Workweek's Nick van Osdol on Climate Tech Reporting & Building a Media Brand
Apr 24, 2023 Natalie DiDomenico
Climate tech is having a moment. Not only is the space projected to reach $1.4 trillion in investments in five years, equating to roughly an 8.8% compound annual growth rate, but the urgency of the climate crisis makes this industry more important than ever.
I recently sat down with Nick van Osdol, the creator of Keep Cool. Nick is an analyst and journalist with Workweek, and the Keep Cool brand is the outlet’s climate tech vertical. But his work in climate tech started well before joining the Workeek team. After noticing gaps in climate tech coverage, Nick launched Keep Cool as a side project to help him learn about trends in space. Three years later, Nick’s newsletter reaches nearly 20,000 readers. He also produces a successful podcast.
The two of us talked about his journey into climate tech, his reporting interests, and what he’s hearing from investors in the space. You can follow Nick on Twitter and LinkedIn.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Workweek is an atypical media company that has individual content creators covering different business and tech sectors. What’s it like working for them?
Nick: It’s been great. I was “acqui-hired” by Workweek almost a year and a half ago. Working with Workweek enabled me to continue to build my brand full time (and get paid). I was able to really jump in with both feet, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time.
Workweek’s model is geared towards finding folks that want to focus on content and don’t want to sweat as much of the operational hoopla that goes along with that. The operators at Workweek tackle a lot of that side of things, which has allowed me to do what I like to do, which is write, talk to people, research and read.
I am also super value-aligned to the way Workweek views the future of media. It’s more about individual personalities than institutions. My dad, for instance, reads the New York Times cover to cover. But I think people that are a bit younger or have different tastes may love a journalist at the New York Times and read everything that person puts out, but they’re not reading all of the publication. I think we increasingly gravitate towards people and personalities that cover things in a way that we find interesting and compelling.
How did you identify your interest in climate tech and where did the idea of Keep Cool come from?
Nick: My career has spanned traditional media and traditional finance, but I never really had a specific industry focus. I studied creative writing in school, and always wanted to find a way to bring that back into my career. It almost sounds cliche to say that I cared about climate change, but I did. It was a combination of lifelong interest and feeling like I wanted to do something that had a little bit more of an impact layer beneath it.
And a lot of concrete tailwinds around 2020 when I started Keep Cool were signaling to me that this would be a high growth area and one that needed more analysis and coverage, at least coverage that would speak to me and educate me in the way I wanted to be educated about it.
I didn’t see a ton of media platforms or people that were serving content in a way that I wanted to read every day. And that’s kind of what Keep Cool was at the start – it was just me talking to people and learning about companies and regurgitating that information to other people to make sure I was really learning it. I never necessarily expected that it would grow into a media venture.
What areas of climate tech are you most interested in? What areas are you looking to learn more about?
Nick: Some of the most important stuff in climate tech right now is happening in energy storage. From a hardware perspective, there’s a lot of progress that needs to be made to fill the gaps. A lot of that also relates to the necessary grid and transmission transformation, and how we move energy from place to place. Those things in tandem are some of the most interesting things to me.
I’m also interested in learning more about synthetic biology and the way people are creating new platforms to make all kinds of different materials – whether that’s proteins or meat you might eat at a restaurant or chemicals for industrial applications. Even things like fabrics and dyes to make more resilient supply chains and develop materials closer to where they’re actually used as opposed to moving things across the world fits in there.
From 2020 to now, what has been your biggest learning curve?
Nick: Sometimes the more you learn about a topic, the less clear they become. There are a lot of academic studies and media publications that say renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels on a dollar for dollar basis. I learned that when I first started Keep Cool and I thought okay, that’s a pillar I can hang my hat on and weave into my analysis. But the more I learned about the complexities around what that actually means, the more I realized it’s really not apples to apples comparisons. There’s a reason it’s pretty difficult to go and replace a coal power plant with solar and wind and energy storage because they don't share the same characteristics. That is both disheartening because it’s not as easy to make this whole sale societal change, but it also helps you make sense as to why some of these transitions aren’t happening faster.
It’s all a very dense web of interconnections. We’re trying to fundamentally change the fabric of our industrial economy, so if you pull on one thread inevitably you’re going to pull on a bunch of other ones. I’m trying to bring some more of that nuance to the pieces I produce.
Between your daily newsletter, longform news articles, and The Keep Cool Show podcast, you’re quite busy! What does your process look like for each?
