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Startups at Evergreen Climate Innovations are reinvigorating climate tech in the Midwest

Wind farm in the U.S. Midwest. Image Credit: US Department of Agriculture
Wind farm in the U.S. Midwest. Image Credit: US Department of Agriculture

In the U.S., technology startups typically proliferate on the coasts from the San Francisco Bay and Silicon Valley to bustling Boston and New York City.

But, as the effects of climate change increase in the Midwest, so are emerging climate solutions.

According to the 2021 Cleantech Innovation Hubs Survey from Colorado-based venture capital and research firm Saoradh Enterprise Partners (SEP), in the U.S., 75% of cleantech venture capital is spent in the three states of California, New York, and Massachusetts alone. At the same time, 74% of cleantech innovation funding goes to the other 47.

These “innovation hubs” are defined by SEP as geographic ecosystems with functioning habitats like research funding, technology development, and venture formation.

As “unexpected” innovation hubs emerge across the nation, from Detroit to Phoenix to Salt Lake City, Chicagoland makes it on the survey’s top 10 list as the only midwest region.

As The Windy City joins a string of cities in a “developing extreme heat belt” climate tech innovation is needed more than ever.

More investment is being poured into the city’s climate research, mitigation efforts, and action plan. Companies in Evergreen Climate Innovation’s (formerly Clean Energy Trust) accelerator program represent the climate innovation hub the midwest is shaping out to be.

Held in downtown Chicago, at one of the city's central landmarks, Revel Motor Row, these startups were featured at Evergreen Climate Innovations’ annual CO_Invest Climate event.

SEP’s survey shows a resource gap. According to the surveyors, the gap puts climate tech in jeopardy. Potential solutions are overlooked and the split between innovation funding aimed at research and development and funding for actual implementation leaves emerging hubs without the investment that will bring their tech to market. Evergreen is working to change that.

Kadeya has made a circular water bottle dispenser and recovery device.
Kadeya has made a circular water bottle dispenser and recovery device. Image Credit: Kadeya

Kadeya, Chicago, IL

Founded by Manuela Zoninsein, a former journalist and serial startup entrepreneur in the agriculture space, Kadeya seeks to change the way we drink water.

In Chicago, residents and tourists can get around via e-bike and bike share networks like Divvy. Zoninsein wondered: can we do the same thing but for water bottles?

You’ve heard the stats before: Americans buy 29 billion water plastic bottles a year, 80% of which end up in landfills because for every 6 water bottles bought, only 1 is actually recycled. According to The Water Project, 2 million tons of water bottles overflow U.S. landfills. Kadeya aims to change that, Zoninsein says. How? With a 10-foot square box.

Each Kadeya box acts like a vending machine distributing water in glass bottles. But, the difference between Kadeya’s boxes and vending machines is that the water is sourced locally and filtered, and the machine cleans, sanitizes, and refills their “Forever Glass Bottle.”

Without instituting penalties, they found that 99% of their glass bottles, each labeled with a unique code, were returned. Currently, the startup partners with workplaces like construction companies to provide workers with clean water, Zoninsein said, but plans to expand to schools, hospitals, and sports arenas, and increase vending options from filtered water to include sparkling and flavored.

As many places in the U.S. currently face drought and water issues, FootPrint asked how the company would work with cities that have either ongoing water problems or are in crisis. In Chicago, 40,000 homes are connected to lead pipes, making nearly 70% of the water undrinkable. And in Jackson, Mississippi, a water crisis has eliminated the city’s safe drinking water after decades of environmental justice issues.

Zoninsein says that Kadeya would be amicable to partnering with cities like Chicago, pricing their water systems at a price the city can afford. If implemented, she said, the company would work to build trust with Chicago’s consumers and establish equitable networks across the city. Similarly, the company hopes to, one day, be able to set up emergency response stations for crises like Jackon’s.

The name Kadeya comes from Zoninsein’s native language: Portuguese. It is rendered from the word “cadeia,” meaning supply chain. This closed-loop chain, Zoninsein says, will digitize water consumption, reduce our collective carbon footprint, and make clean water more accessible.

A cA combine harvester in a field of grain. Image Credit: Wix
A combine harvester in a field of grain. Image Credit: Wix

Continuum Ag — Washington, IA

Bradley McDonald, the Chief Operational Officer of Continuum Ag, was a natural fit to pitch Continuum Ag's sustainable farming solutions.

