Mary Ritter: «Addressing climate change is good for the economy»

Former CEO and one of the promoters of the Climate-KIC European initiative


Mary Ritter is Professor Emerita of Immunology at Imperial College London. She is the former Chief Executive Officer of the Climate-KIC European initiative (Knowledge, Innovation, Community), who has recently opened a site in Valencia, within the Botanical Garden of the University of Valencia.

Which kind of parallelism can we find between Immunology research and developing green technologies against climate change?
Climate change has such a wide-ranging impact that it embraces a very broad range of disciplines. Almost everything is relevant, and immunology is no exception. Changes in the distribution of infectious diseases with global warming, extreme temperatures – both heat and cold – and changes in nutrition resulting from food shortages can all have direct impact on health. More generally, the intellectual tools of research are shared and transferable, whatever the discipline.

If we consider that the planet is becoming sick because of man-made emissions, what are the first recommendations of Climate-Knowledge Innovation Community to get the recovery?
We must take a dual approach. We must innovate to address mitigation – to cut emissions, moving to a zero-carbon economy. We must also innovate to address adaptation, to limit the impact on people and infrastructure resulting from the damage mankind has already created. We can deal with both mitigation and adaptation via training people, creating products and services and influencing policy.

In entrepreneurship an innovative prescription to resolve an environmental problem?
Business can certainly be a friend of the environment (as well as a foe). In fact it is crucial that that what we do makes good business sense, so that the world can afford to make the necessary changes. Only in this way can we convince politicians that it is not only essential to address climate change, it is also feasible, affordable and good for the economy and the creation of new jobs. There are reports from economists (e.g. Stern review) that support this, and this was discussed at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January this year.

From Imperial College London, how did you get to be the Climate-KIC CEO?
Having run my international immunology research laboratory for many years, I then progressively moved into positions of senior academic management – first as Head of Department, then Director of the Graduate School for Life Sciences and Medicine, Pro-Rector for Postgraduate Education, and finally-Pro Rector for International Affairs. It was in this last position that my path to CEO of Climate-KIC started. I was closely involved in developing the proposal for Climate-KIC. I represented Imperial College on the Steering Group for the proposal, although I had no idea at the time that this would be my destiny!

Your personality and your background in Immunology have an influence in the first steps of Climate-KIC. How?
I have always been a serial entrepreneur within the academic environment. In fact, from 1982 to the present, for almost every job I have taken I have been the first person in it. This means that I have been able to create many things de novo – in addition to my research where new experimental designs are needed to test hypotheses and reveal new information, I designed and launched new bachelor and masters programmes, and the first graduate school for my university. This creative activity is what I particularly enjoy. I had the opportunity to take this even further when I became Pro-Rector for International Affairs at Imperial College. The two major projects that I oversaw from inception and through their initial stages were a joint Medical School between Imperial College and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Climate-KIC.

And has Climate-KIC affected your vision?
Yes, definitely. I have for a long time been very conscious of the impact of mankind – and myself as an individual – on the environment and the serious outcomes that this is generating, but my experience in Climate-KIC has certainly sharpened my vision and made me much more aware not only of what needs to be done but also of what can be done. Climate-KIC has also greatly boosted the entrepreneurial and business side of my character and expertise!

What are the main goals you are proud of during your four-year trip with this European initiative?
I am immensely proud of many things in Climate-KIC. I am proud of our excellent Climate-KIC Community. When we restructured in 2010/2011, we started with 27 partners in December 2010 and 10 weeks later I had a Climate-KIC with new legal entity and 77 partners! Since then, we have steadily built this and now have more than 250 partners from business (both large and small), academia and public bodies. Just a little over 50% of partners now come from the business sector. I am also proud of our students – the masters and PhD students and the Pioneers. These highly talented entrepreneurs are the change agents and leaders for climate change mitigation and adaptation that the world so badly needs.

And the big success of the Accelerator [a Climate-KIC-driven programme promoting clean-energy trade]?
Of course, I am proud of our start-ups that develop through the Accelerator – they are terrific. So far, 45 of these have raised €59 million of external funding from venture capital, crowd-funding and other sources, and one start-up alone raised €10 million in 2014.

«Climate change has such a wide-ranging impact that it embraces a very broad range of disciplines. Almost everything is relevant, and immunology is no exception»

«Business can certainly be a friend of the environment. It is crucial that that what we do makes good business sense, so that the world can afford to make the necessary changes»

«I have for a long time been very conscious of the impact of mankind on the environment, but my experience in Climate-KIC has certainly sharpened my vision »


Can innovation and talent fight against economic crisis and the current trend of mini-jobs?

