in the UK.

Could you tell us more about Subak? What is your mission and how are you uniquely placed to achieve it?
Subak is the world’s first climate tech accelerator programme but for climate non-profit organisations. Funding non-profits is vital to combatting the climate emergency because only non-profits can drive the policy change which is needed to keep the planet habitable. Our mission is simple: bring together the best tech, environmental and scientific talent to drive mass behaviour and policy change, because we’re now desperately short on time to reverse the impacts of climate change.

Subak selects, funds and scales organisations which want to work collectively to keep the planet habitable, using shared data, infrastructure and tools. Subak members and fellows use open-source data and collaborate to tackle the climate crisis, meaning members by definition are not competitors, they’re collaborators.

We’ve assembled a talented line-up of individuals to tackle the climate crisis, boasting a team that includes ex-Google Deep Minds product leaders like Steve Crossan, a former VP of Facebook, Richard Allen, and the founder of Songkick, Michelle You. Now it’s about using these minds to combat potentially the biggest challenge the world has ever faced.

Why is data such an essential tool in combatting climate change?
If you can’t measure a problem, and measure the effectiveness of your response, you can’t solve it. More than most sectors, climate mitigation is heavily data dependent. For example, if we can nowcast solar energy availability based on satellite imagery and weather data (as one of our members Open Climate Fix is doing) we can balance the energy mix of the grid more effectively. This is important as many countries now have to throttle back wind and solar on hot dry days because the grid cannot cope. At the core of Subak is the open data co-operative, a central data asset that endures regardless of start-up success.

Data is a source of truth and numbers don’t lie. Letting data flow and making it more accessible allows us to make better, faster decisions. In the tech world, there’s often a ‘fail fast, learn quickly and move on’ attitude. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, we need to adopt this plus a data-driven approach to speed up progress as much as we can, because time simply isn’t on our side.

Could you give a few examples of start-ups which have already been supported by Subak?
One example is New AutoMotive, a transport research group that supports the rapid uptake of electric vehicles in the UK by opening up data about the transition. It helped support the Government’s decision to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2030. It has developed new tools including the Electric Car Count which splits electric vehicle sales data by manufacturer and region to track progress. It also hosts ElectricCar.Guide, a consumer guide to electric vechicles which uses tools like a novel cost-saving estimator that creates personalised costs, tailored to a person’s own vehicle usage.

We’ve also been working with TransitionZero, an organisation which is harnessing satellite data to provide insight into global energy markets, Ember which has built the first open-source dataset of global power generation and Open Climate Fix, who forecast solar electricity generation to help optimise the grid.

What is the best piece of career advice that you’ve ever been given?
I think it would have to be to try lots of things and get stuck in as intensely as you can. It’s also important to learn when to drop things and not being afraid of dropping lots of things if they’re not working.

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