9 mins reading

Solving the problems of our transportation system and accelerating decarbonisation may sound like Herculean labours to most of us, but for energy titan Trevor St Baker AO they are the stuff of the daily to-do list. We sat down with the Brisbane-based businessman to reflect on his 60 years in the power industry—and get the inside scoop on ushering in a world of flying cars.

By Carlie Trotter

Few investors could claim as monumental a year as the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund (StBEIF), the venture capital firm established by Trevor St Baker a decade ago to help stimulate early-stage companies supporting the transition to clean energy. In addition to listing two Brisbane-born businesses on the Nasdaq—battery tech developer Novonix and electric vehicle (EV) fast-charger manufacturer Tritium—the fund also made its first foray  into aviation via air taxi startup Vertiia, which last month celebrated the maiden flight of the first electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle designed and built in Australia. At the same time, St Baker made a well-publicised exit from the coal power sector with the sale of the Vales Point plant in New South Wales via a nine-figure deal that saw him climb Queensland’s list of homegrown billionaires. The opening of Tritium’s first factory on American soil turned heads too, the imminent launch of a third production line putting the facility on target to deliver 30,000 direct-current charging stations per year by 2025.

One could therefore be forgiven for thinking the mega-entrepreneur might want to slow down a notch this year, but in fact, he is casting an even wider net and looking further into the future. At the time of writing, for example, his eponymous fund (an early-stage venture capital limited partnership) is about to close its first ever capital raise, bringing likeminded investors beyond the extended St Baker family into the fold to better progress his vision of widespread e-mobility. If anything, the work of the StBEIF is about to speed up.

“We are trying to create an innovation hub,” explains Trevor St Baker, fresh from appearing on a smart cities summit panel. “California has Silicon Valley, and we have Fortitude Valley; the rest of Australia hasn’t woken up to Queensland while we’re building the R&D headquarters of this multimillion-dollar global company [in Tritium] right here in Brisbane, with more than 120 engineers among its 500-strong workforce.”

He continues: “We’ve got to encourage people with new ideas and bring in the skills and discipline they need to move from the device end to the cash end, which isn’t about making money overnight. Business success isn’t made with money, it’s made through the application of knowledge and experience.” The investment philosophy of the StBEIF focuses on supporting market disruptors that are likely to pay dividends over an eight-year horizon if the domain expertise of the board can be brought to bear. Having founded and run one of Australia’s major electricity retailers in ERM Power, before selling to Shell Energy in 2019, it is safe to say St Baker’s expertise played a key part in taking Tritium from a niche outfit serving the solar car racing industry to the biggest supplier of EV fast chargers to the US and second-biggest in Europe.

The fact that Australian innovations are so often overlooked until they achieve success overseas is no small source of consternation for St Baker, but he remains indefatigable. A fellow StBEIF-backed company, charge point operator Evie Networks, has partnered with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to deploy hundreds of Tritium chargers across the country this year. “It’s going to happen, no one is designing internal combustion engines anymore,” he says of the tipping point in EV uptake we arguably find ourselves at. “The world wasn’t quite ready [for electric cars] when I bought my first Nissan Leaf back in 2011, but now everyone knows that their next car or the one after that will be electric because the fueling and maintenance costs using off-peak power are about a sixth of a petrol car.” He adds that luxury EVs like Rolls Royce’s Spectre “making EVs seem sexy” doesn’t hurt either, though he is personally happy to stick with his trusty Nissan and a Tesla Model 3.

Another project about which he can barely contain his excitement, the details of which are still being finalised, would see the fund’s electrification businesses work together and in league with local councils to decarbonise some of Australia’s remotest corners. “We call it turnkey decarbonisation because we could provide everything to fuel an all-electric vehicle network, including leveraging surplus power from rooftop solar for industries like fishing,” enthuses St Baker.

He is not deterred by the prospect of challenging major players either. “We’re investing in a couple of really interesting companies in the realm of autonomous vehicles,” he says, “which is a long shot when the likes of Tesla and Ford are playing in this space, but if there is a chance of creating Australian jobs, we’re going to take it.” Meticulously mapping our power and road infrastructure needs into the 2040s has also led to his throwing support behind the proposal for a $6bn tunnel connecting the end of the Inland Rail in Brisbane’s outer suburbs to the Port of Brisbane via driverless electric shuttle, taking thousands of trucks off the city’s roads each year and helping to improve air quality. But that is not enough, he posits, because there is another way to reduce the  high-emission vehicles clogging our roads: take to the sky.

