The 2018 VERGE Vanguard Awards
A salute to the pioneers and leaders at the intersection of tech and sustainability.
For all the technologies, policies and market developments propelling the clean economy, success ultimately boils down to people: the visionaries, network builders, corporate leaders and innovators who show the way for the rest of us. That's the spirit behind our inaugural class of VERGE Vanguard Award winners, nominated by the VERGE community and selected by the GreenBiz editorial team. They include leaders from companies big and small, nonprofit organizations and the public sector.
This year, we've chosen five winners in each of the three areas of focus at this fall's VERGE 18 conference: clean energy; sustainable transportation and mobility; and the circular economy.
We've also selected five companies — startups and multinationals alike — that have demonstrated leadership in one or more of these areas.
Combined, the 20 VERGE Vanguard Award winners demonstrate the promise of the clean economy: the vast opportunities that exist around the globe and at all income levels for healthier, prosperous and sustainable communities, solving some of the planet's most pressing social and environmental challenges.
Renewable microgrid maverick
National director for energy and utilities, Kaiser Permanente; Oakland, California
Kaiser Permanente's hospital in Richmond, California, is notable as the first (and still only) healthcare facility in the state — and one of few in the United States — to use a microgrid powered by renewable energy as its backup option. If Seth Baruch gets his way, that status will be temporary.
As national director for energy and utilities, Baruch is championing the adoption of solar plus energy storage across the Oakland-based organization in places where these investments make economic sense. That argument is getting easier each day, he believes, aided by his team's work to educate a variety of internal and external stakeholders. "It really seems like the transition to a clean economy is doable and economically viable," he said.
Baruch's career has been dedicated to energy efficiency and clean-power advocacy, inspired by the U.S. heat wave in 1988 that sparked Yellowstone Park's largest wildfire and led to NASA scientist Jim Hansen's historic Senate testimony about the effects of climate change. Before Baruch landed at Kaiser Permanente, he was an early champion of Community Choice Aggregation programs, a procurement model that enables cities and towns to source solar or wind locally in deregulated markets.
His mantra: Don't be afraid to think small, yet strategic. "I do feel that throughout my career, where I have been able to make the biggest impact is in very discrete, very local projects," Baruch said.
Google's regenerative designer
Sustainability officer, Google; Mountain View, California
Kate Brandt has the resources of some of the most powerful technologies in the world. And she's leveraging them to revolutionize the use of Earth's finite material resources.
Brandt is no stranger to leveraging the power of big organizations to scale sustainability solutions. Prior to Google, she served as the nation's first CSO under President Barack Obama and advised the Pentagon on Navy energy policy and strategy. Now she's focusing her efforts on circular models.
For Brandt and Google, the circular economy is more than just the concept of a regeneratively designed economic system — it's a mandate. "We're not just at an inflection point — we're past it," she noted. At Google, she is charged with leading and scaling its ambitions in this arena. The company is already slashing its office waste and data-center energy use, and recently has launched global initiatives that take the archetypal online search engine brand into the physical world. Google, in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, introduced a digital technology campaign to push towards circular cities.
The key? The data Google collects. "A rich dataset of traffic flow, sunlight exposure, mapping, parking, air quality and material characteristics is being built every day, and there could be huge value gained from targeting that data towards redesigning the flow of people, materials and information in our cities," Brandt said.
Brandt knows solving climate change won't be easy, but she's determined to innovate "digital solutions that will accelerate the transition towards more prosperous, livable cities."
Urban transportation innovator
Co-founder; Veniam; Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nearly two decades ago, she co-founded a company to change how Americans view car ownership and access to mobility. The growth of Zipcar helped to fuel succeeding waves of innovative car-sharing business models, and Robin Chase went on to start new transportation companies such as Buzzcar (car-sharing in Europe) and Veniam (a connected vehicle platform).
Chase is undertaking a new challenge. This summer she launched a new mobility coalition, located within the World Resources Institute, to promote collaborations among cities, nonprofits and companies and create blueprints for efficient and affordable transit systems. The yet-unnamed initiative builds on an effort Chase sparked last year, the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, that won support from private and public groups such as Uber, Didi Chuxing, LimeBike and C40Cities.
