Carl Prins: The financier on a mission to decarbonize the global economy
Our content series "It All Starts with People" delves into the passions, motivations, and vision of the exceptional founders we have the privilege of partnering with around the world. Read the story of Carl Prins and his personal quest to help avert the climate crisis through Pathzero.
Growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, Carl Prins lived in an early prototype of what today is known as a passive house. “It was built by my grandfather—he was this sort of Dutch engineer fella—and it was meant to be sustainable at a time when solar panels weren’t so efficient.” This sealed round house fluctuated with the seasons and had a ventilation system designed to be efficient with both heating and cooling—technological concepts very much ahead of their time.
“This is what I saw as I grew up,” Prins recalls. “These were the things that people were experimenting with to make a difference. Fast forward some years, these methods have never really gone away. But now it’s become far more tangibly real. The costs of solar having come down and, also, the efficiency having gone up—plus batteries and all the rest—means now is the right time for Pathzero.”
After starting out as a chartered accountant in Pretoria, Prins built a successful career in finance in London’s Square Mile, a “formative” six-year stint during which he met his future wife and became the chief financial officer of a large hedge fund before turning 30. Prins then moved to the other side of the world to start a fresh chapter in Australia, where he has founded a company that is fast being recognized as the category leader for financed emissions calculations in Australia and globally.
“I’ve not been on that flight to London since I left in 2012,” he says, displaying the green credentials that underpin his new life. On the back of co-founding Australia’s first energy comparison service, Prins teamed up with tech entrepreneur Charbel Ayoub during Antler’s Sydney residency in 2020 to create Pathzero, a SaaS-based company specializing in the management of financed emissions in private market investment portfolios.
Fear for the future of his three children and a longstanding personal desire to help avert climate disaster are behind Prins’ mission to accelerate the decarbonization of the global economy. “My son is going to be 80 in the year 2100. Excuse the technical term, but we might be f***** by then. And that’s on us. He’s got to live through the two-, three-, four-degree rise in temperature and other trajectories that we’re on. That really hits home.”
“My son is going to be 80 in the year 2100. Excuse the technical term, but we might be f***** by then. And that’s on us. He’s got to live through the two-, three-, four-degree rise in temperature and other trajectories that we’re on. That really hits home.”
London calling: from Deloitte to Deutsche
Films that feature London as a central location often include an aerial night-time scene of the City in which the green glow of the upper floors of Tower 42 is easily identifiable. Once the tallest building in the United Kingdom—until the topping out of One Canada Square at Canary Wharf in 1990—the 183-meter-high structure was London’s first skyscraper and is still commonly known as the NatWest Tower after its first corporate tenants.
“If you watch a lot of old movies from the time you see this green strip—you won’t be able to unsee it now—and those were our green lights up on the thirty-ninth.” Prins, now 42, reminisces about his former life as CFO of Arrowgrass Capital, a hedge fund set up by Deutsche Bank.
An interest in financial markets had seen the US-born South African swap his role as a trainee accountant for Deloitte in Pretoria—where he attended the same high school as Elon Musk—for the trading floor at Deutsche Bank in the city he describes as “the number one financial center globally.” When, just a year into his new role, Prins was asked by his boss to become the CFO of Arrowgrass Capital, he took the bull by the horns. “I spent the next five years watching that go from start to six billion under management and a top 25 European hedge fund, which was a pretty cool journey.”
Prins was bowled over by London, where he lived in nearby “humble” Surrey Quays across the Thames from Canary Wharf. A similar time zone to South Africa made it easy for him to stay in touch with his family back home. But above all, one of the capital’s major pulls for Prins was its “access to just about anything that you enjoy.”
Professionally, London was an intense and impressionable period that included frequent work trips to New York, very little sleep and a steep learning curve. “Financial markets are pretty intense and it’s pretty important to get things right,” he explains. “Working with a team of developers to build the underlying infrastructure required to run a fund was a very formative learning.”
The intrinsic risk systems and support network found at a financial institution like Deutsche had to be replicated from scratch at Arrowgrass. “That was a really awesome challenge to take on and build and be able to grow with a fast-growing company,” Prins recalls. “I think I probably wrecked my corporate career by doing that journey because, relatively speaking, everything else is pretty boring. That was quite fast going.”
Fantastic highs and crushing defeats Down Under
Marriage—as so often it does—altered the direction of Prins’ path in life. “I absolutely loved London and I think I’d probably still be there if I hadn’t met my wife,” he admits. “She’s Australian and we decided to come here to Sydney in 2012 to reboot over here.” After England, South Africa and the USA (where Prins lived for the first six months of his life—“not long enough to feel American”—having been born to parents on student visas), Australia is the fourth country Prins has called home.