Nick: For sourcing podcast guests, I have a good mix of inbounds from PR folks, and that’s really helpful for getting connected with CEOs and operators at companies that I’m really excited about. I’m definitely in a flow of how I tackle a pretty normal interview type podcast. I ask a lot of the same types of questions, and then go deeper based on their responses. It’s a lot about how they got excited about the problem that they’re tackling, where they’re at in their journey of developing solutions to it, and trying to identify through lines of what companies are struggling with or having a lot of success at. And by asking similar questions, I think over time you get to see the throughlines that are relevant to companies, even if they're working on very different climate problems.
The newsletter is a little bit more chaotic; sometimes I thrive in that. There’s so much happening in climate tech at any given week that I’m constantly on Twitter and have curated a really good list of people to follow. I focus on the through lines in different stories if possible. I’ll look at all the different things that are happening this week that are interesting, pick a few and try to form a little bit of a world view or a hypothesis around those.
A lot of my longer form articles end up being a kind of synthesis. I'll also do something a little more similar to a podcast where it’s a deep dive on a specific company, technology, or policy. Those usually take the most time.
What kind of thought leaders are you looking to have on your podcast?
Nick: I think I’ve gotten in a great groove highlighting companies by way of executives or giving space for investors to share broader theses on the market. Now, I’d like to do a little more diversification in talking to scientists and policy makers. It’s always very cross-sector - in any given podcast season you’ll get someone who works at a water company or an energy company or a transport company. That diversity is important too, and a big piece in how I position my content.
Your written coverage features lots of data points. Where do you look for the data you report on? Do you ever report on studies by climate tech companies?
Nick: I’m definitely open to that. I wouldn’t say I’ve used a ton of that in the past. My main two sources for finding data are through what people post and say they’re reading on Twitter. Twitter is so interesting because experts are constantly giving you a window into their world by sharing data and saying ‘this is a really interesting stat.’ And sometimes that data point is perfect for a piece I’m working on. I also look at national or international data sources like EIA for energy data and stuff like that. There’s a publication called Enersection, and the newsletter is basically just charts of energy related data, so often I’m reading things like that and pulling stuff out of there if it relates to something that I’m working on.
Your audience is primarily climate tech investors and VCs. What are you hearing from them?
Nick: There’s some concern about what’s happening macroeconomically, even more recently with all this wild banking stuff going on. It definitely does have downstream impacts on early stage climate tech startups, and anecdotally we’re starting to see a slow down in terms of fundraising. I think for a while the narrative, which is still true to a degree, has been that climate tech is a really resilient sector against slowdowns in the macroeconomic environment. But I think now we’re seeing concern about deploying solutions fast enough, especially if you look at actual climate science and what they’re calling for. So we need to make sure that everything else happening in the world and the economy doesn't hinder progress.
Additionally, a lot of capital and attention has flowed to pretty specific sectors like carbon markets or carbon accounting. We need solutions in all of those areas, but there’s definitely been a flock to that as opposed to some of the stuff that’s more foundational, like new hardware for energy storage. We need to continue pushing folks to work on great solutions and continue the momentum.
How much of your coverage is news related (e.g. The Willow Project) compared to industry analysis?
Nick: I’d say it’s close to 50/50. I have two newsletters a week, and one is definitely a deeper dive on a topic or a company or a theme in climate tech, so I always inject news there to ground it in the present moment. But that one is more industry analysis. And the second one tends to be more news curation of “what happened this week” and I’ll still pick one thing and write about it in a little bit more depth. With the podcast, that’s a little bit more industry analysis. So if you take those three pillars, maybe it's closer to 60/40. There’s a lot of people out there who do really great news coverage, so sometimes I don’t feel as much pressure to get every news story.
What are your hopes and goals for Keep Cool in the future?
Nick: I enjoy writing and producing, and I hope that I can do it for a long time. My main hope is that people learn from it and get interested in working on contributing towards climate solutions themselves. My top focus isn’t always growth. I want to create this content to the extent that people find it useful. That focus drives the growth!
What are the things PR professionals have done that are most helpful to you? What’s the most annoying?
Nick: The annoying one is easy — when people send me stuff that isn’t related to climate tech. Sometimes people get your name and publication wrong, and that’s annoying too. You can tell when people copy and paste, and when the person didn’t put in the extra two minutes of thought as to why this might be relevant for me. It doesn't take a herculean effort to tailor it to what I do.
But a lot of PR people have made introductions to people that I was ultimately super interested in speaking with. And then the upshot of that is we didn’t just link on a piece, but we actually built a relationship and have continued to work together.