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Passion and patience are musts to build a green company. But the payoff can be huge, not only for the Boston area, but the world. The climate crisis has sparked fires in California, devastating hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, and New Orleans, unheard-of flooding in Paris, and historically high temperatures worldwide.
With climate change becoming increasingly more dire, Boston entrepreneurs, researchers, and angel investors have united more than ever to tackle it. They’ve made Boston a hot spot for green tech, blue tech, solar tech, and other forms of ClimaTech.
Boston’s response has been fueled by Greentown Labs in Somerville — the largest climate tech startup incubator in North America — and many other investors, mentors, incubators (which help startups), and accelerators (which inject funds to turbocharge companies’ growth).
Another contributor to the sustainability movement, the Boston-based Acadia Center is a nonprofit advocate for policy reform, forming strategic alliances among legislators, community leaders, and environmental justice groups to press for next-gen green solutions with long-term results. And of course there are the prestigious area universities, including Harvard and Northeastern, serving as hotbeds of talented researchers, inventors, and engineers.
Not all approaches will triumph. But progress against climate change only occurs by trying.
The following are among the area organizations taking action.
You could say GenH — the next-gen hydroelectric technology company — began with a conversation about the Middle Ages.
Northeastern grad student Siddharth Pannir and V Squared Wind CEO and CTO Rob Freda, bonded over a 2016 chat about how smaller cannons were mobile and thus could be positioned more effectively. That ignited their own battle against a massive and growing enemy — climate change.
Pannir devoted his master’s thesis at Northeastern’s Gordon Engineering Leadership program to designing and testing a prototype for a mobile dam electrification system.
The final product will provide electricity via water — hydropower — on-site where needed and at competitive prices to fossil fuels.
The two researchers and Jon Swanson, a Suffolk, MA, business developer, incorporated GenH in April 2018.
Soon after, they won a $450,000 award from CalSEED (California Sustainable Energy Entrepreneur Development). Equally vital, they earned acceptance in Cleantech Open’s accelerator program, which has armed them with business knowledge.
In all, GenH has amassed $726,000 in awards and grants, including $65,000 from Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC)’s Catalyst program.
“They’ve allowed us to go from a very basic prototype in my backyard to simulating an actual working dam,” Pannir says. “I never realized the powerful ecosystem Boston has to help clean energy entrepreneurs.”
Startups are painful, he says, but he predicts GenH’s hunger will take them to the final steps. “I draw on Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which says ‘I can think. I can wait. I can fast.’ The startup founders who make it are those with infinite patience and who can go on a ‘diet’ at a moment’s notice and stay on it for a while.”
T-Omega Wind: Power from floating windmills
“For the future to be climate-safe, we can’t afford to play it safe. We must be bold and act now,” says Jim Papadopoulos, PhD, PE, co-founder and chief engineer at T-Omega Wind, which is working on lighter-weight, cheaper, offshore breeze-powered turbines.
Starting in 2008, the eco-conscious inventor and senior research engineer in civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University knew that offshore windmills were great sources of clean energy.
“Unlike on land, the ocean has tremendously powerful and steady winds,” Papadopoulos says.
But challenges whirled, including building, transporting, and installing turbines in the ocean affordably.
He was still toying with a concept for lighter-weight windmills on floating platforms when he met Andy Myers, PhD, PE, an associate civil and environmental engineering professor, on the latter’s first day at Northeastern in August 2011.
Papadopoulos had found the partner he needed: someone who was highly practical and could ground his visions for a windmill that took advantage of being on the water.
“It took a year to earn his buy-in. If I hadn’t had him to point out flaws, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere,” Papadopoulos says. “I didn’t have an ‘Aha!’ moment. I had an ‘Aha!’ year.”
They launched T-Omega Wind in 2020. Later that year, they received $150,000 from the same MassCEC Catalyst program that helped fuel GenH’s future.
An injection of funds from various sources enabled them to expand their team to six, including a CEO and COO. And they’ve completed wave tank tests of a 1:60 scale prototype.
The latest version will be able to withstand storms at 20% of the weight and 30% of the cost of current turbines.
This year, the latest design earned a $130,000 grant from Britain’s TechX CleanEnergy Accelerator, accompanied by mentorship.
Despite positive winds at its back, the company expects to need $50 million to build a full-scale turbine and platform. Another difficulty is it’s likely to be more than a decade before they have a product to sell.
Despite frustrations, he says, “This is the best time of my life. I’m making progress and using my skills to create something that could solve a real problem.”
Launchpad Venture Group: Money matters
“There are a lot of brilliant entrepreneurs here working on brilliant solutions,” says Jodi Collier, executive director of Launchpad Venture Group. “Boston is an exciting place to be involved in these opportunities, which reach far beyond the region.”
Launchpad seeks to build close and long-term relationships with innovative tech and science-driven startups that have the potential of becoming $100 million green operators, says Collier.
“The more important thing we bring to the table is experience,” she says. “We offer not only financial capital but human capital to help the next generation avoid the mistakes we made. We mentor, coach, and use our connections to introduce them to potential customers.”
Launchpad holds monthly events to network and gives feedback to 10 early-stage applicants. Three companies are asked back to give longer pitches.
Each year Launchpad adds between five and eight startups to its portfolio. “Individuals in our network decide whether they want to put money into an opportunity,” Collier says. “They may write a check for $10,000 to $50,000 with the typical deal reaching $300,000 to $1.2 million.”
Entrepreneurs often return for follow-up financing. “We’ve had wonderful successes,” she says.
They include the nation’s top solar power comparison-shopping website, EnergySage, where consumers spent $600 million last year alone. Among others are Clean Fiber, which converts recycled cardboard into contaminant-free insulation, and Radical Plastics, which uses a patented process to make biodegradable plastic.
“Members of Launchpad have been beneficiaries of great advice, timing, luck, and favorable regulatory winds,” Collier says. “We want to help the courageous entrepreneurs who are doing wonderful things in the clean and green space. What they do is important to all of us.”