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How Tony Stark inspired Robert Downey Jr. to take action on climate change

Akiko Fujita
·4 min read
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Actor Robert Downey Jr. spent more than a decade portraying a genius scientist looking to save the universe as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.

These days, he’s looking to replicate that success in real life, tackling a much larger issue — climate change.

Armed with a global audience and millions of dollars in investments, the actor has put his passion to work through his two-year-old organization, The Footprint Coalition (FPC), which aims to reverse the effects of extreme climate on three fronts: by supporting scientific research, raising funds for startups, and building out content about sustainable technologies.

“From my day job, I know that the best thing you can be on a film set is a connector, helping everyone who's mastering a department figure out how to communicate better, and then also be able to think ‘is there a better way to tell the story,'” Downey said. “It's been a heck of a learning curve. But I jumped in with both feet.”

Downey first unveiled the idea for the coalition at the Amazon (AMZN) re:MARS conference back in 2019. Since, then it’s evolved into a broader initiative that brings investors, storytellers, and scientists to the table to "mobilize" people who may not have been a part of the climate conversation.

Earlier this year, the coalition launched two new investment funds to support companies developing technologies and business models aimed at tackling the toughest environmental challenges contributing to climate change.

Downey has already invested roughly $10 million of his own money into Footprint Coalition Ventures’ (FCV) funds, which focuses on early stage and late-stage opportunities. It has created a rolling VC fund through AngelList to bring thousands of qualified and accredited investors into the fold, and scale its impact.

“You're only as good as your ability to vet, and then intuit the people, the teams, the product, the sector, and the time and timing of what the opportunities are,” he said. “There are many better minds guiding me along. There’s so much that I think part of it is to not just get caught up in the shiny objects, but really look at which of these vehicles if you kick the tires, really, you know, cut the mustard.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 07:  Actor Robert Downey Jr. is seen arriving backstage during the UFC 248 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 07, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 07: Actor Robert Downey Jr. is seen arriving backstage during the UFC 248 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 07, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

The funds, led by Jon Schullhof and Steve Levin, have backed six companies so far. Seattle-based Cloud Paper creates toilet paper and paper towels from bamboo, while Aspiration Bank focuses on sustainable investing. Media platform Arcadia Earth, Amazon-backed startup Turntide Technologies, biodegradable plastic company RWDC Industries, and natural insect protein maker Ynsect round out the portfolio.

Downey said he is particularly focused on innovation tied to sustainable farming and agriculture technology or agtech, a sector that has seen a surge in VC investments over the past five years. Last year alone, agtech startups raised more than $4 billion, an increase of more than 30% from the previous year, based on data from Crunchbase.

“It is one of the biggest issues...there is no excuse for us not being able to feed the hungry,” he said.

In addition to the coalition’s investment arm, the actor has leveraged his storytelling skills, to create short form content highlighting the technology behind the individual companies, and addressing climate issues at hand. Downey said FPC plans to expand beyond that, to develop long form documentaries and podcasts. He’s also looking to narrow a political divide, on the subject of climate change, which has increasingly become polarized.

“I really want to see the people and I want to see things through their eyes,” he said. “Once I know somebody, I understand a lot more about why I can appreciate their vision.”

Downey’s real life activism has roots in his most famous role. As a billionaire tycoon, Iron Man’s Tony Stark developed an armored suit to escape his captors and protect his own life, and utilized technology to address real life problems. Now, the actor is looking to use his platform to make a dent in what he sees as the largest crisis of his generation — climate change.

“The great thing about Tony was over time, he focused less and less on his tech and more and more on his character, but he didn't lose any of that expertise,” Downey said. “I'm willing to commit the amount of time it's going to take to do my part to be part of doing this right. That's the most precious commodity. How much of your time are you willing to sacrifice for this?”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita