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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Project-X Emerges to drive Profitability via Sustainability

Tim Nixon

12 Apr 2018

When I listen to CEO and co-founder of Project-X, Marcela Navarro, I hear an undaunted optimism on the potential for transforming global industries with more efficient and sustainable innovation.  These innovations can transform whole business models, reducing carbon footprints and increasing business viability.  In a prior initiative, Business Cubed, Ms. Navarro successfully piloted her approach at global giants Cummins and RBS.  Now she and co-founder Kate Wolfenden launch Project X, in partnership with WWF and Cambridge University, to take this to scale.  This interview lays out her thinking, powered by a tireless energy and creativity.   Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Ms. Navarro’s leadership and scale up model significantly contributed to  improving the adoption curve of sustainable innovations in our value chain. We have been very impressed with the quality of the innovations received and even more with the potential for environmental impact, productivity gains and savings in our proof of concept in the the UK, and we have plans to replicate the programme globally.” Denis Ford, Corporate Indirect Purchasing International Leader EMEA & APAC, Cummins, 2016

“Business Cubed successfully reformulated the traditional model of acceleration. This solid foundation is now at the core of the Project X model,  with massive potential to expand the work. Coherent  alignment of execution and impact.” Steve Evans, Director of Research in Industrial Sustainability, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge

Tim Nixon: What is Project-X?

Marcela Navarro: In short, Project X is a corporate systems accelerator that helps entire industries to adopt more profitable, sustainable innovations in their supply chains.
 We have a decade before catastrophic climate change, habitat loss, and mass eradication of species becomes irreversible. The aim of Project X is to radically transform the sustainability performance of 10 selected industries in 10 years – those most responsible for biodiversity decline and climate change impacts, to enable a more positive relationship between people and planet – and deliver a shift of circa 3% of the total global GDP to sustainable procurement.
Our name comes from this link to Roman numeral 10,  and that we are the nexus – a non-judgmental connection between key stakeholders in each industry; the innovators, the companies and the investors – working to sustainably support their interests so that real progress can be made.

Tim: How does the investment community engage with it?

Marcela: The investment community are looking for one thing above all – profitable investments.

We believe the key way to achieve this at an accelerated pace is through self-interest and relationships. That is why we manage a free-to-enter investment community called Project X 100, where we invite key investors to join us on the journey and build trust in the investment potential opportunities, over time.

Project X 100 supports investors by defining acceptable risk levels, providing externally verified results and providing advanced market commitment from major corporates to reduce the risk of investment.

Tim: Tell me more about this proven methodology – What has it achieved?

Marcela: The Project-X methodology has two phases:  De-risking the adoption of a small number of sustainable solutions into a corporate value chain to prove that they can meet industry challenges. The second focuses on incrementally scaling up these innovations, first through a single company’s operations and then into multiple corporations to reach the 10% of global industry target.

The core of the model is tested in two major multinationals already – RBS and Cummins. Using Cummins as an example, the model has already proven to enable selected new sustainable suppliers to be tested and verified, creating significant positive environmental impact and a cost saving of above £500k.

This early stage, small scale test in the UK has unlocked the potential for these innovators to be scaled up, and for the programme to be replicated in other countries – Germany and the US – and once tested there, the potential to be scaled up and positively impact 197 communities across their global corporate footprint could be significant.

To take this tried and tested work to an industry-level scale, Project-X was incubated in the WWF for two years. At the time Kate (Wolfenden, our CDO and co-founder) was working for WWF and I was working for Business Cubed, and we collaborated to build two additional important modules of the programme – multi-stakeholder de-risking research and industry roll out.

This methodology was then peer reviewed by 65-70 industry experts, academics, investors and innovators, before it was user acceptance tested and two industry pilots were recruited.

