More deals, fewer dollars in the first half of 2022
Dawn Lippert, CEO; Sara Chandler, Director of Equity & Access
Elemental Excelerator knows how to scale climate tech from local to global. The Honolulu-based, majority female-led organization welcomes 15 to 20 companies into its program each year, supporting place-based pilot projects and funding companies with up to $1M each. Elemental Excelerator (EEx) is widely recognized as both a hyper-effective and purpose-driven organization that leads by example. As EEx prepares to welcome its ninth cohort of startups, we asked CEO, Dawn Lippert, and Director of Innovation, Equity & Access, Sara Chandler, how the organization has evolved since its inception and how they practice an “Equity In, Equity Out” framework.
Elemental Excelerator funds “Earthshot ideas.” What standards do you use to determine whether a technology is an “Earthshot”?
Sara: We’re interested in companies solving urgent environmental challenges – decarbonizing the grid, integrating a circular economy into production, building a sustainable agriculture and food system, enhancing mobility, limiting waste, and using renewable materials broadly. The ideas that really excite us meet a specific community need, attract positive local attention, and can scale globally. Next, we look at the team (their experience, background, and diversity), the tech, the potential to scale, and the traction.
The environmental movement’s founders have been criticized for excluding or silencing the voices of certain communities in discussions on how to create a more sustainable planet. Elemental Excelerator seeks to reimagine who the stakeholders are in climate change solutions. Our approach is to be more inclusive and reach people on the front lines – directly impacted by a problem and its solution (i.e., the ideas/companies we nourish). We take an Equity and Access approach – that’s how we think about environmentalism. We aim to empower those who have been marginalized and unheard.
How is Elemental Excelerator differentiated from climate accelerators or investors?
Dawn: Our place-based focus distinguishes us. The systems necessary to decarbonize and create a more equitable world operate in places (i.e., collective, global impact requires local action). Our initial proving ground was Hawaii, before expanding to Asia Pacific and California. We like to understand the dynamics of each market and use that knowledge to help startups scale globally.
Part of what we do is demystify community. Tech entrepreneurs need to understand their customers and the places that they want to scale. Implementing our cohorts’ technologies in places that they impact creates a direct, less abstract connection relative to the idea of funding companies somewhere with their solutions deployed elsewhere.
Unlike most accelerators, we also look at later-stage companies. They often still have growing pains because it takes a long time – and multiple brushes with failure – to scale important technologies. The problems these companies are solving often require a more complex set of real-world inputs and stakeholders compared to many social media and enterprise software companies.
We have experts in our sectors known as “Directors of Innovation” – one each for mobility, energy, water, agriculture and circular economy. They have deep sectoral expertise that enables them to take a portfolio-level strategic view – as well as an implementation role for the projects we fund. We work with companies to identify community-based projects that will help them cross the commercial ‘valley of death’ and simultaneously help constituents. We connect companies with local partners to change the dynamic of their projects. Our projects last, on average, a year to 18 months, providing time to get into the weeds of project development and overcome other barriers.
Our portfolio is also global. Our companies can swap stories about their scaling efforts. There’s a lot of power in having 99 companies that all know and reach out to each other. We are seeing this more than ever with COVID-19, as companies navigate uncharted waters.
Can you share examples of how the place-based component of your strategy has impacted the success of your startups?
Dawn: An example is Zero Mass Water in Australia. Zero Mass Water develops hydropanels, which, instead of energy, create water. It facilitates ‘water independence’ (i.e., off-grid water creation) by eliminating the need for piped or electrical inputs. This is a huge deal for communities without access to reliable or clean water. We co-funded them to support their Australia project and helped them test one of their largest deployments. Together, we installed 600 hydropanels, produced 120,000 gallons of water, and save 750,000 plastic bottles every year. The project was – and still is – significant to the community, providing reliable water to drought-stressed areas of remote Indigenous Australia and to places like schools. Now, we’re helping the Zero Mass Water team to scale to other parts of the world.
You openly talk about Equity and Access. What do those terms mean day-to-day at Elemental?
Sara: We work with startups on Equity and Access with an ‘Equity In, Equity Out’ framework. ‘Equity In’ includes awareness of hiring, inclusion, retention, supplier, and board diversity. ‘Equity Out’ includes awareness of access to innovation, economic benefits, and community partnerships.
A great example of putting ‘Equity In’ into practice comes from one of our Bay Area companies, called Trove. They provide a front-end and back-end solution for big retailers (like Patagonia and REI) to resell their brands’ clothing. Trove has an incentive to hire locally, as a circular economy resale marketplace. Seizing the opportunity to make their supply chain more equitable, Trove partnered with workforce development organizations to hire local workers. Their focus on hiring from the community in which they operate supported Trove’s expansion from 2 customers to 8-10 customers over the course of the Elemental pilot.
The pandemic prompted us to reconsider how our portfolio companies support frontline communities. Throughout COVID-19 and the social unrest this spring, we’re been in deep discussion about anti-racist work. Our companies are highly responsive and Trove is a great example of how our portfolio actively seeks opportunities to better support their communities. The companies that we work with will be some of the world’s largest problem-solvers, and we want to be hardwiring this equity mindset (and action) early in their development.
You’re about to welcome your ninth cohort. What technologies, problems, and teams are you seeing now that were not around in the first few cohorts in 2013?
Dawn: There is growing interest in the circular economy. Apparel and textile production account for 10% of global emissions. Over the past seven years, innovations to reuse materials have emerged. In energy, there are startups working on storage and renewable grid integration – software and hardware combinations that are possible now that would have not been possible even five or six years ago. COVID-19 is disrupting the food and agriculture sector, placing a magnifying glass on our supply chain. The pandemic has also massively changed mobility and how people move around. Fewer people take public transportation, and many have adopted biking as a primary method of transport. We’re also seeing a bump in interest in the water sector. Climate change is water change – whether it is too much or too little water at a given place and time (e.g., drought or flooding). These sectors offer very compelling investment opportunities.
How can Elemental Excelerator promote diversity through its climate change innovations?
Sara: Part of our job is linking climate change solutions with the people working on equity issues. We value diversity. Our team is led by many women, especially women of color. It’s important to find startup founders who solve issues for people who look like them and are not traditionally prioritized by VC funding. Since we solve problems that significantly impact low-income communities, including diverse perspectives is critical. We’re constantly trying to bring in and support more people in our ecosystem. Our next cohort will actually be one of our most diverse to date.
To learn more about Elemental Excelerator, check out their website. Applications for their tenth cohort will open up in Q1 2021. They are actively hiring for core team roles at the Excelerator as well as 144 portfolio company roles.
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