Feeling the clean energy in Western New York

Over a hundred years ago, Western New York was at the forefront of clean energy production: the Schoelkopf Power Station No. 1, harnessing the power of Niagara Falls, began supplying some of the earliest hydroelectric electricity generation in the world in 1881. In keeping with New York state’s history of energy innovation, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority oversees business incubators dedicated to supporting startup companies that promise innovations in clean energy. This past summer, NYSERDA awarded­ local venture development organization Launch NY the opportunity to administer its seventh incubator, which Launch NY named the Emerging Cleantech Opportunity Incubator. According to program coordinator Danielle Blount, ECO aims to grow the clean energy cluster in Western New York by supporting qualified local startups through dedicated support, funding, and programming.

NYSERDA wanted a local organization to run the regional incubator, and Launch NY fit the bill: It covers the 27 westernmost counties in upstate New York and serves all high-growth sectors, said Blount, who noted that Launch NY has served more than 800 startups since it began operating in 2012. In 2016, it introduced a seed fund that has invested over a million dollars in 29 startup companies. Its method of pairing one-on-one mentoring with access to early-stage seed funding has been critical to its success, and its seed funding has a history of good returns: “…for every dollar that Launch NY has invested, the companies have been able to raise an additional four dollars on their end,” Blount said, adding that their portfolio companies employ about 100 people—a number that jumps to 2,400 if the entire Launch NY client portfolio for mentoring services is included.

Functionally, ECO is a subset to the normal mentoring and funding program. Companies get access to all the usual Launch NY mentoring and seed funding, but also targeted outreach and exclusive opportunities.

“The ECO clients will have access to our EIR program so they are assigned a one-on-one mentor; they do have access to our seed fund. What is different is that we will be doing new programming for them,” Blount said. That programming includes events like Startup Grind, a community event that included a fireside chat with program director Paul Tyno, which took place on September 26. Being part of ECO also gives startups access to NYSERDA resources, such as exclusive grants, or the NYSERDA Entrepreneur-in-Residence program, which Blount said is more hands-on than the Launch NY EIR program.

“Cleantech” covers a diverse range of businesses, from IT to biomedical startups, Blount said, that will help achieve the goals laid out in Reforming the Energy Vision, the state’s initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990s levels, draw 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and increase energy efficiency by 2030. The local focus of the incubator means that Launch NY can align the state’s energy goals with its own mission of boosting economic development in Western New York. Blount envisions creating a cleantech industry cluster similar to the biosciences cluster growing around the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The incubator began operating this past summer and has enrolled more than 10 companies. Sunny Clean Water, founded out of SUNY Buffalo, uses an innovative design to manufacture solar stills that are cheaper and much more efficient than those previously available. The implications for improving clean water access to impoverished or remote areas are potentially significant. The company still operates out of the SUNY campus, and one of its founders, Qiaoqiang Gan, responded over email to questions seeking comment on its participation in ECO. “My first impression is that this is what we need at this moment since we were struggling on the fundraising and employee securing. As a startup company, we are extremely short of employees,” he wrote. The ability to apply for Launch NY’s seed funding will potentially help the company to contend with manufacturing costs, and its extensive networks will be useful for headhunting, he believes.

Wheatfield Gardens LLC, an ECO company based in North Tonawanda, has a multifaced cleantech strategy: It aims to reduce the carbon footprint of food by decreasing supply chain distance, while making farming more efficient and reducing CO2 production. It does this by operating greenhouses that, among other innovations, harvest waste water and CO2 from generators to feed crops; the greenhouses can be placed near markets and operate continuously throughout the year.

“We're really excited to work with the ECO program because it fits right in their wheelhouse of trying to do the right thing in terms of clean energy and sustainable practices,” said founder Paal Elfstrum, who noted that his own background is in research and development, not business. He says he’s leaned on his resources with Launch NY, where he works with EIR Steve Leous, and now with his ECO EIR. “We have a gentleman named Jason Salfi down in Ithaca that really…understands that technical side of it, but he's also been helpful in guiding the process on the financial side and saying, ‘This is going to be profitable and how could it be more profitable, and how can it be scalable’ to not just our facility and Wheatfield Gardens, but also at other greenhouses or vertical farms in the state of New York or elsewhere. It's been that kind of approach that I've really appreciated,” Elfstrum said. He believes ECO will jumpstart clean energy startups in the region. “All the future energy economy is in renewables…wind and solar and battery storage.”

In fact, another ECO company, Dimien, is already working on battery storage, having partnered with Texas A&M to develop a high-energy-density magnesium-ion battery, among other ventures. Dimien uses environmentally friendly processes to manufacture chemicals that can be used in a wide variety of products. For example, it produces an additive to window glass that responds to changing temperature conditions: On hot days it will deflect a greater percentage of the sun’s heat, reducing the need for air conditioning; on cold days, it allows the sun to heat buildings. Rachael Killion, Dimien’s business administrator and treasurer, said that Dimien talks with its ECO EIR once a week, and he helps them track and meet company milestones. Because of ECO, she said, “We have funding opportunities available to us, and we have been exposed to cleantech-specific events that we're expecting investors and potential customers to be attending later this year.” Recently, through the incubator, Dimien gained access to apply to an invitation-only green innovation showcase.

Dimien hopes ECO will provide guidance as the company looks to acquire strategic partnerships over the coming months. “Cleantech has a rich history in our region,” Killion said, pointing out that Nicola Tesla discovered alternating current in Western New York, “…and we are continuing that tradition by helping everyone use less electricity. We get to be a part of that growing Buffalo cleantech sector, and with programs like the ECO Incubator, companies have more opportunities presented to them in cleantech.”


Read more articles by Jen Wellington.

Jen Wellington is a native of New Orleans and a recent transplant to Buffalo. She holds a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University. In her free time, she enjoys foraging wild mushrooms, picking banjo, and playing with her dog, Gumbo.
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