The initiative will guide cities and tech companies to create better transportation policies and avoid past mistakes in which cities scrambled to regulate new technology they didn’t fully understand, while tech companies sought to avoid regulators when launching new services. Chase describes such conflicts in geologic terms:
"Because of climate change and urbanization, we must cool these shifting tectonic plates on the side of sustainable, livable and just cities. If we don't do that, then we are going to see a lot of suffering."
Bringing carbon down to Earth
Executive director, Carbon180; Berkeley, California
If we're to tackle the problem of carbon pollution, it's not enough just to reduce emissions, or even end them altogether. There's also the challenge of what to do with the more than 2 trillion tons of greenhouse gases humans have emitted so far in the atmosphere, which already are roiling weather patterns and threatening coastlines.
In 2015, a group of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley launched the Center for Carbon Removal, now known as Carbon180. One of them, Noah Deich, a newly minted MBA from Berkeley's Haas School, became executive director of the nonprofit, whose mission is as simple as it is bold: "to clean up carbon pollution from the air." Specifically, Carbon180 aims "to halt — and then reverse — climate change by restoring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to sustainable levels."
That may seem an environmentalist's pipe dream, but few had been looking at removing existing emissions, as opposed to stopping new ones. And a broad portfolio of technologies and business models is taking shape. Many mimic or leverage natural processes that recycle and reuse carbon, such as photosynthesis and carbon mineralization. Others integrate these time-tested processes with newer, innovative solutions for storing carbon. Still others turn atmospheric carbon into a feedstock for new products and materials.
Carbon removal stands to be a cornerstone of the circular economy, transforming a waste product — greenhouse gases — into an infinitely recoverable and reusable resource. It's a potent tool that's only now just coming into focus, thanks in large part to Deich and his team.
"The thing that drives me is figuring out how to get around the defeatist attitude many of us have about climate change," he said. "What excites me about this is that we can figure out how to fully solve the problem."
Tesla's Swiss Army knife
President, automotive; Tesla; Palo Alto, California
As Tesla has morphed from a tiny Silicon Valley startup selling an electric sports car into a global auto and energy company with a full line of products, Jerome Guillen has been the company's essential multi-purpose tool.
Guillen, who is French, joined Tesla eight years ago to help lead development of the company's make-or-break electric sedan, the Model S. Once the car was launched (to mostly rave reviews), Guillen stepped up to lead worldwide sales, proving that yes, there are indeed mechanical and nuclear engineers that can sell stuff.
A few years later, Guillen — who has a deep background in trucking — led the debut of Tesla's unusual electric Semi truck, which can run for 500 miles on a charge, and has drawn advance orders from the likes of UPS and PepsiCo.
If that's not enough, Guillen recently resurfaced as the brains behind Tesla's mind-bending pop-up factory built from scratch in a tent outside of its main factory in Fremont, California. On a recent earnings call, Tesla CEO Elon Musk characterized Guillen's tent project as "pulling some pretty incredible rabbits out of a hat."
While Tesla is facing major challenges this year — with Musk's tweets, Model 3 production problems and debt payments looming — Guillen is one weapon Musk has up his sleeve to help him hit seemingly impossible goals. Accordingly, Musk just promoted him to "president, automotive."
Making Cradle to Cradle material
Global chief sustainability officer, C&A; Brussels, Belgium
Moving from a linear to a circular economy will take thousands of innovations, from new materials to new recovery methods to new business models. Some will be bold initiatives that disrupt business as usual; others, incremental changes that unlock another piece of the puzzle that is circularity.
And still others to demonstrate how it all comes together.
Which is where Jeffrey Hogue has made his mark, and that of C&A, the 177-year-old family-owned apparel company based in the Netherlands. C&A, which has around 2,000 stores in 23 countries, last year debuted the world's first T-shirt certified to the Cradle-to-Cradle standard — at scale and at an $8 retail price.
It was no small feat. It required investigating every aspect of the T-shirt supply chain, including the recyclability of the thread used to stitch the garment as well as the ink used to print the care label. It took well over a year of trial and error. And all that was for a product with only a few basic ingredients.
