Brownes Beach is a stretch of soft white sand overlooking the turquoise Carlisle Bay. When Covid began, the Barbadian government allowed dormant cruise ships to anchor just a few hundred yards offshore so that their crews could empty out to fly back home.
Gordon Seale, a hotel owner, could see the sleeping behemoths from just outside his property. “It really is shocking to just look in the ocean and the place where you never see any cruise ships,” he told Rest of World. “At one time, you had 12 major cruise ships, all anchored side by side, just off the beach.”
When the pandemic swept across the Caribbean, Seale estimates he lost around 98% of his business — it was much the same for the other 40% of Barbados’ tourist-dependent economy. But where many saw calamity, Carlton Cummins, a Barbadian entrepreneur and founder of the renewable battery startup Aceleron, saw opportunity.
Aceleron builds lithium-ion batteries that can be serviced and upgraded, unlike competitors’, such as Tesla’s, which grow obsolete after a handful of years. Buildings can use these batteries to store solar energy. The technology’s potential is particularly meaningful for Barbados, where the cost for energy is over twice as high as in the United States and storms frequently take the grid offline. The problem is that batteries are prohibitively expensive. Cummins had long toyed with a model that would address the underlying costs, but it would require an intricate system of software, repair providers, and banks.
The pandemic gave Cummins the chance to implement his idea and transform the island’s power grid. Normally, it would have been impossible to get financing for such a project — the promise of any profit was far off in the distant horizon. So Cummins didn’t turn to venture capital but instead submitted a proposal to the IDB Lab, the innovation arm of the Inter-American Development Bank Group. IDB funding comes at a different cost — one that has put his entire dream of a more sustainable Barbados in jeopardy.
Cummins is a mechanical engineer by trade, so naturally he’s a comic book fan. When the prime minister of his home country lauded Aceleron in a 2019 speech to the Barbadian Parliament, Cummins recalled the famous Spiderman adage: “With great ability comes even greater responsibility.” (He might have slightly mangled it in his retelling to Rest of World.)
“I was very pleasantly surprised,” Cummins said. “But when the leader of your country says you’re doing great things and they expect great things from you, it puts a lot of pressure on the day-to-day activity.”
In her address to Parliament, Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley warned that the island had to support projects like Aceleron. “Unless he stays the course, and unless we stay the course with him,” she said, “a wonderful idea will only be a story to tell to his grandchildren, rather than an asset that will grow hundreds of millions of dollars and change the lives of ordinary people.”
Achieving this kind of success at scale is easier said than done. Smaller developing nations like Barbados, with a population under 300,000, struggle when it comes to financing innovation. Risk capital — generally venture capital and private equity firms — is the main source of funding for early stage technology startups. Of course, financial institutions assume risk in exchange for the promise of massive returns down the line.
The Caribbean has a fragmented population of around 44 million people, most of whom have low spending power. “From a VC perspective, you’re like, OK, well, this is a much riskier market,” said Mark Hassell, a Barbados-based consultant working with Aceleron. “Maybe it makes more sense for me to play in the markets that I know — U.S., maybe Latin America, because you have countries like Brazil, which have massive populations.”
Aceleron, tellingly, is not based in Barbados but in Birmingham, England. Enticed by the innovation going on in Europe, Cummins moved to the U.K. in 2014, after graduating from the University of the West Indies. He founded Aceleron the next year. Despite easier access to venture capital, he was still wary of traditional venture capital firms’ unrealistic expectations. “It’s not easy,” he said, to be “under the gun of being able to deliver growth figures in time frames that don’t reflect reality.” After all, as many as 75% of venture-backed startups fail.
Despite the odds, Cummins wanted Aceleron to focus on sustainability, not just profit. “That’s the challenge, when you have such a lofty vision,” he added. “You don’t necessarily see the world on a quarterly basis, do you?”
When Covid-19 decimated tourism, Cummins had the opportunity to live up to his prime minister’s towering expectations. Only then did discussions accelerate on how to rebuild the industry sustainably. Cummins realized that hotels would be the perfect pilot for his idea. They are a huge energy burden in Barbados and, when violent storms knock the power grid offline, they leach energy from residential neighborhoods to keep tourists’ lights on.
Cummins’s project was ambitious. He planned to turn hotels into their own, self-monitoring micro-generators. Aceleron would build remote monitoring software for the batteries so that hotel managers could track how much energy they were storing. The startup would also train local agents to maintain the batteries, similar to how car dealerships work. Crucially, by accessing data about how the batteries were operating, local banks would be more willing to offer loans at better rates to hotels.
