Since Moonshot Composting's inception, its subscribing businesses and residents have diverted more than 209 thousand pounds of food waste from landfills. Photo courtesy of Moonshot

From landfills leaking into the water supply to reports of recycling being dropped in landfills, Houston's sustainable future has been mired by waste management faux-pas. According to a fact sheet from the City of Houston, 81 percent of trash in Houston ends up in landfills. Brothers-in-law Chris Wood and Joe Villa co-founded Moonshot Composting in hopes of improving Houston's environmental future.

After the birth of his second child, Wood stepped away from his career as a corporate attorney to stay home and find new opportunities outside of law.

"Just through conversations and reading, it became clear that Houston had not yet picked up the pace on diverting food waste as a city," says Wood.

Composting, a method of decomposing organic solid wastes that's growing in popularity, diverts trash like food and paper towels into compost that can be used to grow plants. While letting your waste have a second life sounds like a sweet deal, it's also a sustainable one. More compost means less waste in landfills, a major contributor to harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The scarcity of composting options left Wood with answers to what was holding Houston back. Was it the sheer size of the city alone? He reached out to Villa, who had spent 15 years in transportation logistics, with a laundry list of questions.

"How do we minimize a real waste stream that's going to the landfill and maximize streams of materials that we're not using anymore to be reused in some new form or fashion," poses Wood.

It wasn't long before Villa and Wood entrenched themselves in research. The two traveled to South Carolina for the U.S. Composting Council's annual conference last January and left feeling inspired to bring their idea to fruition. Like the rest of the world, they couldn't have anticipated that COVID-19 would rattle the nation in the weeks to come and cause a string of lockdowns across the U.S.

Brothers-in-law Chris Wood and Joe Villa co-founded Moonshot Composting in hopes of improving Houston's environmental future. Photo courtesy of Moonshot

"Even though the pandemic hit before we launched our business, we were far enough along that we felt like we could do this safely," says Wood. A benefit of Moonshot Composting's structure was its drop-off and pick-up style program for both businesses and consumers.

The two co-founders weren't the only people finding a newfound passion for. According to Google Trends, users were searching for ways to compost at home at increased rates after the first stay-at-home order was announced last March. As people were learning to back sourdough and building their puzzle collections, they were also wondering how to be more sustainable in their households. The keywords "composting at home" surged to its greatest peaks during April, July and September in 2020.

With a growth-focused plan to help Houston be greener, Moonshot Composting recently participated in cohort 3 of The Ion's Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, where Villa and Wood gained insights from mentors and business leaders.

The momentum has continued with the company's latest release: a digital Diversion Dashboard for residential customers who track their composting totals, compare their composting to other communities, and share the statistics on social media.

"We knew from the time that we started, that there was an opportunity to introduce technology to improve people's behavior around the trash can," says Wood. "Our plan was to operate for at least a year and understand what it's like to help people compost in their business and at home. From the beginning [of our business], we weighed everything we picked up, because we knew that what you can't measure you can't change."

After putting in place a system to weigh each compost pick-up, the two reached out to their network to bring in outside developers.

The proprietary dashboard also translates the weight of compost to residential impact. Looking at Wood's own dashboard, he can see that his compost weighs the equivalent to 168 pineapples and can notice that his neighborhood is ranked second on Moonshot Composting's list of serviceable areas.

A version of the Diversion Dashboard was first made available to commercial subscribers in the spring on a trial basis. Similar to the consumer platform, the commercial dashboard provides carbon equivalencies to compare your environmental impact like pounds of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere and "un-driven" miles.

Moonshot Composting's commercial subscribers include Rice University, Houston Baptist University, The Awty International School, ConocoPhillips, Tacodeli, Snooze Eatery, Ostia, and Amli Residential.

Since Moonshot Composting's inception, its subscribing businesses and residents have diverted more than 209 thousand pounds of food waste from landfills.

While the gamification of composting is new, research on the subject is promising. Gamification has been a powerful tool in the consumer technology apparatus for years. Various studies have analyzed the effectiveness of gamification as a self-motivating tool that has a positive impact on health and wellbeing and increases the meaningfulness of an action.

You can drink from a water bottle that awards you for reaching your daily intake, compete with your friends to see who took the most steps using AppleWatches or FitBits, and run miles to earn money for charity. When not enter some healthy competition with your neighbors using the Diversion Dashboard?

When creating the dashboard, Wood and Villa sought to create a fun way to motivate Houstonians to compost and connect with others over their environmental efforts. While cities like Seattle and San Francisco have established city-wide composting program, the co-founders are enthusiastic about expanding a coalition of eco-savvy Houstonians.

"Whether it's good or bad, we [Houston] don't always lead with government mandates, but we always lead with businesses working together with communities to try to do good," says Wood, "We can do it through innovation and that kind of matches the Houston spirit."