“There are definitely worse parts of the world to end up in,” he admits. In Sydney, the Prins live with their three young children in the eastern suburbs between the sea and the city. He can just as easily get into the city center as he can run along the famous coastal path between Bondi and Coogee. “You can’t beat the weather and surf and sand and kind of laid-back culture,” Prins admits “People have a sense of lifespan and how they’re spending their time; I think London was more of a rat race.”
After early stints on familiar ground in financial services and venture capital, Prins took on a fresh challenge with Nearmap, the aerial technology company. In 2016, he dipped his toe into entrepreneurism for the first time, co-founding Handled, Australia’s inaugural energy comparison and auto-switching service. It was a baptism of fire. In a candid article posted on LinkedIn in November 2019, Prins admitted that his attempts to build a successful startup business proved “by far the most difficult professional endeavor I have undertaken.”
Despite the backing of several big energy retailers and banks—as well as a direction aligned to governmental policy—Handled did not work out. “During the last three years we have celebrated fantastic highs, but have also suffered crushing defeats, which in the end meant that Handled in its current form is not a viable business anymore,” Prins wrote.
Far from marking the end, this was the start of something big for Prins. He went on to do exactly as he promised in the conclusion of his article—drawing a line under his “failure” and “missteps” to push on for “greater success in the future.” Describing a startup as a “modern day MBA,” his article ended on a positive note: “I am optimistic about all the opportunity that remains to create a great company in Australia”.
[Prins] went on to do exactly as he promised in the conclusion of his article—drawing a line under his “failure” and “missteps” to push on for “greater success in the future.”
Setting an affordable path to carbon neutrality
At Handled, Prins and his team correctly predicted that, as society edged towards decarbonizing the grid—replacing coal-fired generation with renewables—there would be a growing need for new energy services to help balance the grid. Armed with this knowledge and his own climate awareness, Prins was soon able to combine his love for a good financial model and his personal passion for the planet with a new carbon tracking software company.
This was the vision that Prins took to Antler’s second residency in Sydney in 2020, where he—eventually—emerged with fellow Pathzero co-founder, Charbel Ayoub. “I had researched the climate space to try and make sense of it. I knew three or four areas that were interesting, but I hadn’t landed yet on the exact thing,” Prins recalls.
“I had an overarching idea that, at some point, the urgency will get there that carbon accounting will become probably as important as financial accounting in business. For a chartered accountant that was an incredible opportunity,” he says. The first iteration of Pathzero offered a simpler, more affordable way for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) to understand their carbon footprint, set a path to net zero emissions, and share their climate commitment with confidence.
“I had an overarching idea that, at some point, the urgency will get there that carbon accounting will become probably as important as financial accounting in business."
If Prins had clocked Ayoub early on as a potential business partner, he admits that it took time—and circumstance—for them to come together. “I thought, ‘This guy seems cool,’ and I thought we might team up,” he says. “But while I’m passionate about climate change and doing something about that, Charbel was not on a similar mission.” Indeed, when Prins reached out to his fellow entrepreneurs to suggest a climate-themed workshop ahead of the cohort, Ayoub was not among those who joined in.
“I initially teamed up with a guy who was [on a similar path]. We worked well for eight of the 10 weeks. I thought this was it. Then COVID set in just before we were going to pitch to the investment committee for the final round, and he bailed out of the program and got a real job—leaving me partnerless.” The setback proved a blessing in disguise.
Finding the perfect match in a time of need
In the event, Ayoub had also been left in the lurch in his own project. “So, we sat down for about four hours one morning in a booth and I went through the whole thing with him,” Prins explains. “And we walked out and we’re like, ‘Okay, right, boom—we’ve got this, we’re doing this. We understand each other and the roles, everything is laid out and off we go.’ And we’ve never looked back. Charbel has just been the best co-founder and I feel very lucky to have found someone that I can have tough conversations with, but never go offside.”
Did Ayoub need to be strongarmed into joining forces with someone whose green agenda was integral to his business plan? “He didn’t need much convincing,” Prins confirms. “He just needed an explanation of the need to do something and the opportunity that I thought was there. Then he was in.”
Convincing an experienced software engineer and front-end developer like Ayoub to join the project so soon before attracting investment was evidence that Prins was on the right path. “If you can get a co-founder and financiers that back the business with no impact agenda or requirement business, then it’s a sign that what we’re doing is commercially sound, as well as having an impact,” he says.
