Accelerators are helping nonprofits fast-track green tech
Imagine a solar panel that could pull moisture from the air and create clean drinking water, using only the power of the sun, for hundreds of millions of people worldwide who currently rely on unsafe or temporary water supplies. And now imagine that technology helping to curb the plastic waste clogging our oceans because people whose sole source of clean drinking water today is bottled could switch to this solar-powered source.
Imagine no more, because the technology exists. It’s called Source, the brainchild of Arizona State University professor Cody Friesen. Even though it’s not perfect — Source "hydropanels" are expensive and don’t produce large volumes of water — the technology is drawing interest from around the world. Source is being deployed in homes, schools and hospitals in 20 countries, including the United States, by the company Friesen founded, Zero Mass Water. A hospital in Jamaica, seeking to end its reliance on expensive bottled water, is one of the latest to install Source. Made of a water-absorbing material, the hydropanels collect water vapor into a reservoir, add minerals for taste, then pipe the water to indoor taps. Purification isn’t necessary because only water molecules can pass through the material.
Source is the type of innovation that Conservation International hopes to help scale up to address global water, agriculture and biodiversity concerns through its new partnership (PDF) with a so-called "tech accelerator," Elemental Excelerator, that helps early-stage businesses, such as Zero Mass Water, reach scale.
Conservation International launched the partnership to help channel Silicon Valley smarts towards solving urgent environmental problems. It’s the fourth large, global environmental organization to take this new tack in the past two years, following The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Ocean Conservancy and WWF. With governments worldwide dragging their heels at responding to climate change, ocean plastic waste and other environmental crises, can these new partnerships help to catalyze on-the-ground change at the pace and scale needed — and ultimately prove to policy makers that solutions are at hand?
Race for our lives
"We’re all struggling with, ‘How do we change things, how do we get scale in a compressed time frame?’" says Agustin Silvani, vice president of the Conservation Finance Division at Conservation International. "If you look at all the climate studies, we have basically 10 years to solve these issues, so we’re laser focused on that and are throwing whatever we can at it. We need new ideas and innovation to change these trajectories."
"We’re really in the race for our lives," says August Ritter, program director of the sustainability accelerator at TNC. "Conservationists are looking around and saying, ‘Hey, why is there so much [tech] disruption in all these other industries?’ We need to be taking a more serious role and being more intentional about driving tech innovation in conservation, to drive the outcomes we are all shooting for."
As they seek to develop that new role, the two are comparing notes. "Being in close communication, as we learn from one another is going to be critical because we’re all pretty new at this," says Ritter.
While each conservation group has developed its own partnership with a tech accelerator, they share a common desire to meld their decades of environmental expertise and on-the-ground contacts with the entrepreneurial savvy and business connections of the accelerator world — and, more pointedly, to steer the tech sector toward solving real environmental problems.
Tech accelerators in isolation can "create solutions for problems that don’t exist, or solutions in search of problems," says Silvani. "By partnering with us, we’re able to say, ‘These are the problems that we’re facing, the real-world issues related to how we produce our food or use water, without wrecking the planet. Now use your tech tools to help address those problems.’ It’s the kind of collaboration that needs to happen more, bringing different worlds together."
Think, for example, of some questionable tech inventions, such as robot bartenders or smart toilets. Or Snapchat.
"What problem does a company like Snapchat truly solve?" asks Andrew Winston, business sustainability expert and author. Winston says the most compelling aspect of the new trend is the NGO attempt to direct Silicon Valley attention to urgent environmental and social problems. "Fun and innovation for their own sake can be great, but we need all hands on deck — creators, innovators, investors and entrepreneurs — focused on the fact that our time to avoid species-level catastrophe is running short."
Tech accelerators are a relatively new phenomenon, beginning with the first, Y Combinator, in 2005. Run by business advisers, it provides coaching, capital and connections to a select group of entrepreneurs to help them bring their ideas to market. In exchange, it receives a portion of the startup’s equity or stocks.
Founded in 2012 to help Hawaii reach its ambitious renewable energy goals, Elemental Excelerator is different from other accelerators in that it works exclusively with businesses than have an environmental or justice focus. It receives funding from several sources, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the Emerson Collective (an LLC focused on social change), and corporations such as National Grid that are interested in investing in the startups in Elemental Excelerator’s orbit. Elemental Excelerator also takes an equity share of 1 to 6 percent, but only when the fledgling businesses are acquired by a larger company, says Danya Hakeem, a portfolio manager at Elemental Excelerator.