Tim: Why is it different than other technology accelerators?
Marcela:We describe ourselves as a corporate systems accelerator as we look at the whole value and supply chains within each industry – not just technology – specifically on aligning and accelerating the adoption of large scale innovations. Sustainable procurement is the driving force of what we do.
One of the key things that makes us unique is that we’re shifting the focus from the innovator ‘push’ to market ‘pull, at an industry level.
Adoption at scale of sustainable innovations is central to help ecosystems and help humans to adapt, building resilience to anticipated climate change with minimum degradation and loss.  In essence, we secure advanced market commitment from major corporations to test at scale the innovative and sustainable solutions that we find, helping them, and in turn the industry to accelerate their transition to sustainably procured revenues.
We also invest heavily into independent multi-stakeholder research to help industry, academics and investors achieve consensus on what the most scalable and sustainable solutions should be.  And finally we have a tried and tested model for verifying and scale-testing that gives major corporates the comfort and trust they need to work with an independent entity.
Tim: How does it add to existing efforts?
Marcela: Neutrality and scale are at the core of what we do, alongside our tried and tested methodology, building relationships and creating tangible impact.
We play an independent role to help protect each stakeholder’s interests so that real progress can be made. Staying neutral helps us to get multi-stakeholder consensus on the most scalable and sustainable solutions for industry.
On neutrality, we act as the nexus between three groups – industry, innovators and investors – don’t typically know each other well, don’t speak the same language, have different priorities, different cultures and curiosities and act at a different pace, and, who often view each other with suspicion.
At scale, self-interest is a powerful driver of action and by focusing on market pull rather than the innovation push we’re helping whole industries to accelerate the adoption of sustainable innovations at scale. Project X works systemically – first de-risking, testing and scaling the solutions in one company and then facilitating the roll out to 2nd,3rd, 4th and 5th  – until we reach our programme goal: 10% of global industry procuring alternative sustainable solutions at scale.
Tim: Who is supporting it?
Marcela: Each programme starts with one lead corporate that is prepared to enter the journey of de-risking, testing and scaling alternative innovative solutions in their value chain.
In the context of one of our two pilot programmes, FEED-X, we have Nutreco/Skretting. Nutreco is a €5.6bn turnover company and a global leader in feed nutrition and we are working with their aquaculture division, Skretting, who have a 35% global share.
In addition to the lead testing partner, we are also developing a strategic partnership community of all the key leaders we need to enable us to create sustained industry transformation. To date we have WWF as a founding partner, and are developing strategic partnerships with UNEP One Planet Network, Cambridge University, Thomson Reuters and Climate Kic, among others. Our finance, procurement, people and policy partners will be announced soon.
Tim: What is the role of data and analytics?
Marcela: Data is fundamental to our work for one reason: Data is evidence, evidence breeds trust, trust enables industry-level change.
Every stage of our model is underpinned by data – be it the baseline assessment with the lead testing company to mark our progress against, the crunching of industry data to accurately assess market demand, the universal metrics being defined to assess all the potential solutions that can solve industry challenges so that they can become effective comparables, or the industry test results and verification.
Tim: Has it actually done something on the ground?
Marcela: Following incubation, Project X exited WWF in February of this year. Since then we have kicked off the FEED-X programme with Nutreco/Skretting and we are already in the second and third stages of the programme where we are defining the specific corporate and industry need and the market dynamics that might affect that. We are expecting to launch the search for innovators, together with our de-risking research report, in Quarter 4 of this year.
Tim: What has you most excited about it?
Marcela: What really excites us is the opportunity to demonstrate real tangible results on the ground for an industry that has been challenged to drive cutting edge sustainable innovations into the heart of their operations and at scale.
We are also excited about the ‘10 industries in 10 years’ report that we are launching with WWF in Quarter 4 of this year. This will be a very exciting time as that’s when our activities post-2020 will start to crystallize and we can start constructing consortiums to make them happen.  This report will give us a chance to identify specific industry players which are beginning to show leadership on this transformation.  And leadership leads to long-term, sustainable value.

Disclosure: Thomson Reuters sits on the strategic partner advisory board of Project X

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