In Ayoub, Prins found someone with the engineering firepower to bring his idea to life. And three years on, he has no regrets that his initial co-founder pulled the plug. On the contrary, he feels like he dodged a bullet. “It’s pretty amazing how good it’s been given the serendipitous moment of that coming together,” he says, stressing that the previous partnership “probably wouldn’t have gotten very far down the road.”
Given the host of unique challenges facing startups, the co-founder relationship is paramount to tackle them—and reframe setbacks as opportunities to keep evolving. Prins sums it up: “That’s the thing you realize in startups: things that seem bad are sometimes just information that you receive earlier.”
“That’s the thing you realize in startups: things that seem bad are sometimes just information that you receive earlier.”
“Do only the right thing”
The pandemic not only brought Prins and Ayoub together but also failed to have as adverse an effect on their burgeoning business as many had predicted. “COVID came along and a lot of people said, ‘No one is going to put money into ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] until this blows over, so why don’t you just bunker down, hold onto some cash, then come back in a year and try to continue’.”
But that seemed like a cop-out. “We said, ‘No’. We kept building. And that turned out to be the right call,” Prins says with satisfaction. “If anything, the COVID situation really accelerated the climate and greenhouse agenda. It definitely moved things forward quickly. And when it suddenly became clear that this really was a thing, we’d had a year’s head-start on other folks who were trying to find a solution.”
The co-founders were meticulous in their planning and refused to build anything important for the first month before they had a clear idea of the direction that they wanted Pathzero to take. They also took what Prins describes as an “unusual” step in spending a fifth of their initial pre-seed budget on branding. “We still have the same brand today, so it’s certainly stood the test of time,” he says.
Such actions were indicative of how they wanted to run their startup. After all the lessons of Handled, Prins knew he needed to begin his next project with a firm grasp on what he wanted to do—and not simply as a stepping-stone to get there. At Pathzero, Prins and his team pursued their main goal by building an easy-to-use platform that tracked and measured carbon output in line with international protocols and accounting standards. This software empowered company employees who may have very little experience in the field, to gain knowledge and drive real change within their organization, supported by trusted carbon experts to help every step of the way.
“There’s a couple of values that we have in our business, and one is—do only the right thing,” he explains. “There are 99 things we can do but just the one that’s the great game-changer. It’s about being able to spot that.” Clients and investors were clearly impressed: Pathzero had paying clients—“clients who weren’t all friends and family”—on board before they pitched to investors at an investor day at the end of the Antler program. And it was not long before their first angel investor called up and committed to the cause.
“There’s a couple of values that we have in our business, and one is—do only the right thing. There are 99 things we can do but just the one that’s the great game-changer. It’s about being able to spot that.”
The unique proposition of carbon accounting
Prins soon identified the game-changer—as Pathzero switched its focus from SME carbon neutrality to something narrower, but potentially more lucrative.
“We noticed that there were asset owners—notably superannuation funds in Australia—whose members were demanding they look at the climate agenda and demonstrate how they were managing that risk. Whatever you may think about climate change, the bottom line is that there’s this macro change and you need to take it into account because you’re looking after the long-term portfolio of your members.”
This mini-pivot allowed Prins to draw on his wealth of experience in private equity to open what he estimates could be a billion-dollar revenue opportunity by tapping into the fiduciary responsibility of asset owners and institutional investors. “Carbon accounting quickly became a global thing with a lot of people working on it. We decided to focus on this one niche area that we want to be world class at and create a unique proposition.”
In the summer of 2022, Pathzero introduced a ground-breaking product to complement the company’s broader offering. Navigator is a data-driven portfolio alignment tool designed to provide private investors with an initial PCAF-compliant estimate of their financed emissions and the collaborative connections to replace this estimate with actual carbon data while driving decarbonization activities within a portfolio.
“Carbon accounting quickly became a global thing with a lot of people working on it. We decided to focus on this one niche area that we want to be world class at and create a unique proposition.”
It is early days, but Prins says the holistic product—which is not being offered by any of Pathzero’s competitors—has “gained significant traction in market.” The movement is enough to make Prins confident that his second startup will not head in the same direction as his first. “There are about 100,000 private equity companies that fall generally within the sort of companies that we are invested in by these unlisted hedge fund managers. If we took AU$10,000 off each of those then that’s a billion-dollar revenue opportunity,” he says.
No time to relax as the business grows
While still in its infancy, Pathzero is featured in Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50 and recently raised its AU$8.6 million Series A+ round with participation from Antler. To cater for clients in Europe, the UK, the USA, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, Pathzero has grown from a team of six people at the end of 2020 to a global force of just over 50 today.
