What if trash could be turned into ash and energy? What if it were easier to capture carbon in big cities? What if AI could assess biodiversity in both rural and urban habitats?
The startups in Chicago-based accelerator program gener8tor’s latest Sustainability Accelerator aim to tackle these questions and more.
Since its founding in 2012, the incubator has worked with hundreds of startups, but this is the accelerator’s second cohort dedicated solely to cleaning up the planet. The first climate cohort launched in February.
The startups selected exist across regions, from the Big Apple, Philly, and the Bay to London, Brooklyn, and the Bayou State. According to Ryan Jeffery, the Senior Managing Director of Sustainability at gener8tor, the accelerator looks to make investments “across race, place, and gender.”
“We believe that oftentimes, overlooked founders and teams from diverse backgrounds from the perspective of race, place, and gender, have the biggest opportunity to create companies that can make a big difference. In climate, that’s even more true. As climate change disproportionately affects people of color, we look to make investments across different regions, areas, geographic locations, and more diverse founders and teams,” Jeffery said.
The six startups were whittled down from 400 applications around the world, representing two hundred different cities, sixty countries, and six continents. But what made the six selected stand out was the divergent ways they tackled our biggest challenge: climate change.
When selecting startups, the team at gener8tor undergoes several rounds of interviews, peeling the 400 pool of applicants down to the top 50 and later the top 20, and finally the top six. They look for climate impact and climate-positivity, how these companies are helping solve, mitigate, or adapt to our current climate and environmental crisis, and the impact they can potentially have in this growing space.
The Sustainability Accelerator invests $100,000 into each of the six selected startups. They participate in a 12-week program that comes with intensive individualized coaching, which helps the companies establish necessities like relationships with investors, customer discovery and acquisition, and bolster fundraising efforts, commercialization, and business development.
The rigorous process of selecting startups is what Jeffery says is the hardest part of his job, but the reward lies in the hope it gives him.
“There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the climate space overall, and being able to see different types of innovation in new technologies that entrepreneurs are developing all over the world to help solve one of our biggest challenges is, quite frankly, inspiring,” he said. “These entrepreneurs are dedicating their lives to helping us build a better, more resilient planet. That's why I wake up every day: to help support these founders in these teams.” Despite the rigor of the selection, his work, he says, “is easy compared to the work these teams are doing.”
Since the inaugural cohort, the accelerator expanded from five to six companies. The startups transverse a wide range of industries – carbon capture and removal, biodiversity monitoring, energy management, circular economy, and waste management – all with the goal of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and helping us along the journey to net zero.
Introducing the fall 2022 cohort:
Candidus: Greenhouses require a certain amount of light for consistent crop production, but, when more than necessary is used, energy is wasted. On top of waste, ordinary light systems don’t automatically adjust to changes in the weather, which results in unpredictable crop development. That’s where Candidus steps in. Led by CEO Mikhail Hutton, and founder Erico Mattos, the company’s data-driven technology tailors itself to a greenhouse’s individual needs, measures sunlight, and deploys necessary electricity. It reduces electrical costs by 20%- 40% and light use by 30%, all while maintaining the same production level. Since 2022, Candidus has generated over $400,000 in revenue from 33 customers including Soli Organic, USDA Toledo, and Harborside Farms, with plans to expand their offering to energy management and demand response solutions.
Cedar Carbon: When over half of the world’s population and the majority of those in the United States live in urban areas, urban emissions are a massive problem. But despite having a large hand in climate change, cities can also be part of the solution. Led by Ryan McIntosh*, Cedar uses a unique carbon capture system. Able to attach to existing urban infrastructure like road tunnel ventilation systems, the tech targets emissions from vehicles while decarbonizing underutilized infrastructure and building cleaner, more resilient communities. Since pre-selling its first ton of CO2, the startup is currently developing its prototype and recently graduated from the carbon capture accelerator, Airminers Launchpad.
