Sustainable Startup Series: The Kickoff Panel

Posted September 17, 2013 in , ,

The Sustainable Startup Series is held at the Leonardo, in conjunction with their Green Revolution Exhibit. Photo: Amanda Nurre

The Sustainable Startup Series, organized by the Energy Commercialization Center (ECC) to promote its newest project, consists of three evenings at The Leonardo where successful entrepreneurs, who provide products with environmental sustainability in mind, serve as panelists to offer advice and business stories.

Created in 2010 with funding from a three-year Department of Energy grant administered by the University of Utah, the ECC’s initial goal was to help cultivate a clean tech innovation ecosystem in the Rocky Mountain West. As its work progressed over the last few years, its constituents realized how a strong base of localized grassroot initiatives can generate both regional innovation and sustainable development. With this conclusion in mind, they created Sustainable Startups, a non-profit incubator that, according to the ECC website, provides “shared work space and business support services to companies that embrace environmental sustainability in their products, services and/or business practices.”

Business ventures accepted by the incubator must adhere to a “triple bottom line” approach—one with a commitment to “people, profit and planet.” The center seeks entrepreneurs aiming to achieve both environmental and financial sustainability. “Generally we are a consumerist society,” says Ian Shelledy, the ECC’s Community Manager. “Sustainable Startups’ doors are open to anyone working to reduce or improve the way we consume.”

On September 10, I attended the first portion of the series titled “Sustainable Energy,” featuring speakers from GOAL ZERO, Power Practical and Space Monkey, three successful companies at different stages in their development. Around 6 p.m. about 60 guests, over the course of a half hour, trickled slowly into the dimly lit venue. Replete with nametags, khaki pants and button-up shirts, this band of clean-cut, smiling, potential entrepreneurs awaited the evening’s speakers.

Following an introduction by the ECC’s executive director, Robert C. Bell, and a simple intro video describing the center’s mission (viewable on the ECC’s website), the three panelists were invited to the stage accompanied by applause and cheesy music. GOAL ZERO, the largest of the three companies, represented by President and CEO Joe Atkin, creates portable solar power systems that can charge items as small as your cell phone and as large as your car. The company was conceived after its founder, Robert Workman, spent time in the politically turbulent and electrically deficient Democratic Republic of Congo. He ultimately founded both the non-profit organization Tifie Humanitarian and GOAL ZERO to work in conjunction and provide access to portable power.

CEO Matt Ford represented Power Practical, which produces The PowerPot, a portable thermoelectric generator that allows the user to charge his USB devices off of any heat source. Once filled with water, the pot can be placed on, say, a stove or fire to serve as its own charging station. Initially developed for camping needs, its services have proved far-reaching—it can, for example, power lights in remote villages.

Space Monkey seemed the least dramatically humanitarian of the three companies, as its products wouldn’t find much use in impoverished Sub-Saharan Africa. As its founder Alen Peacock pointed out, it serves human interests a bit higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Nevertheless, it satisfies a first world society demand by providing permanent data storage in the form of an in-home device that functions as an alternative to the cloud. How does this conserve energy or help the environment? According to Peacock this product will lessen the need for gigantic server farms that require massive amounts of energy to store data and cool overheating, overcrowded equipment.

The speakers were candid and down-to-earth. Still, certain words like “green” and “sustainability” were repeated over and over and, in the business world especially, I find their vagueness unsettling. They are nebulous members of a limited vocabulary we’ve created to describe a movement toward a healthier environmental relationship. What must a business do, exactly, to be “sustainable”? Further, to what standards does the ECC hold them?

Shelledy agrees that this vocabulary can be subject to interpretation. “Sustainability is a word that appears to be important to the business world, yet in many cases it is used to ‘greenwash’ the market to claim value over the competition,” he says. For the ECC, on the other hand, sustainability pertains primarily to a company’s resilience, its ability to adapt and manage change in a world of constant transformation. “This definition challenges the traditional business mentality that being ‘environmentally friendly’ is bad for the bottom-line,” he adds. “Our goal is to show people that operating sustainably not only helps the environment and the local community, but makes sense financially, too. If entrepreneurs start to think just a bit longer-term, sustainable business principals make good fiscal sense in almost every context.”

The technologies presented Tuesday evening may not supplant our current modes of energy production any time soon (and are not necessarily intended to do so) nor are they perfect solutions—constructing solar panels, for example, comes with its own significant environmental costs. However, businesses that are accepted into the Sustainable Startups incubator have the potential to integrate alternative, innovative energy options into the mainstream product market. Ideas will be given room to blossom at a local level. Most importantly, the series is brimming with positive energy and a tangible optimism for a more environmentally conscious society, an optimism that can permeate Salt Lake City.

Perhaps this optimism can spur change to mitigate one thing we don’t want permeating the valley—air pollution. Despite this and other serious environmental challenges at the city’s doorstep, Shelledy is positive. “We hope Sustainable Startups will harness Utah’s strong entrepreneurial spirit and get some experienced and skilled entrepreneurs to focus on tackling these environmental challenges,” he says.

As a final note, the panelist discussion is sandwiched between two other events available to guests. Prior to attending the series, attendees are welcomed into The Leonardo’s Green Revolution Exhibit, where one is directed through a tunnel of garbage into a display examining our society’s wastefulness and innovations designed to conserve our resources. It offers a healthy dose of information in a space that doesn’t feel overwhelming. Furthermore, after the series, guests can take part in a networking social where food and drinks are offered and panelists are available for one-on-one chatting.

The next two segments of the series will be offered at the Leonardo located on 209 East 500 South from 6-8:30 p.m. “Sustainable Resources” is the topic on October 8 and “Sustainable Business” on November 12. You can register for $10 online at

The Sustainable Startup Series is held at the Leonardo, in conjunction with their Green Revolution Exhibit. Photo: Amanda Nurre The Sustainable Startup Series is held at the Leonardo, in conjunction with their Green Revolution Exhibit. Photo: Amanda Nurre