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has announced its most recent cohort ahead of moving into the physical hub later this year. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston accelerator announces third cohort focused on sustainability

seeing green

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has named the five companies participating in its latest cohort, which starts next week.

Launched in 2019, the programing for the accelerator and its member companies focus on addressing the needs and challenges the city of Houston and other major metros are facing — including climate change. The five selected companies will start the 12-week program next week with a goal of securing a pilot with the city.

"We're thrilled to kick-off Cohort 3," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "The ISRCA remains a core asset in The Ion's Programs portfolio, since it enables recurring collisions, connections, and collaborations among startups, stakeholders, and subject-matter experts."

The selected startups are:

  • Phase Filter/Kinetic Synergies: The university-born startup has created an automatically changing air filter that works with existing HVAC systems to lower cost and energy use as well as eliminate the annoying chore.
  • Frakktal: In an effort to create a circular economy, Frakktal repurposes and reuses discarded polymer materials from the greater Gulf Coast region to also use in the same region.
  • Moonshot Compost: The company collects food waste from Houston residents and businesses via curbside pickup and drop-off while also collects and provides data on each pickup.
  • Teratonix: Using radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic from radio /TV broadcast, cell phone tower, wifi routers, and more, Teratonix provides solutions to generate electricity.
  • Smart Watts:The company taps into smart meter sensors to enable a personalized energy monitoring dashboard that provides users with data to make better energy use decisions.

"The ISRCA Cohort 3 will highlight companies that focus on making sure Houston is here for generations to come," says Courtney Cogdill, program manager for The Accelerator Hub at The Ion, in the release. "By activating the Houston innovation ecosystem and showcasing Houston's talent, Cohort 3 will spotlight Houston as a city committed to sustainability."

The previous cohorts of the program focused on resilience and mobility in Cohort 1 and cleantech for Cohort 2.

"As the world-at-large expands their mobility with social distancing restrictions lifted, it's important cities and businesses review their sustainability practices and carbon footprint and continue to improve upon the progress that's been made," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of The Ion, in the release. "The Ion is excited to empower entrepreneurs who will play a critical role in improving sustainability. With Houston and our diverse and innovative industries as a backdrop, The Ion is prepared to address the challenges sustainability will face in a post COVID-19 world."

The program will be housed in The Ion, a 266,000-square-foot mixed-use structure, which is expected to open within the next few months, along with the organization's other accelerator programs.

Learn more about The Ion's accelerators by streaming this recent Houston Innovators Podcast with Galib and Cogdill:

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Greentown Labs appoints Houston founder among 4 new board members

All a-board

Greentown Labs, a Massachusetts-based climatetech startup incubator with its secondary location in Houston, has appointed four new board members.

Of the new appointees, two community board members have been named in order to act as liaisons between startups and Greentown Labs. Greentown Houston's appointed representation is Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention, and community member. The other new board members are Gilda A. Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering and professor of biomedical and chemical engineering; Nidhi Thakar, senior director of resource and regulatory strategy and external engagement for Portland General Electric; and Leah Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Sublime Systems, who is the Sommerville location's community board member).

"It is important for a startup incubator to have leadership and insight from stakeholders including the public and private sector, academic and university communities," says Greentown Labs CEO Dr. Emily Reichert in a news release. "These leaders bring a wealth of knowledge relevant to not only climatetech but to our continued growth as an organization. Their voices will be important to have at the table as Greentown charts its course for the next decade of climate action."

Desai's current startup, Intention, is climate impact platform for retail investors, and she has previously worked at six energy-related startups including Ridge Energy Storage, Tessera Solar, and ActualSun, where she was co-founder and CEO. She's also worked in a leadership role at NRG Energy and spent several years as a management consultant with the energy practice of Booz Allen Hamilton — now Strategy&, a PWC company.

"I'm honored to join the board of Greentown Labs as a representative of the startup community," she says in the release. "This is a pivotal time for climate and energy transition. I look forward to working with the rest of the board to expand the collective impact of the Greentown Labs ecosystem."

The four new appointees join seven existing board members:

  • Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power (Board Chair)
  • Katherine Hamilton, Chair of 38 North Solutions
  • Dawn James, Director of US Sustainability Strategy and Environmental Science at Microsoft
  • Matthew Nordan, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Prime Impact Fund and General Partner at Azolla Ventures
  • Kathleen Theoharides, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Mitch Tyson, Principal at Tyson Associates and Co-Founder of the Northeast Clean Energy Council
  • Dr. Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs

Houston fund makes first local investment in $8M deal

money moves

A Houston-based investment fund has announced its its latest deal that includes an investment into a local direct-to-consumer supplement company.