T-shirts turned out to be the proving ground for more ambitious initiatives — most recently, the introduction of the world's first C2C-certified denim jeans, which contain multiple materials, from thread to zipper — along with an open-source toolkit showing others how to approach such complex products and projects. This is just the beginning of C&A’s longer transition to circular products.
Of course, it's not just about materials. "During the process, only renewable energy and high social standards were applied, leading to a product that is designed for its next life," explained Hogue.
That's a recipe for success across any industry, and a fitting demonstration of how the circular economy brings together the full promise of sustainability.
Barrier breaker for affordable clean energy
Founder and principal, Clean Energy Works; Washington, D.C.
Holmes Hummel created a consultancy to expand Americans’ access to renewable energy. A senior energy policy adviser during the Obama administration, she has shown how utilities can play a greater role in making low-carbon technology affordable.
"I'm deeply humbled by the opportunities we've had to work with outstanding utilities and executives to harness the utility business model for investment in cost recovery on the customer side of the meter in order to serve customers that were not easy to reach," Hummel said.
Hummel works with utilities to implement the Pay as You Save model that simplifies the steps — and lowers the cost — for owners of homes and businesses to choose solar and save money. The model helps to expand solar energy in states without strong renewable energy mandates, such as electric cooperatives in rural states including Kansas and Kentucky.
Lately, Hummel is applying the same concept in a new model that seeks to eliminate the enormous upfront cost of replacing a public transit agency’s fossil-fuel buses with electric ones. Here, utilities become investors in the buses' onboard batteries and make money by collecting a tariff on the monthly bills of the transit agencies.
Showing the way to circularity
Founder and chair, Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Cowes, United Kingdom
It's not often that someone coins a meme and starts a movement among some of the world's largest companies to transform their operations — all inside a decade. But that, in a nutshell, is the story of Dame Ellen MacArthur, a world record-holding, solo long-distance sailor who, in 2010, turned from circumnavigating the globe to creating circular systems of commerce. The U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been the leading force in leading the largest corporations toward a circular economy. The not-so-modest goals: Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.
Over the past few years, MacArthur and her team of professionals have turned ideals into action, for example, convening a New Plastics Economy Initiative, envisioning value chains in which "plastics never end up as waste." That's a big, petroleum-based mountain to climb, but the foundation has attracted such multinational brand owners as Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.
Equally promising are efforts to engage educational institutions to teach high school and college students about circularlty. "If every young person that left education saw a circular economy, that would change the world," she said. Toward that end, we've all become students of MacArthur's vision of a regenerative, circular world.
Renewable energy champion
Managing principal; Energy Works, McKinney-James Associates; Las Vegas
With an abundance of clear, sunny days, Nevada has been a good home base for Rose McKinney-James, a trailblazing clean-energy advocate whose lobbying work helped to create the state's first renewable portfolio standard in 1997. That policy set up Nevada to become one of America's largest solar energy states.
Her advocacy work began after she gained valuable experiences and connections serving on the Nevada Public Service Commission and as director of Nevada Department of Business and Industry in the 1980s and 1990s. That expertise landed her on the boards of directors of renewable energy advocacy groups and companies, including The Energy Foundation and MGM Resorts International.
McKinney-James said she's proud to have worked with companies that invest in renewable energy. She chairs the CSR committee on the board of MGM, the biggest corporate solar energy investor on the Vegas Strip, leading to the installation of photovoltaic panels on its Mandalay Bay Convention Center in 2014. Now she is preparing to build a 100-Megawatt project outside of Las Vegas.
"Being a part of MGM Resorts' sustainability efforts has given me a great deal of personal satisfaction," McKinney-James said.
Godmother of impact investing
Founder and managing director, DBL Partners; San Francisco
It seems ironic to contemplate today, but when she started her professional career with the Sierra Club, legendary venture capitalist Nancy Pfund — one of the earliest investors in Tesla and SolarCity — was skeptical of the business world's ability to catalyze positive social change.
She later reconsidered her "adversarial" worldview while working alongside the late Intel co-founder Robert Noyce, whose interactions with government policymakers taught her the value of public-private collaboration.
