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Startup Spotlight: Atmos Financial

We sat down with Co-founder and CEO Ravi Mikkelsen to learn more about how Atmos Financial leverages bank deposits to finance climate-positive infrastructure like clean energy, electrification, and regenerative agriculture.
Julian Moore
Nov 17, 2023 13 min read
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1. In your words, what does Atmos do and how is it a solution to the climate crisis?

First and foremost, Atmos is a climate tech company. To put us into a box, we are climate FinTech, but at our heart, we're a climate tech company that goes beyond finance.

What we do is we leverage capital, specifically bank deposits and bank loans, to accelerate the clean energy transition. We provide lower-cost financing for the deployment of solutions like rooftop solar, electric vehicles, and heat pumps so that these technologies can be more affordable and accessible for all.

How our software works is that individuals and, soon, venture-backed climate startups, nonprofits and mission-aligned businesses can open bank accounts with us. You can move your savings or checking accounts very easily, your money is FDIC insured through our bank partner Five Star Bank and we give a high yield. We have web and mobile apps that give you the functionality that you'd expect from a modern bank account. On top of all of that, you get the satisfaction that 100% of your deposits with Atmos are funding climate-positive assets.

Those deposits sit with our regulated bank partner, and then we transfer those deposits to a network of banks to then lend out for these solutions. Banks use our software to manage their lending portfolio and our network of solar installers and HVAC contractors use our software to offer our financing products to their customers. If somebody calls one of our solar installers, they want to put solar on the roof, battery, etc., then our financing will be baked into their project costs. To sum it up, we're a climate technology company that builds software for multiple parties with one goal in mind, which is accelerating this transition by bringing lower cost capital to the market.

2. What inspired you to work on this solution? Where did the idea come from?

I've been in climate and clean energy for over two decades. I had a moment of epiphany at my freshman orientation at the University of Washington where I realized that my mission in life was to help the world transition off of fossil fuels. I became a materials engineer doing research into hydrogen fuel cells and PV cells back then, and started a biodiesel company after graduation. We shut down the biodiesel company, and I started working as a researcher at a private equity firm where I saw how they said ‘no’ to financing what I deemed to be perfectly good projects because it didn't meet their investment criteria.

The projects were too small or it didn't give quite a good enough return for them and so I saw the power of capital and capital decisions and said “hey, here's a good project, it's going to help things move forward.” But if the person with the money says it's not good enough, then it won’t move forward. It's the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.

It wasn’t until many years later though that I realized finance was my Archimedes lever. Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever long enough and firm ground to stand upon and I can move the world.” In 2015, through the US Department of Energy’s Sunshot program, I made the switch to working on capital deployment.

Fast forward a few more years to late 2018, the IPCC released a report that said essentially, if we want to stay below one and a half degrees centigrade, we need to spend $6 trillion per year between 2016 and 2050. I asked myself “Who's got that much money?” It's the global banking sector. So I started working on this in 2019 and shortly after, I met my co-founder, Pete, who worked as a banker financing renewable energy projects. We wondered how do you get banks to move faster and at the same time also give people the power to have an impact on climate change with their deposits.

We’re not trying to become the biggest “bank” in the world and finance the entire transition ourselves, as we would still be too small and moving too slowly. Instead, we want to help 1,000 banks, or even 10,000 banks to shift a portion of their portfolio to funding the transition, and in so doing, we’ll have a much larger impact, sooner.

3. Transparency is a big part of your product. Why is that important to you and what role does it play in the future of climate banking?

Transparency is a critical part of not only our model but of the transition itself. People don't know what their money does. They don't know the true impact of what they're buying and have lost faith in so many “green” finance companies because there has been too much greenwashing across the industry.

We wanted to assure people that what we're doing is legit by showing people the projects that their money is funding. We show the calculations behind our impact numbers, the assumptions, and the data sources. It's not just an asterisk — a bold claim that we make on the marketing site where you can't really track the numbers.

We say, “hey, this is the modeling, and maybe it's not perfect. But it's close, and it's some of the best out there.” And now that we've moved into funding distributed energy and electrification, we can get more granular and we will show how we go from the macro down to the micro. As we grow, the accuracy will improve, the transparency will increase, and people's trust in our model will increase as well.

That's on the deposit side. On the loan side we are changing how residential solar pricing is communicated as well. A lot of the industry charges a finance fee — it’s called the dealer fee, which is rarely exposed to the borrower. The incumbent model is to charge a high dealer fee and low, “teaser” rate to make the financing appear to be a steal of a deal. The dealer fee is charged to the installer and then it gets wrapped into the price of the total system price that the person is borrowing money for.

