The L2C Interview: Anthony Watanabe of Asia Clean Innovations (ACI) on ASEAN Cleantech

Published by Chris Oestereich on

I recently moved from Boise, Idaho in the western U.S., to Bangkok, Thailand. (Of all the well-worn paths used by traders and immigrants throughout history, this was not one.) I’ve been to Thailand several times before as much of my wife’s family lives here, but this time things are very different. Instead of a time-bound vacation filled sightseeing and amazing meals, I’m engaging in an open-ended adventure seeking to help businesses cut their impacts on the planet. (Okay. If I’m being honest, the meals are still amazing.)

When I landed in Bangkok a few weeks ago, I needed to find a few friendly faces in the crowd of close to ten million people. I started looking for opportunities to connect with “my people” and I found a workshop, “Partnering for Sustainability,” that was bringing together people from NGOs, academia, and the business sector to wrestle with the region’s issues. The only problem, the event was two days away, and the registration deadline had passed over a week before. I frantically emailed the workshop contact and essentially begged for permission to attend. 

Anthony Watanabe - Managing Director of Asia Clean Innovations

Anthony Watanabe – Managing Director of Asia Clean Innovations

Fortunately, they were able to find room for me, which made for a bright spot in my early, jet-lagged days here. The organizer that my classmate suggested I connect with, Anthony Watanabe, is the head of Asia Clean Innovations, a vanguard driving cleantech adoption in the ASEAN region. He has also been the first welcoming face in the crowd of millions here, and for that I will be ever grateful.

I’ve since sat down with Anthony a couple of times to discuss the state of sustainability in general, and more specifically, cleantech, in the region. His knowledge and insights have been interesting and enlightening, so I asked his permission to pass on some of what he’s shared with me. Gracious as ever, Anthony quickly accepted. Below is a condensed version of our discussions

C: Let’s start off with a bit of background. What did you do before you came to Asia.

A: In the early 2000’s, I started a sustainability consultancy in Canada with no business or environmental training – it’s a long story! We grew Innovolve into a highly regarded boutique firm working with multinationals, international government agencies an NGOs on issues related to buildings, packaging and water doing work in several countries around the world.

C: What brought you to Bangkok to start your firm?

A: After more than a decade at the helm of Innovolve, I was in need of a change and so my family and I took a year to travel. We visited 15 countries in 12 months – one of the best things we ever did.

After what we witnessed and experienced in developing countries in Asia and Latin America, going back to safe and steady Toronto was simply not an option.

So in August 2014, we arrived in Bangkok and started a firm helping to scale the adoption of cleantech in ASEAN.

C: As I understand it, Asia Clean Innovations does a mix of problem analysis, solution determination, and project coordination. Can you describe your work for us and explain how you create value?

A: In fact, our focus at Asia Clean Innovations (ACI) is to identify opportunities for the application of clean technologies in energy and water here in the region and to link them up with appropriate technologies. We are innovation seekers on both sides: Western and Eastern.

We tackle the challenge from different directions. On the one hand, we have a portfolio of technology companies in energy and water whom we represent in ASEAN. On the other hand, through our travels, workshops and speaking engagements we mine opportunities which are ripe for technology intervention.

At present, we are building projects from both of these starting points.

C: What sorts of opportunities is your firm best suited to help with?

A: This depends on the starting point. If a technology firm comes to us looking to gain access into ASEAN (or North America for that matter), we can jump in to assess the technology, its applications, cost and maintenance profile and help to gauge the potential. If the potential is good, we can work with that firm to actually build the market for their solution.

On the other side, we are constantly coming across new environmental challenges here in ASEAN. And then go hunting for tech solutions that could help. This is the approach we’ve taken to build a water loss program in Cambodia where up to 60% of the treated water leaks from the pipes in rural areas. We first learned of the problem and now have built a platform of 4 partner firms to innovate and address this pressing issue, made all the more pressing by a pending policy change which will drive the need for change.

C: I’m finding that opportunities exist at every turn, but progress in general seems slow. Are there unique barriers to driving clean tech projects in the region? Are there any knowledge gaps that need to be filled? Or, is relationship building a different experience than in North America? Do you think organizations are facing other issues that take priority?

A: The answers to these questions could fill the pages of a book! Some cleantech solutions come at a premium in terms of capex. But they win big when you factor in opex. Painting this picture for buyers in ASEAN is an ongoing challenge as they are typically focused on cheaper, short term solutions. So education is a significant part of what ACI does to build the market for cleantech.

On relationships, I think this is one of my strong points as an entrepreneur. And still, I have been schooled on how to manage relationships by some of our ASEAN partners in different countries. Our lighting partner in Indonesia for instance, is a master at building relationships with influencers in a very authentic and even likeable manner. He has taught me a few things in a short time.

After a year in the market, we have built solid relationships in countries across the region: Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, for example. And our partners in these countries have the deep, long term, strategic relationships to help close deals

C: What’s next? Where do you see the clean tech industry headed? Will it be ever larger utility-scale projects, or might modular units be the next wave?

A: The next (and indeed now) thing is the convergence of clean tech and information tech. This collision has a number of monikers and falls firmly in the space of IoT (Internet of Things). But since IoT is much broader, I like to call this space “Cleanweb”. This is where managing our resources and infrastructure gets smart allowing us to make much better decisions, to dramatically improve asset management and to improve the lives of ASEAN nationals.

C: I think we’re just beginning to see the stirring of a cleantech tidal wave (Bloomberg recently reported that renewables could provide 70% of Europe’s energy by 2040), and so I think it’s a very interesting area to focus in on. While I’m admittedly not one to view tech as a panacea, I think it has a vital role to play as we work towards a more sustainable future.

Anthony, Thank you for making the time to discuss your outlook. I wish you the best of luck in continuing to drive positive change in the world!