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DOE awards $4 million to build regional energy incubators

Here are the innovation hubs that were awarded grants from the U.S. DOE to support clean energy startups in their regions.

An aerial view of the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston.

Based in Charleston, WV, in the heart of Appalachia, The Deployment Engine is supporting the development of an "industrialized construction ecosystem" by repurposing old assets such as disused factories and mills. Source: Wirestock Creators via Shutterstock 

Created by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help commercialize clean energy technologies, the Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC)  provides grants to incubators supporting energy innovation and development across the United States. With a 30 percent decline in climate tech venture capital investment in 2023, federal support is critical to kick starting new companies tackling climate change.

The EPIC Awards are in the middle of their third round of grants and have improved upon their delivery model to maximize their impact. Recipients move through two stages of the competition with cash prizes at each level as they advance. The EPIC Round 3 will award $4 million to "the nation’s most innovative incubators supporting energy startups and entrepreneurs," according to the EPIC website.

The winners from the second round of grants were announced at the end of 2023. We connected with each of them to learn how they are accelerating clean energy innovations in their communities. 

From reimagining manufacturing in Appalachia to transportation in Michigan, these centers are supporting their local communities and helping them face the unique challenges for each of their regions as employers and jobs transition to a more sustainable economy.

The Deployment Engine (Charleston, West Virginia) — Launched by ADL Ventures, The Deployment Engine (TDE) is an accelerator based in Appalachia that supports widespread deployment of innovative decarbonization technologies in the construction industry. Specializing in solutions that advance the field of "industrialized construction," an approach to creating buildings using manufacturing techniques, TDE invests in companies that have a high decarbonization potential through the use of lower-embodied carbon building materials and improved operational energy efficiency. "With an emphasis on ‘learning by doing,’" said Program Manager Alyssa Watson, "TDE focuses on creating customer (vs. investor) deal flow and landing our start-ups their initial customers to ignite an industrialized construction ecosystem in Appalachia."

TDE’s location in the Appalachia community provides a valuable role in "revitalizing its economy by fostering a new startup ecosystem around industrialized construction, which is repurposing old assets (factories, mills, underused rail) to produce jobs and deploy industrialized affordable housing for the locals," said Colby Sawnson, an executive in residence at ADL Ventures.

REACH (Fort Collins, Colorado) — Based on Colorado’s Front Range, REACH supports entrepreneurs at the nexus of food, energy and water (FEW) systems. 

REACH is using the EPIC grant to "help affiliated early-stage startups residing at the FEW nexus as they navigate the complexities of commercializing technologies," said Jeff Muhs, managing director of accelerator programs at Colorado State University. "In communities across our region, energy and food production usually produce wastewater and compete for limited fresh-water resources, and energy is needed to pump water for irrigation, to treat wastewater, and to process and transport all three commodities." 

Examples "include agriculture waste-to-energy systems minimizing water use and co-located dryland agriculture and solar photovoltaic (PV) infrastructure, or ‘agrivoltaics,’" Muhs said.

Ascend (Hadley, Massachusetts and Detroit) — Ascend by VentureWell, in partnership with TechTown, supports "hard-tech startups addressing energy and mobility challenges," said Christina Tamer, vice president of ventures at Venture Well. It’s based in Michigan, the center of the American automotive industry for more than a century. By "engaging a diverse community through regional partnerships," Tamer said, Ascend enables the adoption of zero-emission vehicles, energy storage and charging, and promotes safety and energy efficiency in transportation. 

Ascend’s six-week accelerator program is designed "to bridge the gap between customer discovery and investment readiness," said Tamer. 

LabStart (Golden, Colorado) — LabStart"is a hybrid climate tech startup studio and incubator," said Megan Holcomb, the organization’s chief operating officer. It takes an "equity-centric program model" to "uplift passionate people and cutting edge innovations from the earliest possible stages — before a company is formed and before a clean energy technology is licensed." LabStart is tackling the lack of diversity in clean energy entrepreneurship by helping startups navigate the complexities of commercializing technology birthed in the laboratory. They are using the EPIC Prize funds to "provide talented entrepreneurs from socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds with people-first capacity building, access to essential networks, access to public and private capital, and National Lab licensing expertise and guidance," said Holcomb.

"By demonstrating the success of underrepresented entrepreneurs in deep climate tech innovation," said Holcomb, "we hope systemically underserved communities will be inspired to enter climate entrepreneurship if they see success from peers with relatable life histories." 

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