Transformative Business Models for Decarbonization: The Case of Web Summit Award-Winning Start-ups


  • Jose Evaldo Geraldo Costa DINÂMIA'CET-Iscte - Centro de Estudos sobre a Mudança Socioeconómica e o Território
  • Nuno Bento DINÂMIA’CET-Iscte, Centro de Estudos Sobre a Mudança Socioeconómica e o Território, Iscte-Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, 1649-026, Lisboa, Portugal
  • Margarida Fontes



Decarbonization, business model, sustainability transition, technology, start-up


The social demand for decarbonization has placed increasing pressure on businesses to climate mitigation. The development of new business models capable of transforming conventional systems of production and consumption and replacing them with more sustainable alternatives is one critical step towards this goal. This study combines several streams of literature including sustainability transitions and business model narratives to investigate the key-elements of the business models that have the potential to transform the supply of goods and services in a way that enables the transition to a low-carbon society. We investigate the organizational arrangements in the business activities of start-ups and relate to the extent to which they avoid, shift, or improve the production and consumption of goods and services in a way that significantly reduces carbon emissions. To do this, we analyzed start-ups that received innovation awards and were on the list of finalist’s candidates of the Web of Summit between 2014-2020. The results suggest that start-ups may be in the process of transforming their business models (BM), since a growing trend of transformative projects that adopt integrated business models was identified, e.g., business-to-business-to-commerce (B2B2C), instead of the familiar business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) models. The findings also highlighted the role of Industry 4.0, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), together with other sustainable elements, as crucial to shortening the gap between design and consumption, leveraging innovative solutions, and transforming the model of business, from start-up. This research emphasizes the importance of transformative business models in the context of decarbonization and contributes to filling a gap in the literature on the elements that drive this transformation. The research is also relevant for policymakers aiming to promote a low-carbon economy by highlighting the levers that can be used to promote transformative pathways through business models.

Author Biographies

Nuno Bento, DINÂMIA’CET-Iscte, Centro de Estudos Sobre a Mudança Socioeconómica e o Território, Iscte-Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, 1649-026, Lisboa, Portugal

Nuno Bento is an integrated researcher at DINÂMIA’CET-Iscte. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Grenoble (France) and has (co-)authored three dozen articles in renowned international scientific journals, including multidisciplinary journals such as Science and Nature Energy, on technological change and policies in the field of energy and climate change.  

Margarida Fontes

Margarida Fontes is a researcher at LNEG - National Laboratory for Energy and Geology. She has a Ph.D. in Management of Innovation from the University of Manchester. She conducts research and publishes on new technology emergence and diffusion, its role in the creation of business capabilities in new fields and in the transformation of existing industries.