The “energy as a service” model would have wide-ranging implications. “Energy tends to be a primary driver when it comes to development,” Cummins said. If he could reshape how hotels consume power, it would not only reduce reliance on fossil fuel energy but also improve access to affordable energy. By creating a service network around the batteries, Aceleron could train local engineers to maintain and monitor the batteries, creating jobs. And, perhaps most importantly, by building a transparent loan structure around batteries, the model could be utilized by other businesses — and across the Caribbean.
Because Cummins knew that no venture capital firm would fund the project, he had to come up with another source of funding. That’s when he turned to the IDB.
The Inter-American Development Bank is the main source of development financing in Central America and the Caribbean. Its headquarters are housed in Washington, D.C., just two blocks from the White House. Though it does most of its work with governments, the bank also has two private-sector arms: IDB Invest, which works with large corporations, and IDB Lab, which works with smaller companies, NGOs, and startups trying to launch ambitious ideas.
Since its inception in 1993, IDB Lab has dispersed $2 billion in funding across 26 Latin American and Caribbean countries, supporting projects from a virtual sustainable seafood marketplace in Belize to an online employment platform for Venezuelan women in Peru. It is a minuscule figure compared to leading VC firms but still a major source of investment in an otherwise overlooked region.
In June, the IDB Lab launched the Beyond Tourism Innovation Challenge, a program that would provide matching grants to projects that sought to rebuild the industry post-Covid-19. Dora Moscoso, an IDB project specialist spearheading the challenge, said they realized that governments were taking short-term measures to provide support — say, hiring tourism employees to work in the medical sector. “Band-Aid approaches,” as she referred to them, weren’t preparing the industry for a post-Covid-19 world.
For Aceleron, the challenge was the perfect opening to get funding for its hotel project. Amrit Chandan, co-founder alongside Cummins and CEO of Aceleron, felt that the benefits would go beyond monetary support. “You approach hotels out there, and they don’t know you from Adam and Eve,” he said. “But you say you’re a part of an IDB grant, and it’s something that’s de-risked for us and de-risked for them because it’s an external source of funds that helps to pilot the technology.”
The biggest obstacle for Aceleron would be moving fast enough. For many hotels decimated by the pandemic, there was no time to wait. There was one glaring issue: IDB is exceptionally slow.
Aceleron first submitted its proposal during the summer of 2020, and it wasn’t short-listed until October. At the time of publication, the startup still hasn’t received its first payment, which Cummins expects around June. Of all the grant partners that Aceleron has worked with, including the Shell Foundation, Chandan said that the IDB is by far the slowest.
The snail’s pace comes from being an inter-governmental institution. The IDB comprises dozens of member countries with convoluted bureaucracies and often conflicting interests. From its imposing offices in Washington, D.C., the piles of paperwork are worlds away from the recipients of its grants.
Hotels in the Caribbean carry loss-of-business insurance in the event of storms. Gordon Seale, the hotelier near Brownes Beach, said the only time he had heard of pandemics before was in a Bill Gates TED Talk from 2015. Unfortunately, insurance companies had heard of pandemics — there was a specific exclusion clause in Seale’s policy. “I don’t think anybody anticipated it,” he said. “And most of the hotels discovered after the fact that you couldn’t insure for it.”
Seale normally employs around 225 people in his two hotels, Sugar Bay and Bougainvillea. During the pandemic, he’s laid off around 35% of his staff. Business picked up a bit in February 2021 when the Netflix teen drama Outer Banks began filming in Barbados. Its crew occupied about 70 rooms in one of Seale’s hotels. They left by mid-April, though.
Still, he thinks that hotels can take advantage of the downturn. Because they have low occupancy rates at the moment, it’s an ideal opportunity for intrusive installations. “Probably the best investment you could make is in solar energy,” he said, calculating that green energy quickly pays for itself in the sun-washed island. “It’s kind of a no-brainer, to be honest,” he added. “I’m not a tree hugger, but I’m not far off.”
Seale has had solar heating at his hotels for 20 years. He has also installed the maximum number of solar panels that both his hotels can handle and buys hybrid cars for his staff. He wants an all-electric car himself, but they’re difficult to find on the island. There are no Teslas or Volkswagens. Even Suzuki — one of the biggest brands in Barbados — hasn’t made their electric cars available to the Caribbean yet, likely because of tariffs and the relatively small market.
