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Insights October 28, 2021

‘The time to take urgent climate action was yesterday’ – Planboo Co-Founder Priya on building a sustaintech startup

Planboo Co-Founder Priya Bhullar talks to us about the challenges of building a sustaintech startup, greenwashing, and her advice for other entrepreneurs trying to tackle the climate crisis.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, Priya?

I grew up in the UK and moved to London to do a masters in environment and sustainable development, which is when I really started looking at how the climate crisis effects people and communities – especially the most marginalised. After that, I worked in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Zambia, offering essential support services to women and other underrepresented communities. But after six years, I got frustrated with the lack of opportunities to innovate. I met so many people with awesome ideas but due to red tape they wouldn’t go anywhere. It was about that time my now co-founder Freddie called me from India where he was planting bamboo wanting to pick my brain on sustainability and we started working on Planboo together.

Tell us about your startup Planboo

Planboo is a sustaintech company that rapidly captures CO2 from the atmosphere with bamboo – which is the fastest growing plant in the world (1 meter a day!). All plants capture CO2 from the atmosphere, but because Bamboo grows so fast, its carbon removal potential is huge. With Planboo, businesses can remove their emissions by purchasing our Carbon Dioxide removal credits. And as we saw in the recent IPCC report – the time to take urgent climate action was yesterday. Growing bamboo also gives many people living in the world’s poorest regions a steady source of income. Our vision is to connect these people to the carbon market, by providing the tools and training to generate bamboo biochar; a natural, 1000+ years form of carbon removal and storage, that can increase soil productivity and generate renewable electricity.

How important are these carbon credits?

Carbon credits should be available for businesses that firstly record and report all their emissions and then purchase them for the remaining emissions they cannot reduce. Carbon credits are rapidly going from a nice to have to a need to have. Soon, businesses won’t be applauded for doing this – they’ll be forced to. While there remains some skepticism (rightly so) around the efficacy and integrity of carbon credits to tackle the climate crisis, I believe that when well regulated, carbon credits have a critical role to play in climate action. The voluntary market is predicted to be worth over $50 billion by 2030, but today there simply aren’t enough high-quality carbon credits available. The world needs 10 billion tonnes per annum! With our transparent carbon removal credits, we can help meet this demand.

So how did you meet your co-founders?

In 2016, Freddie and Marc were in Sri Lanka building a bamboo hotel, and I’d just finished working on a post-earthquake reconstruction project in Nepal. I was pretty much on the brink of burnout, so I went to Sri Lanka for a break. I actually bumped into Freddie in the water surfing. We started chatting while waiting for a wave, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Planboo Co-Founders (left to right): Freddie Catlow, Priya Bhullar and Marc Hernandez Folguera

So you’re all first-time co-founders, how has that journey been?

Every day is like being in the classroom. It’s massively challenging, but I think the fact we’ve been friends for a while helps. We manage to balance our work and personal relationships by making sure we get outside and do fun things together too. We do a lot of things to keep that co-founder relationship positive, because until we grow our team, it’s just us three. That relationship is the core of what Planboo is.

What else has been challenging about building a startup in this space?

When we joined Sting, we were at a really early stage. We went through the climate startup action program before the accelerator program which helped us nail down our idea and business offering. Taking climate action is important for everyone, whether you’re a corporation, a consumer, or a government. So, we weren’t sure if we should be B2B, B2C or B2B2C etc. We’re all also super passionate and high-energy so we want to do everything. The challenge is figuring out where to focus your efforts at each point and developing a clear strategy, which Sting has really helped us with. We’re now settled on B2B as businesses are under both consumer and legislative pressure to act on their emissions and as a result we’ve been able to sign some amazing climate-conscious companies. 

What advice would you give to other startups tackling the climate crisis?

Just start. There are so many solutions out there that just jumped on a sustainability trend that we were all so conscious of greenwashing, which really held us back at the start. We didn’t want to put something out there that wasn’t a fully-fledged solution because we didn’t want to be accused of anything or judged. But during Sting’s startup climate action program we realized doing something was better than doing nothing at all – which is a great place to start from. We had to trust in ourselves that we’d figure the rest out if we lead with integrity and hold ourselves accountable. You must also open yourself up to having the conversation. I’ve had people at parties say to me, “you work in carbon offsetting, isn’t that greenwashing?” and my response is: good question, let’s talk about it. Keep listening, learning, and stay accountable, and move forward with your business bit by bit.

Working with an innovative sustaintech solution?

Apply to Sting now for your chance to join a community of like-minded entreprenuers and get access to a vast support ecosystem so you can make a bigger impact, faster.

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You’ve done a lot of work to try to support women in the past. What would you say to the other female entrepreneurs out there?

If you’ve got an idea – just go for it. I think many women feel held back from jumping into the startup/tech world, or at least I know I did for years. I never let myself believe I could do something like this. Taking the leap and going for it even though there’s not enough women in this space – especially women of color – is very empowering. You can also be a role model for women and other underrepresented people, which I believe has a real impact. It makes a huge difference when you meet another co-founder and they look like you. Talking women to women, or person of colour to person of colour really inspires me to keep pushing forward. Sting really pushes for female-founder teams which is super important, and the rest of us need to encourage and support each other. It’s a massive problem but these smaller, more tangible actions hopefully have a ripple effect.

What’s next for Planboo?

Sting’s accelerator program was a very intense learning curve, so over the summer we took some time to reflect and digest everything. Now, we’re back at it and are doubling down on sales, looking at raising an investment round and building our tech for the rest of 2021. We are currently on Climate KIC’s Carbon Removal Climate Accelerator which is an amazing opportunity for us to grow within the climate action community. Watch this space!

Would you like to learn more about Planboo? Contact the team at grow@planboo.com