Yes. Most new jobs come from small business, and a small business is only successful if it is based on innovation and talent.

Give us some keys to achieve a low-carbon economy…
To achieve this, you need to have the support of government, business and citizens. There are some encouraging signals from the business sector where there is a growing recognition that reducing the carbon footprint of a company will reduce running costs and therefore increase profitability, so it is good for business as well as the climate. In addition, as public awareness of climate change increases, green credentials will improve the company’s branding. Some companies are looking not only at their own carbon footprint, but also at the footprint of their supply chain – the full environmental profit and loss equation. We also need to persuade governments to support climate-friendly policy. However, in a democratic system, politicians need to see that it will help to win elections, so that they have the power to change things. The best way to do this is to show that «green» can be and is good for the economy and for the creation of new jobs. It is also important that the electorate, the voters, put pressure on their governments to act to address climate change.

May entrepreneurship be the new challenge for public universities?
Some universities in Europe have already successfully taken up the challenge of entrepreneurship, and this is true for many of Climate-KIC’s academic partners. Those who have perhaps found it easiest are the technical universities, but others have also made this transition in thinking. However, there are still many universities for whom working with business and translating basic research into tangible products and services is anathema to their academic tradition. However, those universities that have already embraced entrepreneurship can demonstrate that this does not dilute the quality, integrity or impact of the basic research conducted in their institutions. The University of Cambridge is an excellent example of this.

Climate-KIC is the only EIT besides the national centres that has six regional implementation communities across Europe. Why? And what is their mission?
The six regions of the Regional Innovation Centre (RIC) are very important to Climate-KIC. They are our eyes and ears to tell us what the local and regional demands are in the context of climate change and a low-carbon economy, and they provide an all-important complementary environment to the co-location centres (CLCs) – providing the environment where innovation can be tested, transitioned and scaled up.

One of these regional centres is located in Valencia. What are its main goals?
Our six regions were all originally selected because they were key regions that were actively engaged in addressing climate change. This is very true for Valencia. I remember my first visit to the region, where I met many people and saw many facilities. I was deeply impressed by the commitment and work being undertaken to combat climate change – by the government, by business and by universities. From very early on, the Valencia region understood the key role of a RIC region, and acted upon this. In terms of the specific climate challenges, yes, Valencia’s location in the South of Europe is an important one. For example, in the flagship programme «Building Technologies Accelerator», Valencia provides one of the 5 key «living labs», the others being located in Switzerland, The Netherlands and Sweden – so very different climate conditions.

The University of Valencia is now coordinating the education pillar for Climate-KIC. It is one of the three priorities, together with innovation and entrepreneurship.
The KICs are unique in bringing together and integrating the three pillars: education, research (innovation) and entrepreneurship, and it is the integration of these 3 that underpins the success of our pipeline – with an output that combines the technology, the skilled people and the transition engineering that is needed to address climate change. It is crucial to produce the people as well as the products and services, since it is only through people – the leaders, the change agents, the practitioners – that innovation will be effectively adopted. Education at all education levels is important in this context. This is why we have established our Climate Graduate School for masters and doctoral programmes and our Climate Business School for executives and professionals. Of course, education is also crucial at primary and secondary school levels, but that is beyond the current remit of the KICs.

Next December Paris will host the COP21 conference (Conference of Parties) of climate change. You said in Valencia that it will be «a real test of the world’s resolve to genuinely and effectively address climate change, moving beyond the setting of targets to taking effective action». In your opinion, how has Climate-KIC paved the way to Paris?
Climate-KIC is Europe’s largest public/private partnership addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation – with a mission to provide the people, products and services to address climate change. We bring our partners together at twelve physical hubs across Europe. Climate-KIC has therefore created a new way of doing things, and although it is still quite a new organisation, it has already started to gain real traction in addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation. We must therefore promote not just our pipeline successes at COP21, but also our uniquely successful way of working to achieve these. In this way, our model can be replicated across the world to address climate change on a global scale. What is important is that we develop a thriving and sustainable green economy with new green business, economic growth and job creation.

Maria Josep Picó. Journalist. Chair for Scientific Dissemination of the University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2015.


«You need to have the support of government, business and citizens to achieve a low-carbon economy»

«I remember my first visit to Valencia. I was deeply impressed by the commitment and work being undertaken to combat climate chang»

«What is important is that we develop a thriving and sustainable green economy with new green business, economic growth and job creation»

© Mètode 2015

Periodista especialitzada en medi ambient i Premi Nacional de Periodisme Ambiental. Càtedra de Divulgació de la Ciència de la Universitat de València.