q&a

How Greentown Houston accelerated the local energy transition in its inaugural year

Greentown Houston's Juliana Garaizar and Emily Reichert look back on the climatetech incubator's first year. Photos via greentownlabs.com

This Thursday, Greentown Houston officially celebrates the completion of its first year in town, as well as the impact its made in just the 365 days since its grand opening.

Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, officially cut the ribbon on the organization's first location outside of the Boston area last Earth Day. Reichert, along with Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A looking back on this past year — including what surprised them most and where members are moving in from.

Greentown Houston's anniversary event is Thursday, April 21, from 1 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston (4200 San Jacinto St.) or livestreaming online. Click here to learn more.

InnovationMap: Looking back on the first year of Greentown Houston, what was the thing that most surprised you about the process and the community you created here?

Juliana Garaizar: What really surprised me the most was the eagerness to be a part of Greentown. We were very surprised by the pandemic — it caught us in, in the middle of fundraising and we thought things were gonna slow down and actually it became sort of a of a blessing in disguise for the community here in Houston. The Boston community had to go virtual, and then when they did, we realized that we were much more connected to the Boston team, but also why can't we offer the same services to the Houston community since we didn't have a building yet anyway. That created a huge opportunity to convene a community even before our building. We had these early access members and when we finally opened our building, they all converted to in-person members because they had already felt what the community could bring. In Boston, they took a little longer to fill in the space at opening, but we came in at grand opening with our inaugural member list in Houston — all of them super eager to join us. That conversion happened so fast happened because of the virtual aspect of COVID.

Emily Reichert: For me, there were really three things that were surprising. Throughout the whole process of building the momentum towards Greentown Houston and from the very first meetings I had with the GHP and potential supporters of a future Greentown Labs, there was this warmth of welcome. I can't compare it to anything else. Houston just really embraced this opportunity, embraced Greentown labs, and embraced our team — as well as really embracing having a climate tech incubator located in what has traditionally been called the oil and gas capital of the world. I just wanna note that that is very meaningful and it just shows that when Houston gets behind something, Houstonians go all the way they are committed and they take action. And we just felt that from the very beginning,

Second, I think that the momentum of the energy transition itself surprised us, but also felt it felt to us like we were riding a wave that wasn't just about Greentown Houston. It was about all of these different businesses, business leaders civic leaders, and just general citizenry in Houston understanding that the future of energy is different than the past of energy. And that, that was something that was going to need to happen more quickly than folks had anticipated. And again, I feel like Houstonians are leaning into it and thinking about, "well, if we've been the energy capital of the world, can we now be the energy transition capital of the world and how do we do that?" The speed with which this transition is happening is just incredible. And, increasingly in the circles that I move in outside of Houston, people know about it. It's changing the outside perspective as well. That's been really exciting to see.

Finally, the amount of talent that exists in the energy industry and in general in Houston and in the local universities that can be deployed and is interested in being deployed in climate tech and addressing climate change and the energy transition — it's really remarkable. Whenever we have a job posting out there for Greentown Houston, we are getting a lot of applicants. And now when we're going to universities to engage with students around — whether they're interested in building a startup that could address a challenge in the energy transition — it's just overwhelming the interest, the excitement, and the level of talent that I think is going to be available to apply to this energy transition that Houston can absolutely lead.

IM: Greentown Houston has not only attracted Houston-based companies, but also companies outside of Houston that want to be able to take advantage of Greentown Labs and the support there. You have both virtual and in-person membership options. Tell me a little bit about how that came to be.

JG: This was something also that the pandemic exacerbatedAgain, if you compare Boston to Houston — Boston is much more difficult to find prototyping lab space and wet labs. I would say that the cost of space is much higher there than in Houston. You there's plenty of space available for coworking, for prototyping, but the connection services to the whole ecosystem, to investors, to corporate partners, to universities to mentors — all that is key for our startups. And that means that space takes a second place. That's what we've seen. Member companies from Austin join Greentown Houston because they are connecting to a community that is more like hard tech driven and less software driven than in Austin. They wanna connect to the customers and the pilots, right? Even some of our Boston companies have moved or at least established a presence in Houston. There's also the diversity aspect that Houston is the most diverse city in the U,S. There are plenty of companies from Latin America coming over and choosing Houston as a landing pad and choosing Greentown as the place to start settling. We help them with funding. We help them with hiring local people.

IM: As you mentioned, Greentown Houston's membership grew really fast — how did you grow your team to support that?