We expose the fee that we charge which is currently 80-90% less than the incumbent lenders. Instead of a teaser rate with a high fee, we give a very low fee with a fair rate through our community bank and credit union partners to make the overall cost lower for borrowers. By doing that, we bring down the total cost of the system and thus the electricity produced. In order to achieve our country’s potential for how quickly we move off of fossil fuels, we need to reduce the cost of residential solar by roughly half and cutting the financing costs are the best place to start to achieve that.

If somebody goes solar, they realize the cost of their fuel is now electricity. If you bring the cost of the electricity down, now driving their EV is cheaper, running their heat pump is cheaper, and cooking on their induction stove is cheaper. Reducing the cost of solar financing speeds up the transition — not just for solar, but every follow-on product of electrification that follows.

4. How much does the average consumer bank client currently invest in fossil fuel projects without their knowledge?

It’s a great question, and it’s not exactly clear. There has been some research to that effect, and we have some stats on some of our social media posts. But for every dollar you deposit, something like 10 cents goes to fossil fuel extraction, depending on which big bank you're with and even more goes to consumption, which is even harder to measure.

That said, every community bank and credit union also funds fossil fuels in some fashion as well. They funded people's homes and people's homes burn fossil fuels. They funded auto loans and up until a few years ago, really didn't have much, if any, electric vehicles or non-fossil fuel burning vehicles. So to say any existing bank is fossil fuel free is not exactly true because they're still funding the consumption through home mortgages, commercial mortgages and vehicle financing.

What most people mean when they say fossil fuel free banking is that they're not funding the extraction of fossil fuels — these hundreds of millions or billions of dollars projects, which only a few entities are large enough to be able to participate in. Simply by the nature of their small size, most community banks and credit unions will be excluded from those projects. They just can't participate. So while they may not be fossil fuel free, community banks and credit unions are a vital part of our economy and of their local economies to keep small businesses and home financing accessible to more people.

I wish that there were many climate-positive banking options in the US, but unfortunately there are just two. Atmos and Clean Energy Credit Union. We need more of us out there. We need more banks and more credit unions shifting where their money goes, becoming climate positive.Because of their regulated nature, they may not be able to get to 100% climate-positive as Atmos is, but they can move beyond “fossil-free” and start to have real impact. This is what Atmos does. We help them to put more of their money into climate-positive assets and change the impact of their portfolio without needing to hire their own team to do it themselves.

5. What are some of the challenges of getting someone to switch to a climate-friendly bank?

Banking is very sticky. Many people, when they open accounts with us, will say “you know, this is my second bank account in 30 years. My parents opened an account for me when I was little at the bank down the street and I've had the same one since.” Most people only get to pick one of the Big Four. And it's wild because the banks will spend so much money to get somebody in because once they've got them in, it's really hard for people to leave.

One thing that we really emphasize is the ease of switching where you save. Most people’s checking account is attached to dozens of different products so they think it's going to take them multiple 24 hour periods to change them all over, and since they don't have that much free time they just won't do anything.

But, if you've got two minutes to apply, and then another five minutes to fund your savings account then you could have a pretty significant impact with just that very small amount of effort. And since the national average for savings rates is something like 0.6%, we're going to be paying you a lot more than you're getting right now. You're earning more, you're having an impact and you're only taking a few minutes out of your day. You can use Atmos on your phone, you can use it on your computer. And if you want that money back you can get it within one to two days as long as it’s not a holiday or weekend. Once you have your savings account setup, if you want to keep going, slowly transition the rest of your stored checking or debit payments over weeks or months and make it easeful.

6. Why should someone come to work at Atmos?

First and foremost, working at Atmos means having a meaningful impact on the climate. Next, I would say that we're a creative place. People are allowed to bring creative solutions to the problems that we're facing as a company and as a planet. It's not just, “oh, here's an issue. We're a finance company. Let's throw money at it.” It's, “hey, here's this challenge. What are different ways that we can solve it?”

We have people constantly bringing up ideas about how we change our product, how we improve our customer service, or how we improve as a company. It's not just the product team, but it's everyone that says, “hey, this part is confusing in the app, why don't we change it?” We want everyone to bring their unique strengths. They may start in one position, and they may grow into something else.

And we're working hard to build one of the best places to work. We offer competitive salaries, equity packages, health, dental, a climate-positive 401k, as well as continued learning benefits to really support people to grow and to give their best selves to this mission.

7. Is there anything else you want to say to people looking to work in climate?

Do more. We all have an immense capacity for change and for impact, and almost to a person we're not doing as much as we can do. Even if it's just one thing more: sharing a tweet out, sending an email, having a conversation, moving your money, calling your representatives. Find the areas within your own life that have great leverage and activate them. If you're reading this newsletter, if you're on this site, you want to have an impact. Do the things that will produce a much greater impact than the effort that you put into them.

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The Author

Julian Moore