The VC firm Pfund co-founded in 2003, San Francisco-based DBL Partners, was among the first to value its investment decisions using social factors such as economic inclusion, gender and racial diversity and environmental action, not just financial return.
It's a philosophy that more mainstream investors — particularly institutional investment funds — are just now rallying around. "We don't waste time separating the world into artificial silos," Pfund said. "We can do better than that."
DBL's current portfolio is diverse, but one sector in which she has developed an appetite is agtech. Data suggests agricultural activities account for up to 30 percent of worldwide carbon emissions, so addressing it really isn't optional if the world hopes to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Two of her bets in this space: Farmers Business Network, which uses data to help farmers improve yields and negotiate better pricing, and Apeel Sciences, which created a plant-derived coating that helps prevent food waste.
CEO and co-founder, Via; New York City
While ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft are battling over the sheer number of trips their users take, startup Via has another aim entirely. Co-founded in 2012 by Israeli entrepreneur Daniel Ramot, the New York City company focuses on shuttle-based carpooling, which ensures that its vehicles move passengers much more efficiently than single-occupancy options.
Ramot is an unlikely de facto "taxi dispatcher," as he has jokingly referred to his creation. The Stanford neuroscience Ph.D. previously worked on supercomputers that design and discover new pharmaceutical drugs, and also developed avionics systems for F-15s and F-16s in the Israeli Air Force.
Inspired by Israel's privately run bus services called sherut taxis, Ramot and co-founder Oren Shoval developed software that could route shuttles and allocate seats on the fly. It's the equivalent of a "dynamic bus" system with "virtual bus stops," he said.
The service is available in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Via has also partnered with West Sacramento, California, and Arlington, Texas, to provide city infrastructure. The company has received praise from transportation planners such as Dan Sperling of the University of California at Davis, who has said that "pooling" services are the key to how ride-hailing services can be more efficient and sustainable.
Smart City chief
Chief innovation officer; San Jose, California
When San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo unveiled a plan two years ago to make the city "America's most innovative" by 2020, many of the details fell to Shireen Santosham.
Liccardo brought in the former impact investor and self-described "tech optimist" to lead San Jose's innovation and Smart City Vision. It's a sweeping plan to use data, software, sensors and connectivity to make the Silicon Valley city safer, more inclusive and sustainable.
Since the launch, San Jose has delivered a new open data policy and portal, and has partnered with tech companies such as Airbnb and Box on civic projects. It also has worked with the wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon to get them to build out infrastructure for blazing fast 5G wireless connectivity on city assets such as lightpoles.
Santosham, who formerly worked at the telco industry’s GSMA Association, long has championed affordable broadband access for underserved populations. At VERGE 17, she explained why broadband is important infrastructure to support connected and autonomous vehicles, and said the federal government should play a greater role investing in the broadband buildout.
While Santosham's team has launched some key tech initiatives, her work also has contributed to a political victory. Liccardo won re-election in June by a landslide.
Commissioner, California Energy Commission; Sacramento, California
Once dubbed a "queen of electric vehicles," Janea Scott — a transportation-focused commissioner at the California Energy Commission — has helped lead the charge for California's aggressive zero-emission vehicle and sustainable transportation goals. Appointed to the CEC in 2013 by Gov. Jerry Brown (and re-appointed in 2016), Scott has spearheaded such projects as deploying electric vehicle chargers across the state, helping communities become EV-ready, and enabling the state's ports (PDF) to test electric fleet vehicles.
Paving the way for new infrastructure is important, but even more crucial has been her focus on ensuring that underserved groups — such as renters and residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods — can access the latest EV models and charging equipment.
The road ahead for Brown's goal of 5 million zero-emission vehicles on California's roads by 2030 could be rough; the state is only just now reaching around 450,000 EVs. But Scott will be a key player in helping the state potentially hit that ambitious figure.
