New-to-Houston startup incubator CEO on why there's 'no better place' to expand
Greentown Labs announced its intent on expanding to Houston last week with 11 corporate partners signed on already, and is currently scouting out its physical location in town
Already, says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, the Bayou City has left a positive impression on her and her team.
"It's exciting to see how many people we can engage in being part of the future of energy," Reicher shares in an interview with InnovationMap. "I think there's really no better place for that to be led out of Houston."
Two Houstonians have been identified to lead local efforts. Jason Ethier, a Houston-based energy tech founder, is the operations lead for Greentown Houston, and Juliana Garaizar, local investor and former director of the TMC Venture Fund, is the Greentown Houston launch director.
Reichert, in the Q&A with InnovationMap, shares more on what her organization's Houston plans are, what she's looking for in participating startups, and when the city will know more about the brick-and-mortar space.
InnovationMap: When did Greentown Labs start considering a second location?
Emily Reichert: Greentown I think seriously began entertaining the idea of Houston as a possibility during the CERAWeek conference in March 2019. I was there to speak in a couple of their pods, and there were actually 10 Greentown teams there as well.
Jason Ethier of Dynamo Micropower, who was on our board and based in Houston, had been encouraging us to consider Houston for a long time because of the need for someone to be bringing together the community of entrepreneurs around cleantech in Houston. And he felt, talking to other entrepreneurs, that there was a bit of a gap there and that it would be beneficial to have a Greentown labs in Houston to convene that community. Up until that point, I had kind of said, "Jason, I can't think about that." We were expanding in Boston just a year earlier, and we had more than doubled in size. But for the first time in March 2019, it seems like something that we should at least entertain.
During that course of that visit, the Greater Houston Partnership, Jason, and I believe some folks from Houston Exponential as well, were involved in setting up a series of meetings for me to really test the idea of Greentown Labs coming to Houston.
So, I talked with a diversity of partners, city officials, and — probably most importantly from my perspective — a bunch of entrepreneurs that showed up with less than a week's notice at a bar in EaDo. They really expressed to me that they felt that need for a community for cleantech entrepreneurs. And that there really wasn't anything equivalent and that there was a gap there.
To me, that was really the trigger for turning this all on as a serious opportunity for Greentown. We're really all about entrepreneurs. Our mission is to support them and help them get their clean technology into the world where it can have an impact and make a difference. Knowing that there was an entrepreneur community that needed fostering and growing and building was really a reason for Greentown Labs to come to Houston.
IM: What about Houston was alluring for the organization?
ER: When people ask me, "Why Houston?" the first thing that I always say is it's the energy capital of the world, and we are an organization that is promoting the entrepreneurship of companies that are developing the world's next energy solutions. It makes total sense to be working in the place where the companies and customers are that are really putting these technologies into the marketplace. So, it being the energy capital of world is kind of a key driver — and one that we think needs to be the energy transition capital of the world, which is where we're all headed in needing to address climate change.
IM: I see several corporate partners have been announced — are you looking for more and what role do the corporates play in the incubator?
ER: The corporate partners are incredibly important to the entrepreneurs that Greentown Labs support. The reason for that is that most of the startups that we work with are going to be selling their solutions to a larger partner. They're not consumer oriented startups — they're going to be a B2B-type play. So, in order to get these solutions that the startups are building to scale, they need to partner with usually another large entity to help that happen.
From the get-go, corporate partners have been part of Greentown's overall community of solutions for startups to get their technology to scale. We work with about 50 corporate partners total.
I'd say there's a variety of ways that they participate — one is simply mentorship and expertise that they can provide the startup real market knowledge and know how. They can also provide investment or a place to do pilot studies, they can do licensing agreements, and they can be customers — that's another important role.
We are absolutely looking for more corporate partners because the energy transition is a big problem, and we're going to need lots of partners in the solution. We would invite others to reach out to us.
IM: How will Greentown Houston be different from the original in Massachusetts?
ER: We're starting at a more modest size than we are currently in Massachusetts. We're a 100,000-square-foot, three-building campus in Somerville just outside of Boston, and we can accommodate about 100 startups in that location.
In Houston, we're starting at the scale that we actually started at in 2013, and that is about a capacity for about 50 startups in about 30,000 square feet with about 120 desks and about 20,000 square feet of prototyping lab space. The space that we're building in Houston will be smaller, but also very flexible.
We don't quite know yet what the Houston market wants and needs, and so we have to just kind of plan to create a flexible structure based on what we know that Houston entrepreneurs need and then kind of evolve from there.
IM: You don't have office space pinned down yet — what are you looking for in an office and what's your timeline for announcing more details?
ER: I think we'll be able to announce that in September. But, I will say that we've been pleasantly surprised by the different opportunities that are available and how so many people just trying to help and provide us with space, but I'd say we are pretty much there on selecting the space.
We will be retrofitting an existing building, which is exactly what we did whenever we moved into Somerville in 2013. We like to preserve flexibility and, until we really understand the market, we don't want to custom build anything because what if we created it and then no one needed it?
Instead, we're going to take over an existing industrial-type building that can be utilized for our purpose. And for our purpose, we need a lot of electricity, we need cement floors that can take a lot of weight, and we need to kind of have some isolation in terms of the machine tools and whatnot that can make a lot of noise — so can our events.
IM: With two pairs of boots on the ground already, will you be growing your Houston team?
ER: It somewhat depends on the track of our fundraising, but currently the plan right now is to do some additional hiring in late 2020 or 2021 — at which time we'll probably be looking for a community manager, a lab manager, and a program manager. Those all won't happen at the very beginning, but the community manager is probably the next position we'd be hiring for. That role is just incredibly critical to doing what we do at Greentown Labs, which is bringing together that community of entrepreneurs, helping them connect with one another, and really just helping them to support one another as peers.
IM: What are you looking for in participating startups and how can Houston startups get involved and learn more?
ER: Absolutely. We would love it if Houston entrepreneurs want to reach out to us. We have a landing page specifically for Houston on our website, and that will allow you to actually fill out a form that allows us to follow up with you.
We will be starting to have early access membership that Houston entrepreneurs can take advantage of uniquely, and that will allow entrepreneurs to start getting engaged in what right now will probably be mainly virtual events, but going forward, it's a great way to start learning about the community and really for the community to be built before we have a physical location that can bring people in. More information out that will be coming out in the next couple of weeks.
In terms of what we're looking for, we are looking for startups that are actively working on climate or environmental solutions — especially those that are working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through electricity, transportation, agricultural tech and water, building, manufacturing, or industry industrial applications. There's a lot of broad categories, but reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a big challenge and it needs to be attacked in all sectors of the economy.
Even beyond energy or renewable energy, there are a lot of different solutions that we consider as part of clean tech and climate tech. We're just really excited to learn about more entrepreneurs and engage with them as a part of building Greentown Labs Houston.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.