GP Capital Partners has invested in Qualitas Health, known as iwi, which produces plant-based omega-3 and protein products that's sold directly to consumers as well as retailers across the United States. Iwi's nutrition supplement is sustainably sourced from the company's cultivation pond systems, which are the size of football fields and located in New Mexico and Texas.

“We are excited about our investment in iwi. They have a proprietary and scalable process to create in-demand products in a sustainable manner," says Gina Luna, principal of the fund, in the news release. "We look forward to working with iwi’s management team as they pursue this transformative opportunity.”

The $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

“The iwi team looks forward to working with GP Capital Partners following their investment in our growing company. We have big plans for accelerating our growth, and are pleased to partner with this team that brings both expertise and relationships to support us in this new stage of the company," says Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, in the release.

Outside of GP, the Houston company's other investors include Grupo Indukern, Gullspång Re:food VC, PeakBridge VC, , Arancia Group, Trucent, SASA, and Minrav. GP launched its $275 million fund last year. It's structured as a Small Business Investment Company and will deploy funding into 20 to 25 companies within the Gulf Coast region.

The supplement company is based in Houston. Photo via Instagram

How company behavior guides activists’ choices, according to this Houston researcher

houston voices

It’s been more than 100 years since Pavlov’s dog showed the world that behavior is often guided by forces we don’t comprehend.

The same is true of the interaction between companies and protestors, according to Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and Fabrizio Perretti of Bocconi University in Milan. In a recent study, the scholars show that when protestors fight to change a company’s policy, their future choices of where and how much to protest are shaped by the company’s response.

Moreover, the outcome may not be what either group has planned for. Companies that meet protestor demand often inadvertently spur the protestors to demonstrate further; conversely, companies that refuse to give in tend to propel protestors to redirect their energies toward related but different issues.

The researchers based their conclusions on a deep dive into the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and a close analysis of protests and company responses in specific locations.

During the time period studied, the researchers found, public sentiment toward nuclear energy changed from mild support to open hostility in the form of an organized protest movement. To quantify this movement’s impact on nuclear power plant construction, the researchers studied the aftermath of protestors’ local victories.

In Massachusetts, for example, the first nuclear power protest in 1974 persuaded Northeast Utilities to postpone, and then permanently cancel, its plant. This reaction, Piazza and Perretti found, catalyzed local protestors. In the years that followed, the region became one of the United States’ strongest bastions of anti-nuclear activism.

In order to quantify how company actions affected protests, the researchers first measured the number of U.S. protest events by geographic location from 1970 to 1995. They then compared this number to the number of nuclear facilities either completed or cancelled over a one-year time period within 100 miles of a given demonstration. They included controls to account for local economic and political differences upon local activism, and for any geographic bias of the newspaper sources used to identify protest events.

The patterns they found were intriguing. Proposing a new plant for construction boosted anti-nuclear protests by 18 percent in a 100-mile radius. Cancelling construction of a plant drove a 27 percent increase in anti-nuclear protests. And when a new nuclear plant was completed and connected to the grid, the researchers witnessed a 2.3 percent increase in the number of protests not directly aimed at nuclear power plants.

The reason for the increase in other protests when a company prevailed and built a power plant? The researchers hypothesize that each time a plant was completed, demoralized activists attached themselves to other movements.

These results raised a related question. Did company decisions on one type of controversy, such as a nuclear power plant, lead to greater support for related protest movements or for unrelated ones? The former, it turns out.

To measure this, the researchers again looked at protests within given regions and categorized them into anti-nuclear weapon protests, environmental protests, public policy protests, anti-war protests and protests against the proximity of a given plant to a specific property, that is, “not in my backyard” protests.

Nuclear power opponents, they found, were most likely to turn to adjacent issues such as protests against nuclear weapons. Protest activities, in other words, have a domino effect.

While most research tracks the effects of activism on companies, Piazza and Perretti’s study shows that the way companies act is also a critical event driver. Company choices can actually drive the evolution of activism, triggering activist mobilization in other causes.

The research represents a challenge to traditional explanations of activism, which usually assume that mobilization and protests are most effective early on then dwindle over time, regardless of the behavior of the organization.

Piazza and Perretti’s findings suggest a valuable lesson for companies, especially those operating in more than one location: Their decisions in one place may actually escalate activism elsewhere. Pacific Gas & Electric successfully acted on this insight in the 1980s. Working with the Sierra Club, the company swapped the cancellation of one site at Bodega Bay, California — the target of frequent protests — for support of a plant at a second site elsewhere in the state at Diablo Canyon.

The findings also offer important insight for activists choosing a company on which to focus. These activists should keep in mind that the companies most likely to capitulate are also the ones most likely to feed a movement going forward — providing, in effect, the possibility of a double win.

Meanwhile, even if they fail in one effort, activists can take heart that their energy isn’t necessarily wasted. Only a little further afield, a similar movement may gain momentum from demoralized protestors looking for a new cause.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.