A climate tech incubator and an environmental justice group in Massachusetts have joined forces for a new program to nurture startup companies helmed by people of color.
The Advancing Climatetech and Clean Energy Leaders Program, or ACCEL, will provide funding, mentorship, workspace, and other resources to early-stage companies developing technologies that show promise in mitigating the climate crisis.
The goal of the yearlong program is to increase diversity in the sector, helping people of color realize the benefits of the ongoing shift to clean technology and improving innovation by adding perspectives to the burgeoning industry.
“We can’t have Black and Brown folks and women sitting on the bench,” said Kerry Bowie, founder of Browning the Green Space, a Boston-based environmental justice nonprofit and one of the founding partners of ACCEL. “They’ve got to be engaged.”
Applications for the program are now open and will be accepted until Dec. 23. Participants will be selected by Feb. 3, 2023.
The program is a collaboration between Browning the Green Space and Greentown Labs, one of the country’s leading clean technology incubators, which has locations in greater Boston and Houston. The program receives funding from the Barr Foundation, which also provides support to the Energy News Network for New England reporting.
Greentown Labs decided to develop the program when leadership became concerned by the homogeneity in the incubator. Founded in 2011, Greentown provides members with desk space, a prototyping lab, machine shop, access to mentors and investors, and a collaborative environment where aspiring entrepreneurs can meet and trade ideas and advice. A few years ago, the incubator began offering more programming aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion — running events for people of color, hosting school visits — but it soon became clear that more action was needed, said Maya Nitzberg, Greentown’s vice president of community.
“We realized we needed to make a more intentional and deliberate effort to put people from these underrepresented groups in a position to lead,” she said.
Leaders from Greentown and Browning the Green Space began talking, and realized their strengths complement each other: Greentown has expertise in building young companies and Browning the Green Space has a deep understanding of the way existing systems put up barriers for communities of color. Together, they hope, they can help grow new businesses that will overcome some of those obstacles.
Bowie said now is a particularly promising moment for an initiative like this, as the federal Inflation Reduction Act is poised to pour billions of dollars into the clean technology markets.
“There’s just so much money coming, and my big concern is: Who reaps the benefits?” he said. “I know that White guys are going to take advantage and people are going to get rich because of this, so why can’t a handful of Black and Brown folk get wealthy too?”
The organizations banded together to analyze existing accelerator programs and determine what holes they could fill with a new offering. The program they ultimately designed will accept enterprises at earlier stages of development than many other accelerator programs typically do. ACCEL will then provide support and assistance that could help these businesses prepare to participate in other existing accelerator or incubator programs.
“We want to be a little bit of a pipeline,” Bowie said. “We’re giving them a bridge to some of those other opportunities.”
The first week of the program will be spent doing an intensive introduction at the Greentown Labs headquarters in Somerville, just outside of Boston. That time will be spent getting to know the participating companies and developing individualized milestones for each business to aim for during the year.
Throughout the rest of the accelerator, companies will check in biweekly with their mentors and report regularly to their project managers at both Greentown and Browning the Green Space. Mentors have been carefully chosen to reflect the mission of the program. Sheri Palazzo, senior advisor for cellular communications company Altaeros, agreed to be an ACCEL mentor because throughout her career as a female Asian engineer she often found herself without other people like herself to turn to.
“We have so much to offer,” Palazzo said. “I hope to be providing the advice I wish I had had.”
Monthly onsite meetings will give companies the chance to hear from successful CEOs and learn more about working with investors and other best practices. ACCEL has partnered with VentureWell, an entrepreneurship education nonprofit, to provide a curriculum that will be tailored to the unique needs of the cohort.
Founders from underrepresented groups may have different needs than their White counterparts, program planners said.
“What we’ve seen is founders who are White, who are male, get access to that social, inspirational, and financial capital,” Nitzberg said. “We’re really looking at … things we’re going to need to do intentionally for people who don’t have that access.”
Each accelerator participant will receive $25,000 in non-dilutive funding — that is, participants will not be asked to grant any equity in their company in exchange for the money. Participants will also have space available in either the Somerville or Houston Greentown location, where they will have access to all of the associated facilities, as well as the less tangible benefits of being able to connect and share ideas with other Greentown members.
“The expectation is that these startups are going to really leverage the space and leverage the resources at Greentown,” Nitzberg said.
Novice entrepreneurs won’t be the only ones receiving an education. Accelerator leaders will be working closely with investors to help them learn more about the benefits of supporting more diverse teams, Nitzberg said.
And, if all goes according to plan, the program will have an impact beyond those working in the clean technology space. Having more Black and Brown innovators work in the industry makes it more likely that new technology will be developed for and deployed in communities of color, helping improve public health and save money, Bowie said.
“We’re at the intersection of the racial wealth gap and climate change,” he said.