JG: Our Houston team has quadrupled since last year and, and that's a lot — we were three and now we are 12, but we also had the whole Boston team behind us. The way we did it was through this matrix model where our team members report to someone in Boston. And although it creates an extra layer of complexity I think it was perfect for such a rapid growth because we were able to download the DNA of Greentown Boston to Houston at a much faster pace. We thought it was very important for us to distill that DNA but without forgetting about also having local people in Houston. It was the best of both worlds.

ER: We really needed to have the Houston local knowledge embedded, just like we needed to have the way that things have been done in Boston embedded. But I think as we look forward from now, you're going to increasingly see that we have embedded a lot of the practices and ways of doing things that we've done in Boston, but we're doing them with a Houston flavor, and we are doing them in a way that meets the local needs. And I think that you will see as we grow and continue to evolve, that we're gonna take our learnings from being in Houston and continue to evolve what we doin Houston. Our mission is to create an inclusive community and to convene connect, and inspire entrepreneurs and ecosystems to address climate solutions — and that's going to be the same in both locations. But how we do those specific pieces, I think will be a bit different. Now, Houston is a young ecosystem in terms of climate tech, so that convening piece is a little bit different from how we have done it in Boston.

IM: What's next for Greentown Houston — and what's next for the energy transition in Houston?

JG: For Greentown Houston we've figured out that our members need different things, and we wanna make sure that we listen and we adapt to them. It seems that a wet lab might be a need that we need to incorporate. So we're trying to figure out how, how to do that. We're growing at a much faster pace than Greentown Boston did, of course, because of the timing of the energy transition. That means that we need to think about, about expansion. We've become the convener place for climate tech.

In general in Houston for the energy transition, there's gonna be three pillars that I think are very important and that Greentown has to be apart of. One of them is the workforce development and the transition of the workforce. We're working with key partners like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, and we're putting together a program with universities to make sure that we also extract the, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow to Greentown and to the energy transition capital.

The second aspect os access to capital there's a lot of capital of available in Houston and a lot of capital in general being poured into climate tech, but we need to make sure it comes earlier. We are very early on, and there's still a gap there for early stage investing. I think one of the key elements to be able to unlock that capital early is to make sure that our companies have pilots and demonstration at corporations.

I think the third part for the energy transition in Houston is unlocking the potential capabilities we already have, like in hydrogen by trying to become a hydrogen hub. And that will only happen if we all work together. So I think Greentown also has to play a role there of convening.

ER: Continuing to support entrepreneurs in Houston to really bring talent in, to not only help our entrepreneurs build their companies, but in general into the energy transition and climate that's something that will be leaning into the deployments of the technology at scale. That's something that Houston can uniquely do.

IM: What can people expect from both the livestream and the in-person event on Thursday?

ER: We're gonna have some great voices on that from across industry, and we are going to be showcasing our startups, both through pitches and then through a startup showcase where folks will be able to see and touch or at least talk to our entrepreneurs and learn about their companies and the opportunities to support them. I believe there will be a few other surprises, which I won't reveal.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cemvita reported a successful pilot program on its gold hydrogen project in the Permian Basin. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is kicking things into high gear with its Gold Hydrogen product.

After successfully completing a pilot test of Gold Hydrogen in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas, Cemvita has raised an undisclosed amount of funding through its new Gold H2 LLC spin-out. The lead investors are Georgia-based equipment manufacturer Chart Industries and 8090 Industries, an investment consortium with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

Gold Hydrogen provides carbon-neutral hydrogen obtained from depleted oil and gas wells. This is achieved through bioengineering subsurface microbes in the wells to consume carbon and generate clean hydrogen.

Cemvita says it set up Gold H2 to commercialize the business via licensing, joint ventures, and outright ownership of hydrogen assets.

“We have incredible conviction in next-generation clean hydrogen production methods that leverage the vast and sprawling existing infrastructure and know-how of the oil and gas industry,” Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner of 8090 Industries, says in a news release.

Traditional methods of producing hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions include electrolysis powered by renewable sources like wind, solar or water, according to Cemvita. However, production of green hydrogen through normal avenues eats up a lot of energy and money, the startup says.

By contrast, Cemvita relies on depleted oil and gas wells to cheaply produce carbon-free hydrogen.

“The commercialization and economics of the hydrogen economy will require technologies that produce the hydrogen molecule at a meaningful scale with no carbon emissions. Gold H2 is leading the charge … ,” says Jill Evanko, president and CEO of Chart Industries.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

Founded by brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita uses synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels.

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