To date, Elemental Excelerator has accepted 82 companies into its program. These have raised $550 million in investments, and 89 percent are still in business or have been acquired by a larger company, according to Hakeem. In the business world, being acquired, or bought out by a larger company, is considered the true measure of success because the startup may never reach scale without it. But that’s not always the case and some entrepreneurs choose to stick with their business as it grows, rather than move on to their next idea.
Small, new companies like these generally drive innovation, says Winston. "The large companies are good for taking the technologies and spreading them wide, but there’s at least a couple of stages in the early funding and culling of ideas that the big guys aren’t going to have the manpower and capabilities to do."
Every year, Elemental Excelerator accepts 15 to 20 companies into its program from a pool of hundreds of applicants. Conservation International will help to identify and vet potential companies and ensure that the solutions they’re creating are environmentally and socially sound, and — importantly for the conservation group — ensure that the solutions can be applied to developing world situations.
As to what Elemental Excelerator gets from the partnership, Hakeem says, "We see CI as a cornerstone partner based on their deep expertise and in-country network and connections. They’re really plugged into the solutions and know where the opportunities are." Furthermore, Conservation International’s investment fund offers potential follow-on funding for companies in the Elemental program.
Zero Mass Water got into the accelerator program last year and has received coaching and funding from Elemental Excelerator to help it expand into Australia. The Australian project is expected to displace over 30 million plastic bottles and have a "huge environmental and CO2 impact," says Rob Bartrop, executive vice president at Zero Mass Water. "We’re growing at a far faster pace because of the support from Elemental."
The hydropanels are expensive, however, for the developing world. A set of two panels costs about $6,000 and produces 1 to almost 3 gallons of water daily, depending on geographic and weather conditions. The cost of water works out to 15 cents per liter, according to Bartrop — far less than the cost of bottled water, or of building new infrastructure to provide drinking water where none exists, but costly nevertheless.
Conservation International is working with Zero Mass Water to figure out how to make the technology affordable for a remote, offshore fishing village in East Timor, says Silvani. The village lacks access to drinking water and must bring in containers of water from the mainland by boat, which is expensive, creates plastic waste and uses diesel fuel.
Over time, Silvani envisions helping to bring the technology to other water-stressed regions, such as Cape Town, South Africa, and Kenya.
Bartrop says Source is also a short- to medium-term, cost-effective alternative to bottled water for schools in communities such as Flint, Michigan, with lead in its drinking water, or for communities recovering from natural disasters or hurricanes, such as Puerto Rico.
No silver bullet
Silvani is quick to point out that Zero Mass Water is "only part of the solution to our mounting water crisis" and that regulation, improved efficiency and watershed management are important pieces of the puzzle.
There is no "silver bullet solution," he says, to solving today’s massive environmental challenges. But, he stresses, "We need more showcases of success. That’s what we’re hoping to do … have real measurable impact and hopefully motivate others to move quickly as well."
TNC and the Ocean Conservancy similarly view their accelerator partnerships as catalytic.
"In our dream world, we bring this suite of tools to our first cohort of cities, and we are so successful that we then have other cities lining up who want to be part of this work, and we have others entering the space to do the same kind of work," says Voltmer. "What we’re really trying to do is show how you can develop solutions to deal with the problem."
Similarly, Ritter says that the technologies that emerge from TNC’s partnership with TechStars Sustainability will help provide the science and data needed to convince policy-makers and natural resource managers to make smart environmental management decisions.
"More broadly," Ritter emphasizes, "what a lot of us are trying to do is inspire a new generation of technology entrepreneurs and investors to focus on sustainability issues in a much more serious way than they have to date."
In the case of climate change mitigation, they’ll have to do that quickly. The 10- to 11-year hurdle means we need to cut carbon emissions in half in 10 to 11 years, Winston says. For example, he says, "we have to beat to the punch someone building a traditional grid or gas pipeline and we have to get to scale before the traditional infrastructure does."
As to whether NGO-accelerator partnerships can help achieve that tall order without government intervention, Silvani responds, "We need to act without permission, in the absence of government action let’s show what can be done and hopefully government can move and take it to the next level."
Indeed, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has followed Zero Mass Water’s lead and kicked in nearly half a million Australian dollars to expand its reach to drought-stricken communities. Imagine the potential.
Editor’s note: Ensia editor in chief Mary Hoff recently completed a fellowship at Arizona State University, where Cody Friesen is a professor. She did not interact with nor have any knowledge of the work referenced here as part of that fellowship, nor did she work with the author on her choice of sources.
A statement from Andrew Winston has been updated from the original story for accuracy.