Turning trash into treasure
CEO, Terracycle; Trenton, New Jersey
It began as a quirky college business run out of a dorm room: worm-poop fertilizer sold in recycled plastic soda bottles. A decade and a half later, Tom Szaky, still quirky, has turned recycling into an art form — and big business. His 250-person company, Terracycle, has partnered with some of the world's biggest brands — think Bausch and Lomb, Colgate, Frito-Lay, Hasbro, Henkel, Nabisco, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Subaru — to create value from detritus.
Almost nothing, it seems, is out of bounds. Cigarette butts? They become plastic lumber and pallets. Coffee brewing capsules? Turned into pellets to be used for future plastics. Toothbrushs and floss containers? Melted into hard plastic that can be remolded into new products. All told, the company has created partnerships with brands, communities and others for more than 100 products. It's not all circular, in the strict sense of the term — it's more about upcycling branded trash — but if the goal is to keep things out of landfills and incinerators, it's a good start.
"There's a real war on single-use and disposability raging ... in the mainstream and it's spreading to all parts of the world," he said.
A true circular economy is Szaky's next act. For the past year or so, Terracycle has been developing refillable and reusable packaging, along with a business model that's reminiscent of the old "milkman" door-to-door delivery, to be unveiled in 2019. Once again, Szaky will be pushing limits. Which is to say: He's just getting started.
Ringleader of renewable energy buyers
Former sustainability and energy czar for Facebook, Google; San Francisco
One-time computer science professor Bill Weihl has devoted the past 12 years to championing clean-energy options for Google and Facebook — both of which have invested mightily in solar and wind projects. That, in turn, charged up other big cloud-computing companies such as Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon.
But Weihl’s role in amplifying the collective voice of corporate renewables purchasers — through the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a group of NGOs committed to helping companies deploy at least 60 gigawatts of clean power by 2025, and the RE100 campaign for companies committed to going all-in on renewable electricity — is sure to have an even larger impact over the long term.
Weihl had a hand in the creation of both initiatives several years ago, even allying with rivals. He recognized that it would be much easier for businesses to get utilities, developers and policymakers to take renewable energy seriously if their biggest customers spoke up together. "There was much less resistance, much more eagerness to work with us," Weihl recalled.
Momentum is building: Over the past six years, corporate buyers collectively have contracted for more than 13 gigawatts of new solar and wind projects. And 2018 is already a record-breaking year, accounting for close to one-third of that capacity.
Innovating toward circularity
We don't typically think of smartphones, tablets and laptops as disposable products — at least, not like juice boxes or coffee cups — but eventually, they outlive their usefulness. And with their disposal goes a wealth of resources. A smartphone, for example, can contain up to 62 types of metals, including as many as eight rare-earth metals. Keeping such things out of landfills is a start. Creating systems to mine them is better. Committing to develop closed-loop manufacturing systems to continuously capture and reuse these resources is the ultimate objective.
Enter Apple, which last year set a goal to use 100 percent recycled materials to make its iPhones, MacBooks and other products. The company is a long way from achieving that, but its aspiration — to "one day stop mining the earth altogether" — stands to be a competitive advantage. Apple believes it can recover materials that traditional recyclers don't yet have the capability to recycle, and at a higher quality.
This year, the company unveiled the latest innovation toward that end. Dubbed Daisy, the robot builds on a previous technology called Liam, which Apple developed to deconstruct iPhones and strip out components for reuse. And not just for the latest models: Daisy can handle nine types of iPhones, recovering aluminum, cobalt, copper and rare earth elements, including neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium.
That's a mouthful, perhaps, but a big step forward toward a circular economy, and a lighter impact on the planet.
Inventing the future of transportation
A huge challenge for major automakers for the past decade has been to keep up with new and disruptive competitors in the transportation sector, which has become increasingly more dynamic and crowded. GM is betting big and pulling ahead among the legacy carmakers in electric and autonomous vehicle development and transportation services.
The company has made bold promises in the last 10 months that cast a brighter spotlight on its ability to compete with carmakers, technology developers and transportation service providers.
Consider these numbers: GM vows to profit from selling electric vehicles by 2021, something no other carmaker has achieved so far — and to launch at least 20 all-electric vehicle models by 2023. The company is getting $2.5 billion from Softbank to complement the $1.1 billion from its own coffers for rolling out autonomous cars and a ride-hailing service that will include those driverless vehicles in 2019. That would place GM first in a race to enter the driverless taxi business, the details of which it hasn’t revealed.