The latest arrival is a “fantastic” chief sustainability officer, adding to a solid management system of six or seven people in key functional responsibilities, taking the pressure off the two co-founders. “The right people are in the right seats,” Prins says. “We may be a cause but we’re also a good commercial business. We believe that humans do good human work—not everything is a technology opportunity.” If it has been a meteoric rise, Prins is now keen to consolidate rather than get ahead of himself. “The aim is to be in a good state so we can then take things to the next level,” he stresses.
But as co-founder, CEO, and chief product officer—“Until recently I was running the expert consultancy practice as well”—does Prins get enough time to relax? He repeats the question out loud before making a considered reply. “I do not get enough time to relax.” After a wry laugh, he qualifies this statement: “I think I’ve mentally turned my family time into my mental relaxing time. I see it as a mental switch to flick. It’s very different to work; it can be mundane; but it’s obviously very satisfying and rewarding. I think I actually see the evening routine with the kids as somehow the unwind from the day—although sometimes it winds you up a bit further.”
What really helps him unwind is “a glass of wine with my wife”—sometimes while watching a TV series like Slow Horses or Succession. Exercise three times a week helps him “feel like a better version of himself.” And team get-togethers keep everyone in the office grounded while having a bit of fun. “We went snorkeling recently to gather plastic in the water for a beach clean-up at Manly,” Prins says. “Which was very hard because it’s probably one of the cleanest beaches in Australia.”
Staff at Pathzero have total flexibility between working from home or coming into the office. “Because we started as fully remote during COVID with no fixed location we’ve had to work out what it’s like to have an office,” Prins says. He goes in two or three times per week, having invested in his home office set-up during the pandemic. “The beauty of COVID is that no one expects to get on a plane anymore—and we don’t,” Prins admits.
“If people insist we come to this or that, we say, ‘Well, we’re a sustainability company—what do you think I’m going to do? I’m going to sit here at home in my pajamas and have a conversation with you on our fund raise because I can.’ And isn’t that wonderful? I think we’ve seriously benefited—as long as you’re prepared to do things in the evenings or early mornings—from just being able to be anywhere virtually. It’s really changed the game.”
Going off grid to help drive change
Not flying to the other side of the world over the course of an entire day is something that, for Prins, had come about through both circumstance (his move from London to Australia) and chance (the pandemic). But it is also a decision he made in line with his environmental stance at Pathzero. “From an impact perspective, I think you can have that sense of living with guilt with what you do in your personal life,” Prins says. “I have solar panels, a big f-off battery, an electric vehicle, and all that stuff which means we’re as sustainable as we can be.”
Indeed, when 45,000 homes and businesses in Sydney’s eastern suburbs were plunged into darkness in January 2019, Prins and his family did not notice. Why? Because a year and a half earlier, he had spent AU$12,000 and five months on a waiting list to be one of the few hundred Australian owners of a Tesla Powerwall 2, a battery pack that had isolated his house from the electricity grid.
Prins’ children have grown up with solar panels on the roof and a car charging in the yard. In fact, it is his one concession to his past life that creates a little friction at home. “I still have a Mini Cooper—a guilty pleasure which has not yet been converted into an electric,” Prins admits. “That’s the one internal combustion engine that we have—and my daughter gives me all ends of hell for it. She says things like, ‘This is putting that into the air—are you crazy? Why would you do that when there’s an alternative? What’s the matter with you?’”
The fact that the Mini is British racing green (Prins’ favorite color) and Dad has a strong sentimental attachment to the vehicle cuts no mustard with his daughter. “The kids see it very clearly. They know the harm it’s causing. So, I expect there’ll be an electric Mini here soon,” he says with an air of resignation.
Prins reiterates that Pathzero is an extension of the climate “passion project” he carries out at home—and not the other way around. It is, he says, immensely satisfying to oversee meaningful change in the battle to avert climate disaster. “From an impact perspective, the beauty of this business is that you can be a marketing person or an accountant or a software engineer, and you can really drive a huge amount of the decarbonization journey.”
It's a far cry from when Prins set out—armed with his financial background and experience in the technology sector, eager to do something about the climate. “The answer always was, ‘Well, unless you’ve got basically worms that take CO² out of the air and create carbon pellets, you’re not going to be listened to. Because that’s the game. It’s all deep tech. That’s how we’re solving this.’ But that’s not actually true. You have to mobilize global capital—which moves faster than government—to actually drive change.”