Originally a farmer himself whose family has owned and farmed land in Iowa for generations, McDonald now helps farmers implement regenerative agriculture chiefly through its “RightWay” program.

According to the company, the program helps farmers reduce their carbon footprint and play a role in mitigating climate change.

The RightWay program shows farmers how to implement regenerative agriculture and profit at the same time. To many farmers, McDonald says, regenerative agriculture represents a huge risk. 96% of farmers don’t use the practice, and many who do and fail, will not try again.

Yet, there is a growing consensus among soil scientists that regenerative agriculture — agricultural practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back in the soil — could help mitigate climate change.

McDonald is a case study for Continuum’s program himself. Continuum uses soil health data to give expert agronomic advice to help tackle regenerative agriculture.

Because he is not an agronomist himself, the data helped him navigate implementing these environmentally-beneficial practices in his own operation, such as a cover crop plan.

“It’s not so much me analyzing the data,” he said. “But me relying on ContinummAg to tell me this is the data that needs to be collected for us to give you the best results,” he said in a case study video posted by the company. “When you have better data, you have better advice, and better profitability,” he said.

The company helps other farmers use data to implement the regenerative practice. According to ContinuumAg, with the company’s soil sampling, these farmers can avoid overapplying and wasting environmentally unfriendly fertilizers, improve fertility methods, and adopt more sustainable practices like sequestering carbon and improving water efficiency while maintaining their economic health.

Image of a modern kitchen with refrigerator: Image Credit: Wix
Image of a modern kitchen with refrigerator: Image Credit: Wix

Kazadi Enterprises — Batavia, IL

Companies presented at Evergreen underscored how all human activities can impact the environment; from the way we get our water and farm our food, to the way we refrigerate both.

That’s where Kazadi Enterprises comes in.

A fridge in the U.S. consumes more energy in a year than a single individual in many countries. This graph by Vox shows that American refrigerators and AC systems’ energy consumption is on par with individuals in countries like Pakistan and besting many individuals in countries across the global south such as Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Vox’s coverage points to the solution that the world needs to prioritize how to get much higher levels of energy to the poorest countries in the world. In addition to promoting energy access, the founding CEO of Kazadi Enterprises, Sanza Kazadi, wants to change the way we refrigerate.

In much of the world, poverty and lack of reliable electricity make cooling an unaffordable luxury. In places where most do have the luxury, like the U.S., leakage of refrigerant gases have caused ozone depletion, while raising carbon emissions, contributing vastly to global warming.

The goal of the Illinois startup is to make refrigeration more energy efficient by targeting some of the largest hubs of refrigeration in the world: grocery stores.

We depend on cooling systems, which according to Kazadi create three times the amount of carbon emissions of aviation and shipping combined. Using the free and nearly universal source of environmental thermal energy, Kazadi aims to create a grid-independent renewable energy system. The technology, he said, has applications beyond grocery store refrigeration, and can apply in areas such as heating and cooling, desalination, electrical power generation, and low-energy water acquisition.

Currently, the company has three issued patents with two pending, on technology that, according to Kazadi, uses 90% less electricity than conventional refrigeration, and allows retail grocers to save money on energy bills and increase their margins. In expanding its applications, the enterprise currently has a prototype for a cooling system using the environmental thermal technology.

Kazadi was inspired by his mother, who while living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, did not have air conditioning. With the Enterprises’ technology, Kazadi hopes that cooling can be available anytime, anywhere, without the need for electricity, powered by what he calls, “the cleanest, most ubiquitous energy on the planet.”

Natural gas plant towers and equipment: Image credit: Wix
Natural gas plant: Image credit: Wix

Celadyne Technologies — Lemont, IL

To Celadyne Technologies’ Founding CEO, Gary Ong, the challenge of decarbonizing energy can sometimes be difficult to conceptualize. When 27,238 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity is used in the U.S. annually, most people can’t fathom a number that large, nevertheless, the amount of energy it would take to decarbonize every last hour.

According to Celadyne, that number is 3,478 (TWh). Hydropower has the potential to account for a large portion of the energy needed for the U.S. to meet net zero but is largely underutilized. The team at Celdyne wants to unlock the potential of hydrogen.