The company already is moving into high gear, having developed software and a service called Maven for renting GM-owned cars, and recently launching a new service to allow GM car owners to rent out their vehicles, with much more to come.
Go Electric is proof-positive that commercial energy teams have much to learn from their counterparts in the military, and that energy innovation is by no means confined to a coastal states such as New York and California.
The Anderson, Indiana-based venture, helmed by former Rolls Royce corporate ventures executive Lisa Laughner, is winning accounts with its mission to provide uninterruptible power to organizations fretting over grid resilience. Its patented technology, called Lync DR, integrates renewable energy with a microgrid controller, lithium-ion batteries and power conversion.
Yes, dozens of companies are chasing the microgrid market, projected to reach $17.5 billion by 2025. But Go Electric's rock-solid engineering (the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has sent technicians to its test facility for a peek) and a value proposition that eliminates upfront capital expenses for its equipment set it apart.
Right now, 70 percent of its installations are at Army bases and other defense facilities. "We are just amazed at how open the military is to trying new things," Laughner said. But commercial projects are multiplying among businesses such as health care providers and data center operators that can't tolerate downtime.
Why Anderson? It starts with the support Go Electric received from the local tech accelerator and utility. Plus, Indiana is a strong manufacturing ally: 92 percent of the components used in Go Electric equipment are sourced locally.
The rise of instant e-commerce has been a major opportunity, but also a challenge, for package giant UPS. The century-old company saw one of its steepest shipping growth rates in decades last year, leading to 20 million packages delivered daily, and a coinciding bump in annual revenue.
More packages shipped generally means more trucks rolling, more fuel combusted (and more greenhouse gases emitted). Yet the logistics firm also has been investing heavily in technology that can lead to smarter deliveries, and using vehicles with lower emissions such as electric and natural gas-powered delivery vans.
When it comes to electrifying its fleet, UPS has led the way, despite the early stage of the market. Out of its 119,000-vehicle fleet, UPS has around 9,100 alternative vehicles, including more than 1,000 electric and hybrids. It also recently has inked deals with vendors such as Tesla, Workhorse and Thor Trucks, seeking access to the latest EV trucks.
UPS’s goal is to have alternative vehicles make up a quarter of its fleet by 2020. That's aggressive but something that CEO David Abney reiterated in the company's latest sustainability report (PDF). Said Abney: "We will continue to explore and develop new solutions to make the industry's most efficient network even more sustainable."
Wind champion of middle America
Midwest utility Xcel Energy is embracing a transformation from fossil fuels to clean energy, even at a time when shifting national policies could give preferential treatment to preserving coal power. Its influence is extensive: The company serves 3.6 million electric customers and 2 million natural gas customers in eight U.S. states: Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Texas.
Driven at least in part by renewable energy mandates in its service territories, Xcel aims to generate at least half of its energy through renewable sources by 2030. Its investments in large-scale wind and solar projects — and, increasingly, energy storage technology — are crucial, but keeping the company’s existing nuclear plants on the grid through that time is also key to the narrative.
Sure, many utilities are talking the renewables talk. But Xcel also supports one of the largest carbon dioxide emissions targets in the sector, calling for reductions of 60 percent or more by 2030, compared with a 2005 baseline. So far, it has reported reductions of 35 percent. "Through cleaner energy, we’re delivering other environmental benefits, too — we’ve reduced water consumption by more than 40 percent, sulphur dioxide emissions by 72 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 76 percent since 2005," noted Xcel CEO Ben Fowke in Xcel’s 2017 corporate responsibility report.
The momentum continues. In August, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved Xcel’s plans to add more solar and retire two coal power plants. By 2022, Xcel could be behind at least 10 gigawatts of wind capacity. Stay tuned for its emerging strategy to support the electrification of transportation.
— Written by Joel Makower, Heather Clancy, Katie Fehrenbacher, Ucilia Wang and Holly Secon. Edited by Elsa Wenzel.