Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes aims to help save the planet by pledging over $350 million in personal funds to philanthropies fighting climate change, and investing several billion more into sustainable companies and green technologies.
Mike Cannon-Brookes, one of Australia’s richest people with a $20-plus billion fortune, is passionate about protecting the environment and saving the planet. He lives and breathes sustainability in everything he does, and is deploying his own funds to make a difference.
In late October, just before the start of COP26 in Scotland, Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie pledged to donate A$500 million ($357 million) by 2030 to nonprofits seeking to alleviate climate change. With this pledge, Cannon-Brookes leapfrogged into the ranks of more established names to become one of Australia’s most generous philanthropists.
Yet Cannon-Brookes, 42, wants to do more than be an altruist. He also wants to effect change with savvy investments that do well while doing good. On the same day he unveiled his philanthropic plans, he also announced that he is doubling down on renewable energy, aiming to invest A$1 billion into the sector, on top of A$1 billion he says he’s already deployed through his self-funded investment firm Grok Ventures.
Then there’s the property-buying spree in New South Wales where he aims to transform large tracts of land into a green paradise through regenerative agriculture, which tries to reduce carbon emissions released by traditional farming. Their plans for the properties include breeding crickets and other insects as protein alternatives while using electric tractors and solar power on the farms.
“Australia has a big problem with agriculture in general and how we’re going to transition that industry,” says Cannon-Brookes by video call in November. One property close to his heart is a 40ha country home in the rural village of Kangaloon, located in an area known for its vineyards, rainforests and waterfalls about 140km from Sydney. “There’s lots of trees, kangaroos and wombats here,” says Cannon-Brookes.
The tech billionaire says Australian companies have no choice but to become more sustainable as environment-conscious countries increasingly impose carbon taxes on fossil fuel imports and even stop buying them—a troubling prospect for the world’s largest coal exporting country (by value). The transition from fossil-fuel dependence to renewable energy “requires both financial and philanthropic investments,” says Cannon-Brookes. “You need a lot of academic studies to be done in showing how these new technologies work for different areas and regions.”
This is where his donations to Australian groups such as Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), Climate Council and Rewiring Australia play a major role, especially since Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed to cut Australia’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050 during COP26. Cannon-Brookes criticized the plan on Twitter, saying it lacked a clear blueprint on how the target can be achieved.
The tech billionaire says Australian companies have no choice but to become more sustainable.
BZE has been rallying the Australian government to deepen its commitment to climate change initiatives. It has stressed that the country’s fossil fuel exports are at risk as the world seeks to transition to net zero emissions faster than Australia’s 2050 goal, with some of the biggest customers for Australian coal—including China and the U.S.—pledging aggressive cuts. “Over the next two decades Australia will lose a third of total commodity export revenue and the jobs that go with them, unless significant policy shifts are made,” BZE says in a study. It estimates Australia can generate as much as A$333 billion in annual exports by 2050 if it steps up investments in zero carbon exports.
Cannon-Brookes agrees, saying decarbonization is the single biggest economic opportunity for the resources powerhouse. He has partnered with mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest to harness solar power in Australia’s sunniest areas. The pair are among the biggest backers of the Australia-based startup Sun Cable, which bills itself as the world’s largest solar power project. It is constructing a mega solar farm in the deserts of the Northern Territory to supply electricity to Darwin by 2026, and to Singapore the following year via a 4,200km long high voltage direct current (HVDC) undersea cable called the Australia-Asia PowerLink (AAPowerLink).
The A$30 billion project aims to create a solar farm that can produce up to 20 gigawatts of peak electricity, the world’s largest battery that can store as much as 42 gigawatt-hours of electricity and the longest HVDC submarine cable. Sun Cable will start raising capital in 2022 to fund the construction of AAPowerLink through a combination of equity and debt as well as funding support from the Australian government, according to Sun Cable CEO David Griffin. Construction will begin in 2024, with the project expected to deliver 800 megawatts of electricity to Darwin two years later and supply two gigawatts to Singapore when the undersea cable becomes fully operational by 2028.
“The Sun Cable project demonstrates that there’s an enormous opportunity for Australia to become an export superpower in renewable energy,” says Kane Thornton, CEO of Clean Energy Council, a Melbourne-based think tank that represents renewable energy companies. “No other country in the world has what Australia has in terms of wind, sunshine and water. What people like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Twiggy have now realized is that renewable energy presents an enormous economic opportunity.”
“What people like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Twiggy have now realized is that renewable energy presents an enormous economic opportunity.”
While electricity produced by Sun Cable is expected to supply about 15% of Singapore’s annual electricity needs by 2028, the Southeast Asian nation plans to double its electricity imports to 4 gigawatts by 2035, according to Sun Cable. This will support Singapore’s ambition of becoming a regional hub for trading renewable energy and carbon offsets, Sun Cable cofounder Fraser Thompson said in a statement in October. Over the longer term, the Asia-Pacific has huge potential to become a leader in renewable energy trading, with the region significantly lagging behind Europe in terms of renewables and grid connectivity, Thompson said. About 12% of electricity produced by the E.U. is traded among member countries, compared to less than 0.3% in the Asia-Pacific, according to Sun Cable.
Australia has installed more than 3 million rooftop solar systems in the past decade, and the Clean Energy Council expects the number of installations this year to surpass the record of 369,000 set in 2020. It has more rooftop solar installations than any other country, with one panel being installed every 44 seconds on average, according to Thornton.
One of the Grok Ventures-funded companies is Australian fintech Brighte, which finances the installation of solar panels in Australian homes. By providing upfront financing for installing rooftop solar panels, Brighte is accelerating the decarbonization of Australian homes, says Cannon-Brookes. Since its inception in 2015, the company has disbursed over A$600 million in loans to more than 75,000 households, according to its website. “It’s a very good business,” he adds.
While Cannon-Brookes has invested in more than 20 startups, ranging from makers of alternative proteins to robotics and renewables, his most rewarding venture by far is Atlassian, the enterprise software company he cofounded with University of New South Wales classmate Scott Farquhar after they graduated in 2002. Since its market debut in New York in 2015, Atlassian’s shares have risen by more than 20 times, touching an all-time high of $458 in late October after the maker of project management software reported a 34% jump in revenue to $614 million in the July-September quarter.
A 50%-plus rise in the stock price this year propelled Atlassian’s market cap past $100 billion for the first time in October, making it more valuable than IBM. It is his stake in Atlassian that underlies Cannon-Brooke’s massive fortune. The company—which counts NASA, Tesla and SpaceX among its clients—has seen revenue rise by an average of over 35% annually since it started trading on Nasdaq, bolstered by demand for cloud computing platforms. “We’ve grown steadily for the past 20 years and we don’t intend to slow that down,” says Cannon-Brookes, who is co-CEO of the company. But if his green investments and philanthropic donations succeed, he may be known as more than just a great tech entrepreneur.