To understand the scale of the problem, let’s say we dammed the Great Lakes. The five Great Lakes, including Chicago’s own Lake Michigan, hold about 5400 cubic miles of water. In order to meet hydroenergy’s potential, Celadyne says we would need to store 2240 cubic miles of water. If we were to drain about half of the water in the Great Lakes we could completely decarbonize energy usage in the U.S. That sounds impossible.

And truth be told, at present, it is. “That is why we need to commercialize other energy storage solutions, be it flow batteries, thermal batteries, or hydrogen,” Celadyne says.

The company wants to accelerate the transition to a hydrogen economy. How? Celadyne uses “novel membrane technology to enable hydrogen production, storage, and usage” that’s “more efficient and less capital intensive.”

Industries such as heavy-duty transportation for shipping and delivery are typically difficult to decarbonize. Celadyne envisions a world where hydrogen is the new fuel for the industry by making small fuel cells that can access the market. Hydrogen for long-haul trucking, for example, is an economic use backed up by research from Morgan Stanley. This not only could create a stable market for hydrogen as a logistical fuel but could also allow it to scale, getting the high cost of hydrogen down.

The process of ordering products and getting them delivered to our door is carbon intensive. But according to Celadyne, enabling their fuel cell integration of hydrogen into product delivery (as well as manufacturing and grid storage) could allow hydrogen to decarbonize this top-emitting sector.

A magnet attracting screws and washers: Image Credit: Unsplash
A large magnet attracting screws and washers: Image Credit: Unsplash

CorePower Magnetics — Pittsburgh, PA

CEO Sam Kernion of CorePower Magnetics has already won over a clutch of investors to back his company's new magnet technologies for electric vehicles. This week, the Pittsburgh-based magnetics company raised $2.5 million in pre-seed money to hire and further its energy tech.

The funding was led by battery-tech investors Volta Energy Technologies and Evergreen. Passionate about providing jobs in the Midwest, Kernion is excited about furthering roots in Pittsburgh and keeping local ties and manufacturing in the region, he told Pittsburgh Inno of Business Journals.

Electric vehicles are rising in popularity and thanks to initiatives like those in the Inflation Reduction Act, more people will be able to go electric and lower their carbon footprint. EV manufacturers are expecting a boom that’s been years in the making. Over the course of those years, batteries and semiconductors, vital for EV manufacturing have steadily improved.

As innovation in electrification steadily rises, CorePower wants to focus on the element that must improve in tandem: magnification. Magnetics are often the unsung hero of EVs, power management, and grid electrification.

Invented at Carnegie Melon University, CorePower’s magnetics are power dense, and according to the company, enable power electronics that are 90% smaller and 50% more efficient.

These magnets promise lighter-weight engines in electric cars, saving on fuel mileage, and allow automakers to cut back on the rare Earth minerals typically used in electric motors. According to Kernion, with CorePower’s soft-magnetics tech, these minerals may not be needed to get the same power and size.

The consumption of rare Earth minerals presents a huge problem in the EV world. According to the International Energy Agency, electric vehicles require six times the amount of minerals needed for conventional cars — and miners are struggling to keep up with the demand. These minerals include both those traditionally used in gas cars like copper and manganese, as well as those specific to lithium-ion battery production, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite.

Moreover, IEA’s report shows data supporting the use of child labor, forced labor, corruption, and human rights abuses, chiefly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the rest of Africa and parts of the Asian Pacific and Central and South America.

The IEA’s 2021 report shows a mismatch between the world’s ambitious climate goals, with respect to EV production, and the availability and ethical consumption of minerals. As reported by Axios as of 2022, child labor remains tied to the cobalt demand. As technology like CorePower Magnetics’ expands, maybe the EV industry can ween itself off of extractive rare Earth minerals.

A foldable office desk lamp stands on top of a filing cabinet next to a wheeled office chair.
Office furniture: Image credit: Wix

Calico Sol — Raleigh, NC

While serving in the military, Doug Williams became passionate about sustainability. After an 11-year military career, in 2020 Williams wondered what he would do now. Wanting to focus on something the world truly needed, he turned to sustainability, focusing on the furniture industry.