Gentian: With our current biodiversity crisis, species are on the decline, and in many cases, we don’t know what we’re losing. By combining AI, remote sensing data like high-res satellite imagery, and ecological expertise, Gentian is able to evaluate biodiversity across urban and rural areas. Co-founded by Dan White, Thomas Fenal, and Karen Day, the software is able to cost-effectively identify, monitor, and assess habitats, suitable for landowners, developers, policymakers, and building owners. According to the company, putting this knowledge in the hands of decision-makers allows them to realize the value of ecosystem services to make homes more resilient, cool cities, reduce flood risk, and more. This year. Gentian has executed 10 live projects worth $85,000 in revenue.
Phoenix Waste Solutions: When our trash ends up in landfills, in many cases, it's stored forever. Releasing so much methane, landfills are the third largest source of human-related methane emissions and disproportionately cause pollution in lower-income communities. But, co-founders Tammy Webb and Yuen-Li Chan want to change the way we do trash, by turning it into ash and energy with their waste disposal machine: The Phoenix. The machine can thermally reduce 4-8 tons of unsorted municipal solid waste into 3% waste every 24 hours. Operating without using fuel or producing toxic emissions, heat generated from the machine can also be used to generate electricity. The process is cheaper than landfilling and since completing a project with Shell Oil in 2021, they are working on a pilot project tackling food waste. In 2021, the company received an NSF SBIR Phase 1 grant for $256,000.
Rego: It’s not easy to recycle furniture and other physical goods, but Rego, co-founded by Joshua Mastromatto and Brandon Castagna, offers a reuse and recycling solution. In the US alone, over 12 million tons of furniture end up in landfills each year and less than 1% of household furniture is recyclable. On top of that, according to the company, $11 billion in second-hand furniture resale value is lost every year. By providing a digital marketplace for tenants to sell, donate, and shop for excess furniture and other goods, the startup is able to promote the circular economy to build more sustainable communities. According to genr8tor, the company has diverted over 26,000 pounds of usable furniture away from landfills, reducing the carbon footprint of furniture by an average of 82% per unit.
Rushnu: Industrial and electrical plants in the U.S. release more than 5 trillion pounds of carbon into the atmosphere each year. Carbon capture, storage, and utilization exist to decarbonize these heavy industries, but with a problem so colossal, more is needed to propel us to a carbon-free planet. Co-founded by Matin Hanifzadeh and Hamid Feyzizarnagh, Rushnu requires 75% less energy consumption than alternatives. By turning CO2 into a harmless chemical, the startup produces reusable feedstock used in commodities like manufacturing, water treatment, agriculture, and construction. Recently Rushnu signed its first letter of intent to deploy a pilot of its provisionally patented technology.
The Sustainability program partners with industry-leading organizations that align with the accelerator’s mission such as TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good, one of the world’s largest corporate social impact funds, Bolster, Michael Best, and Brex.
Due to the success of the first climate program, gener8tor has tripled the number of sustainability cohorts to two programs a year and a sustainability and mobility program in Appleton, Wisconsin recently launched in partnership with U.S. Venture. (Similarly, the program invests $100,000 into 5 startups and will accept applications through January 9, 2023.)
Moreover, Jeffery says a number of programs will be launched next year focused on climate and sustainability to expand the number of investments into the environment annually. For those hoping to apply in the next round, Jeffery has a word of advice: What made these six companies stand out is their resiliency, their grittiness, and how coachable, responsive, and organized they are.
“At a very early stage in the climate space, it’s easy to get distracted or discouraged because the problem is so big,” he said. There’s a humbleness that goes toward being able to admit when you’re wrong or don’t know everything, which is especially true in the climate space, as the solution may need to evolve and change, said Jeffery. Nevertheless, “in the end, it’s a matter of being genuine to who you are, what you’re working on, and knowing that you don’t have all the answers, and that’s where we can come in to support.”
*An earlier version of this article referred to Ryan Ciufo as a co-founder of Cedar Carbon. Mr. Ciufo has stepped away from the company to focus on other research.