The zero-emission box-wing Vertiia is billed by Sydney-based AMSL Aero as the longest-range “flying car” in the world, able to travel three times further on battery and hydrogen power than its competitors and offering the door-to-door advantage of a helicopter with lower operating costs and noise levels. “We’re taking a risk by competing with superbrands like Boeing but the patents give this prototype an edge and the Australian Defence Force is co-funding its development because of the aeromedical and cargo applications in a spread-out country like ours,” says St Baker. “We need to take advantage of this ability to land safely [in the urban environment] because we simply can’t keep building more roads.”

He continues: “Boeing already has the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics covered but it’s my vision that the 2032 Brisbane Olympics is when eVTOLs officially reach maturity while the whole world is watching. Will we see all the athletes arriving at the Gabba in Vertiia eVTOLs? We very well might, it is a plausible dream.” Pending certification by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Vertiia is predicted to reach the market in 2026.

Continually casting his attention on the world of tomorrow, and now in his mid-80s, it is hardly surprising that Trevor St Baker is increasingly preoccupied with succession. While he jokes that his independently minded children make nepotism impossible, and that one in eight grandchildren following him into the business is not a particularly good ratio, the patriarch says he has heartily supported them sitting on the boards of StBEIF ventures so they can talk through questions and suggestions as a family while he is still heavily involved. His sons Philip (founder of Novonix) and Stephen (a founder of Pure-EVs and director at StBEIF) have long been immersed in the day-to-day of course, while granddaughter Amelia is making her mark on the portfolio’s wearable therapeutics concern, CareWear, but the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund is more corporation than family business these days.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t inherited and our success relies on our staff members, so we have to continue taking care of them as well as directing the business in a way that honours our commitments and effectively balances investments that have a solid chance of return with the higher risk ones that we [feel compelled to] explore,” he says. In addition to placing heavy significance on employee share schemes, St Baker says regular “over the horizon” conversations—where company leaders and their teams rigorously debate and plot out different scenarios—are essential to cultivating future-mindedness and, ultimately, business success.

He adds: “The world doesn’t keep turning because of government ministers or business leaders; it goes around because of everybody doing their bit day in, day out, and thinking about how they might improve their contribution.” Making sure the wider team feels part of the journey and safeguarding long-established relationships is clearly important to St Baker as he considers passing the baton. It is unsurprising then, that he has banked continuously with both the business and private wealth divisions at NAB for over 40 years, dating back to the early days of ERM Power and its floating on the ASX. Today, the bank helps to steward the finances of a far larger St Baker clan than was the case in the 1980s, including a widening range of philanthropic interests.

“When we have the ability, we have an obligation to give back,” says St Baker, adding that his wife Judith is the naturally proactive philanthropist where he has been more focused on nurturing talent through student scholarships and university fellowships. “Our past investments have stemmed from self-interest, such as funding melanoma research after I discovered two of them on myself,” he demures, the same month that the St Baker Family Foundation committed to another five years of funding for the St Vincent de Paul Society to aid women experiencing homelessness.

He jests that his own age-related health challenges inform the interest of the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund in brands like CareWear, which produces red light therapy patches that use photobiomodulation technology to treat pain, and Vald, a maker of devices that assess musculoskeletal health and injury rehabilitation. “Aside from elite sports, there are big opportunities for new technologies like these in sectors like aged care, and next we’re exploring the use of photobiomodulation in combatting wrinkles, it’s quite fascinating,” he explains.

Though he often talks about luck and describes accolades such as being named an Officer of The Order of Australia in 2016 as “out of the blue”, those who work alongside Trevor St Baker say it is his forensic attention to detail, people-oriented leadership and the culture of continuous improvement that he fosters—rather than any twist of fate—that has secured his legacy.

Indeed, his perspective on the race to commercialise flying cars seems to sum up his modus operandi more generally; “I would like to be in the vanguard and see where Australia can take its innovations, not simply wait on our counterparts in America or elsewhere to come out with the next big thing.”