Whether it be office chairs thrown out from workplace remodels, or discarded sofas and couches furnishing alleyways and dumpsters from moving days, furniture waste is a huge problem in the U.S. This was heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

As more and more workers worked from home, furniture was thrown out with office downscaling. Born amidst the pandemic, Calico Sol aims to redefine the way we think about furniture. The start-up is the recipient of the U.S. Bank Foundation’s Cleantech Inclusion Award presented at CO_Invest Climate.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018, Americans alone threw out 12.1 million tons of furnishings and furniture. Year by year, this number has been increasing steadily with the population. Less than a fifth of furniture is recycled.

Most materials (glass, leather, fabric, and metal) that make up furniture aren’t recyclable. Thus, about 15% of furniture is combusted: an energy recovery process that converts non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel. Currently, no data is available by the agency on how much is composted. But one thing is clear: the vast majority ends up furnishing landfills. That’s where Calico Sol comes in.

For a price competitive with sellers like Pottery Barn, Calico Sol will sell a $2,300 couch that essentially, lasts a lifetime, the company says. Instead of having to buy new furniture, parts of the couch can be easily recycled and replaced. The also startup combats the inconvenient disposal and recycling that comes with furniture, by disposing of it for customers. According to Williams, 100% of materials used are renewable: made with a clean recycling and manufacturing process.

The end goal is to create a circular economy structure for furniture and expand past its prototype couch, where all furniture bought from Calico is either recycled or repaired, with none of it ending up in the landfill. According to Williams via GrepBeat, “It’s not enough just to know that there’s a lower carbon footprint comparable to what you find in a typical sofa,” thus the startup also plans to track how many units of its products have been sold and kept out of landfills because of their recyclability.

On top of that, Williams plans to work with veterans and formerly incarcerated people once he expands manufacturing capabilities in North Carolina. Recently, in April, the company received a $10,000 micro-grant from NC IDEA.

Four stylishly dressed Black women rest on rocks in a posed setting. Rebundle's slogan "braid better" appears in text next to them.
Image credit: Rebundle

Rebundle — St. Louis, MO

Rebundle is making the world’s first U.S.-made plant-based braiding hair. Presented by founding CEO Ciara Imani May, Rebundle aims to revolutionize braiding hair, a type of hair extension used for Black protective styles like box braids. Rebundle has been featured in a slew of beauty and fashion magazines from TeenVogue to Allure, Sheen, Popsugar, and Bustle.

While Black protective styles have been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1950s that plastic synthetic hair was mass-produced. In many cases, the hair is cheaply made. After all, May got the idea for the brand after continuously experiencing an itchy, uncomfortable scalp due to plastic synthetic hair, which according to the company, is experienced by 1 in 3 women who use synthetic hair.

According to a 2020 study published in Sage Journal: Environmental Health Insights, this type of hair is potentially carcinogenic and toxic, using chemicals that can cause scalp inflammation. In addition to the health hazards, 30 million pounds of synthetic hair go into U.S. landfills a year.

As May expressed at Co_Invest when products are made without the health of Black people and the environment in mind, it becomes both an environmental and justice issue. Rebundle seeks to change this, by not only offering a hair extension that’s sustainably made and prioritizes comfort but by establishing an in-company recycling program.

Made from banana fibers, the startup’s “Braid Better” hair mimics human hair, and is clean, PETA-approved vegan, non-toxic, and completely compostable. In addition, the recycling program accepts synthetic hair by mail to sustainably dispose of.

According to their site, the company will recycle both the hair and the box it came in. At Co_Invest, May said, nearly 30 million pounds of plastic synthetic hair goes into US landfills yearly. Thus, in an effort to fight single-use plastic waste, hair mailed to Rebundle gets recycled into furniture, lawn, and garden tools.

As of January of this year, the startup raised 6 figures worth of grants and other non-dilutive capital, allowing it to tap into the $10 billion extension industry,

An array of the tops of AA batteries. Image credit: Unsplash/Roberto Sorin
Image credit: Unsplash/Roberto Sorin

Cache Energy — Champaign, IL

Founder and Chief Energy Officer of Cache Energy, Arpit Dwivedi, had already raised money from Evergreen before he took the stage to pitch at the firm's event. Evergreen invested in Cache for its development of long-duration energy storage technology.

Storage systems will be needed to ease our transition away from fossil fuels to a renewable grid. Thus, in order to get there, as Dwivedi told us, we need “dirt cheap energy storage.”

