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Practical Magic

These climate tech entrepreneurs are teaming up to scale equity-based solutions

The Upside Tech Alliance is minimizing the individual sales calls its founding climate tech startups need to make to busy mayors and city planners.

People installing solar panels on a building roof

Upside Tech Alliance company BlocPower’s Civilian Climate Corps workers install solar panels at First Central Baptist Church in Staten Island. Courtesy of BlocPower

When it comes to finding an audience with busy mayors, four climate tech entrepreneurs are discovering there’s really no downside to knocking on doors together.

Inspired by an intimate conversation on Martha’s Vineyard in August 2021 with former President Barack Obama, the launch partners of Upside Tech Alliance — who all bring a climate justice mindset to tackling public infrastructure needs related to energy, water and other public services — have joined forces to represent their solutions and services collectively. Their offerings address a range of concerns, including the need for more metrics about local emissions and air quality, and better financing options for lower-income communities and small businesses that are interested in energy efficiency or electrification but don’t have the capital to invest upfront.

All four startups hail from the portfolio of Kapor Capital, the Oakland, California-based early-stage venture capital firm founded by personal computer software pioneers Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein. Kapor Capital’s focus is on funding startups that close some sort of gap experienced by low-income communities or communities of color — it only backs ventures that prioritize this as a fundamental business purpose. (You can read its latest impact report here.) 

Upside Tech Alliance was founded by individuals who all identify as people of color. It includes San Francisco-based Aclima, which develops tools for measuring air pollution and greenhouse gases at a hyperlocal level; Fresno, California-based Bitwise Industries, which trains people for digital careers in "underestimated" cities; BlocPower of Brooklyn, New York, which focuses on electrifying multi-residential buildings for no money upfront; and Promise of Oakland, which helps low-income individuals organize flexible payment plans for utility bills. Their common ambition: serving low-income communities of color.

"What we’re looking for when we’re talking to mayors and looking for partners are leaders who want to apply the latest greatest technology on behalf of serving their constituents at scale," BlocPower CEO and founder Donnel Baird told Bloomberg (subscription required). "We try to talk to as many cities and states and counties as possible looking for leaders who want to be on that cutting edge of technology on behalf of the public good."  

Freada Kapor Klein said the idea for Upside was sparked by a 90-minute conversation between a group of Kapor Capital startup founders and Obama, who spent time questioning the entrepreneurs about their business models and prompting them to consider ways they could scale their efforts through collective action. "These four companies were the farthest along, and they stayed up half the night after that meeting, whiteboarding, and they came up with the idea of the alliance," Kapor Klein recalled. 

She noted: "They see structural issues, they see systemic issues, and they see that the solutions they are providing are linked, just as the causes of the problems they are fighting are linked." 

Two people seated at a microphone, speaking
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins speaking at Smart City Expo USA Roundtable. Next to her is Laura Maristany with Bitwise Industries. Courtesy of Upside Tech Alliance

Here’s how the process works

Rather than approaching cities individually, the Upside Tech Alliance — led by former Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator Michelle DePass, who is executive director — meets with city leaders on behalf of the entire group to discuss a municipality’s emissions reductions and climate strategy.

From there, the alliance comes up with a program that can be used to pilot different approaches, such as launching a payment portal to help a low-income neighborhood pay utility bills differently or retrofitting several buildings to demonstrate energy efficiency gains. The group was organized to tap into federal and local-level programs that can help cities find funding for solutions focused on communities disproportionately affected by climate change, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or COVID-related economic relief funds. 

The collective has already made an impact in places including Newark, New Jersey, where Promise designed and created a pilot for its public service payment program within eight weeks of meeting with Mayor Ras Baraka. In the first five days of the program, close to 10 percent of the eligible residents had enrolled more than $600,000 in debt.

Elsewhere, Aclima and BlocPower are teaming on a project in New York state that relies on Aclima’s air-quality mapping software to create block-by-block measurements and BlocPower’s workforce development services to train staff who can handle this ongoing data collection and analysis work.

"By working with Aclima and BlocPower together, you’re turning climate action into an engine for economic development while also targeting emissions to improve public health," Davida Herzl, co-founder and CEO of Aclima, said in a statement. "And you’re helping to reduce economic disparities and create stable, good-paying jobs in historically under-resourced communities through climate action."

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, founder and CEO of Promise, said by approaching mayors and city governments together, the Upside Tech Alliance can address urban infrastructure challenges more holistically than would have been possible by any individual firms. Individually speaking, this will help each scale more quickly. "Winning for us looks like economic freedom and environmental health," Ellis-Lamkins said. 

The philosophical alignment and shared experience of the co-founders — all four startups are committed to addressing the consequences of poverty and pollution for Black and Brown communities — made finding common ground easier. "The commonality between the companies is that they all offer demonstrated private sector solutions to attacking persistent, urban, social problems," observed Mitch Kapor.

What does success look like for Upside Tech Alliance?

Kapor Capital has made a two-year funding commitment, and the alliance members will reevaluate the future after that point, including whether to add other Kapor Capital portfolio companies. "Success looks like the ability of these companies to scale, to find the Venn diagram between their solutions — sometimes it’s two companies working together, sometimes it’s three companies, sometimes it’s four," noted Kapor Klein. "So, success looks like them understanding each others’ businesses, being able to promote each other’s businesses. If you think about it, it minimizes the number of sales calls the companies have to make and it minimizes the sales calls a mayor or his or her staff have to take. It’s just efficiency all the way around." Success also lies in more and more cities having access to such services, Kapor added.

For Ellis-Lamkins, success lies in the ability for these startups to create urban landscapes and neighborhoods free of pollution, served by clean water and electricity, and where citizens have green workforce opportunities — a community where her grandmother would be proud to live. "We want to be able to model for governments what healthy economic models could look like."

Aside from the work of Upside Tech Alliance, another initiative likely to inform the future of equity-centered urban solutions is the new Toolkit for Local Climate Action, designed by Elemental Excelerator in collaboration with the former mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, Heather McTeer Toney. BlocPower is also involved with that initiative, as are other Elemental startups led by founders of color including ChargerHelp! (also a Kapor Capital company), which provides EV infrastructure maintenance, and Solstice Power Technologies, which develops community solar "gardens." The toolkit is particularly focused on helping mayors identify funding opportunities for such solutions. Let us know what other efforts we should be talking about by joining in the LinkedIn discussion

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