How Antler navigates its carbon emissions through Pathzero
To help Antler make more conscious decisions about its operational practices in the future, Prins and his team at Pathzero put together an impact report in August 2022 to provide Antler with deeper insights into its emissions around the world. Antler worked closely with Pathzero over three months to measure its corporate carbon emissions in accordance with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, completing analysis on its Scope 1 (direct emissions), Scope 2 (purchased electricity), and Scope 3 emissions (indirect emissions).
The analysis concluded that Antler’s total emissions were 1895 tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), with 93% of that Scope 3 and 0% Scope 1. This gave an average of 9 tCO2e per full-time employee. The ability to track its outputs will mean Antler can concentrate on outlier offices or operational activities where a reduction strategy will have the most meaningful effect. Antler continues to evaluate how to improve its environmental efforts and drive development in venture capitalism. At the same time, the firm is keen to encourage individual action from its employees and is exploring ways to do this more proactively.
Specifically, Pathzero Navigator has enabled Antler to focus on the portfolio companies that represent the highest potential risk within its portfolio. Antler can then collaborate with these portfolio companies to identify how they might reduce their emissions, for example looking at their supply chain approach. Portfolio companies can then feed their reported carbon data into Pathzero Navigator, improving the integrity of financed emissions data and providing the platform and common language required for joint decarbonisation actions.
To read more about how Antler partners with Pathzero, read Antler's 2022 ESG and Impact Report.
To learn more about how Pathzero is accelerating the decarbonization of the global economy, visit www.pathzero.com.
If you're a person with drive, grit, and vision, who wants to build something great, apply to an Antler residency in 20+ locations.
Must-read articles from Antler
Browse our collection of founder stories, industry insights and latest startup successes from Antler Australia
A window into progress: A look inside the world's day zero investor
As we approach the fifth anniversary of our first investments, we are excited to share A Window into Progress, a report that captures the breadth, depth, and impact of Antler’s global community, which continues to grow and strengthen through the downturn.
Books every founder should read in 2023
Harry Truman once said: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” The source of myriad mental and physical benefits, it’s no wonder highly successful entrepreneurs and business leaders frequently credit obsessive reading as instrumental to their outperformance. In honor of UNESCO World Book Day, Antler is excited to share books every founder should read in 2023.
Sarah Hilmy: Inspiring friends and families to discover the world together
“Holidays are a way for you to enrich your own life. It's about going out and experiencing things that you otherwise wouldn't experience in your everyday life, trying new food, meeting new people, and just learning more about the world in a first-hand way.” —Sarah Hilmy, co-founder of travel platform Oddysee.
50 creators to watch in 2023
As the creator economy continues to grow, expand, and evolve, we've curated a list of 50 exciting leaders to watch in this space. Influencers. Journalists. Operators at prominent creator-related platforms. Founders. These are the players—seen and unseen—who underpin the global creator ecosystem.
Sharon Li & Vanessa Chen: Empowering employees to be their healthiest and most productive selves
“People sometimes think the emotional and professional are conflicting, but what we believe is when people love their organization, the emotional value will actually make them productive. It will make them give their full self to the organization and make the organization grow for the long term.” —Sharon Li, co-founder and CEO of CHOYS
The 2023 Creator Economy: A new direction
Our creator economy insights series—starting with our ultimate guide to the creator economy in May 2021—has tracked the explosion of a sector that upended the professional aspirations of the next generation. Today, as uncertainty and macroeconomic challenges pervade, how are creators pivoting and what does it mean for the sector's future?
Piet Hein van Dam: The seasoned data entrepreneur aiming to eradicate type 2 diabetes
Our content series "It All Starts with People" delves into the passions, motivations, and vision of the exceptional founders we have the privilege of partnering with around the world. Bringing a clarity of vision to our latest spotlight is Piet Hein van Dam, co-founder of Clear, the award-winning digital self-help tool for diabetes patients.
Unpacking the $80+ billion ONDC opportunity: India’s next startup catalyst
India's approach to unbundle payments made the world look up and take notice. Now it's time to disrupt commerce with the Open Network for Digital Commerce or ONDC. In our latest Theory of Next deep dive we mapped, researched, and reached out to every network participant live on ONDC right now.
And we're excited to share with you a comprehensive what could be India's next unicorn catalyst with inputs from Vibhor Jain (COO of ONDC), Sujith Nair (Founding member of Beckn Protocol), and founders building on ONDC!
Co-authored by Nitin Sharma (Partner, Antler) and Gokul Kumaravelu.