The tech, as Dwivedi put it, is a heat battery. It uses a thermo-chemical energy storage process, making it suitable for a wide range of industrial applications, and it can store heat indefinitely and release it when needed, whether it be for heat or electricity. Traditional storage systems are location-dependent and lack scale. Fully decoupled, transportable, non-toxic, and low-cost, the technology has applications beyond long-duration energy storage.

One is heat recovery from biogas and natural gas flaring. Biogas is a mixture of gasses naturally produced from raw materials like food waste, manure, sewage, and other industrial processes. This byproduct is organic.

Despite being environmentally friendly and a renewable energy source, much of it is wasted. Cache energy hopes to allow wastewater treatment plants and landfills to store the energy biogas produce. According to their site, the technology also has applications for supplying process heat/steam to industries as well as commercial and residential heating.

Interestingly, Dwivedi and his team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were inspired by the thing we are trying to move away from: fossil fuels. With our transition away from fossil fuels, much of the public fears that immense job loss is bound to happen due to the changing skillset of renewable energy jobs. At Cache, they want to prevent that from happening by using a process very similar to thermal power plants, but safer, allowing them to utilize an existing workforce and leverage existing infrastructure.

According to an announcement by Evergreen, the Cache team’s inspiration was the fact that fossil fuels are just chemicals buried under the Earth which react with air to produce energy. They realized that they could do the same thing if they could find an alternative chemical to complete the same reaction without generating greenhouse gases. According to the company, it has the potential to compete with both hydrogen and coal.

Researcher checking crops in a field. Image credit: Wix
Researcher checking crops in a field. Image credit: Wix

AgriCycle — Milwaukee, WI

Agricyle, a for-profit public benefit corporation seeking to eradicate extreme rural poverty while democratizing access to agricultural markets, rounds out the Evergreen Climate Innovation cohort.

There’s a difference between food waste and food loss, Agricycle founder and CEO Joshua Shefner, told the audience at Evergreen's event. The difference is that food loss occurs at production, post-harvest, during the processing stages of the food chain.

Food waste, on the other hand, happens at the end of the food chain when the pack of raspberries in the corner of the fridge’s fruit bin gets a bit too moldy to eat. The majority of the issue is food loss, which accounts for 6% of global emissions.

This number is alarming because as the global demand for food continues to rise, 95% of discarded foods end up in landfills. Discarded food as a whole, is the largest component of municipal waste, weighing in at 21%.

The difference between food loss and food waste is further exemplified through the dichotomy of developing and industrialized nations, where 40% of food loss in developing countries occurs at the processing level and most in industrialized countries at the consumer or retail level, the World Food Programme reports. In Sub-Saharan Africa specifically, 95% of food waste is due to food loss. Why? Primarily lack of preservation technology and lack of market.

Agricycle aims to combat both, by connecting rural communities to solve a global problem.

The company itself is a global value chain network of over 35,000 smallholders from across the world in East Africa, West Africa, and Latin America. They work to empower members of their network with the appropriate technologies such as solar dehydrators that preserve fruits and vegetables without electricity and create a market for the food they grow.

According to the company, by upcycling food that would normally go to waste, they have diverted over 74,000 kilograms of the 2.8 trillion pounds of food that go to waste annually. When people eat an average of 2 kilograms of food per day, across continents, that feeds 37,000 individuals. Their partnerships with small farmers, mainly in East Africa, have created almost 7,000 livelihoods, generating $825,000 of global investment through Agricycle’s brand partnerships.

The company partners with big brands such as Sara Lee, Simple Mills, Clif, Dole, and The Food Guys. They also create ethically sourced, upcycled brands. One of which, Jali Fruit Co, sources its dried fruits from fruit farmers with excess that otherwise would not sell in local markets. By minimizing food loss, they also minimize carbon footprints.

Originally working with nonprofit organizations, Joshua Shefner was inspired to start Agricycle after seeing how slow the nonprofit process was and how in many cases, larger corporations either underpaid or didn’t pay East African farmers for their work.

When asked how Agricycle managed to build trust with farmers, Shefner responded that they pitched villages and paid them instantly and equitably. While that sounds simple, instant fair payment isn’t always the case in this space. To combat this, Agricyle’s brand Jali Fruit Co., for example, pays the women behind their fruit 7x the amount the average daily wage. Importantly, in order to build trust, Shefner came back. He wanted to avoid typical white savior routines where people come in, do their one “good deed” and then never return. Agricyle wants to do more than that.

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