This is the perpetual conundrum in Barbados: the simultaneous appetite for and lack of access to technology. Seale said that, about five years ago, he was in conversations with a German company producing a hyper-efficient solar panel called a super reflector. They were much more expensive than other options, but he was committed to buying them. They never came through.
Sugar Bay and Bougainvillea would be a prime target for the pilot program, but Seale had never heard of Aceleron. He said that no one from the company has approached him about the sustainable batteries project. He called up three hotelier friends who told him the same thing.
Robin Walcott owns a smaller 55-room hotel about 10 kilometers up the coast from Seale. He’s currently in the midst of a massive solar panel installation project himself. “I’ve always wanted to do it, and this was the perfect time.”
Walcott has looked into installing batteries similar to Aceleron’s for his office units. It would be convenient to keep the lights and computers going at night without relying on the grid. He’s talked with a few companies, but they’re too pricey to justify the cost. Though he hasn’t yet been approached by Aceleron, Walcott told Rest of World, “I would like them to get in touch with me.”
There is a reason why Walcott, Seale, and his hotelier friends had no idea of Aceleron’s existence: The company is only working with three hotels for its pilot. Everything is slow — partly by design, partly by necessity. Funding from the IDB requires a methodical approach, although the layers of cumbersome bureaucracy certainly push the limit. The pilot itself will optimistically launch around Christmas and last three years. That means that, in the best-case scenario, the other hoteliers won’t be able to come onboard until the end of 2024.
Cummins said that the three-year trial period is necessary to gather enough data to approach local banks about providing loans for the batteries. In an ideal world, Aceleron would bring on more than three hotels for the pilot, but the costs of developing the software and building the batteries are just too high, especially because Aceleron is fronting the capital until the IDB distributes its first payment. This is the reality of working with the development bank.
The amount of due diligence is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Cummins called it “uncanny.” Yet, even when getting emails with meticulously detailed questions at midnight, such as whether the batteries include cobalt (they don’t), Aceleron’s founder is keeping his cool.
“I would say I’m probably relaxed about it — that’s just the islander in me,” Cummins said. “The facts are, yes, it would be far more desirable if we could move more quickly on it, because it means that we can deliver a solution that the market seems to be interested in a lot faster. The challenge is we end up with these two polar opposites: We’ve got fast cash that wants low risk, and we’ve got slow cash that is happy to take high risk.”
There is a further risk to slow cash, beyond the lingering question as to when the IDB investment will actually arrive. There is also a worry as to whether it will materialize at all. Selwyn Cambridge, the founder of a Barbadian entrepreneurship accelerator called Ten Habitat, participated in a similar IDB Lab initiative, called the Blue Tech Challenge, in 2019. Even after having its proposal accepted and agreeing on the design with IDB Lab, the funding fell apart after failing to get the proper government sign-offs in time.
Cambridge praised the IDB’s efforts to inject capital into the region but said that the inherent challenges of the organization can be distracting for entrepreneurs. “When you’ve got such a massive bureaucratic system trying to do something as nimble and as entrepreneurial as many [development agencies] are trying to do,” he said, “you get into these conflicts.”
Nayaatha Taitt, an IDB officer in Barbados working with Aceleron, said that Covid-19 has only elongated the process. This has included receiving the Barbadian government’s official “non-objection,” although she wanted to make clear that the government wasn’t to blame for any delays. As of late April, Aceleron is still on standby for the government’s approval.
Cummins has a tendency to squint his eyes when thinking hard about anything. They remained permanently closed as he searched for the right words to describe the IDB process. “From an interpersonal perspective, that would be deemed as frustrating,” he said. “But when you start to appreciate that IDB is an international institution with a lot of stakeholders that they need to make sure they are on the right side, it makes complete sense why they would dot all the I’s first and cross the T’s.”
For now, everyone is caught in the middle of the yawning jaws of bureaucracy on one side and the urgent need to get going and out of the pandemic-induced slump on the other. Aceleron is awaiting approval from the IDB to start receiving its funds. Seale sits on his hotel’s empty patio deck, hoping for vaccines in the U.S. and U.K. — his principal customer base — to work their magic. Walcott is just hoping to get a call from Aceleron so that he can finish his greening project before the island picks back up.
Slow money means that, in the long run, none of them will have to sacrifice sustainability for growth. Even so, everyone wishes it could move just a bit faster.