L.M. Sixel Houston Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown labs who is bringing clean technology to Houston, the epicenter of Oil and Gas.
Greentown Labs was launched about a decade ago when a small group of clean energy minded startups got together near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The space provided a place to meet and over time became a launching pad for nearly 300 companies, including ventures involved with carbon capture, hydrogen fuel technology and battery storage.
Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs since 2013, was previously director of business operations at Massachusetts startup Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, which tries to minimize the environmental impact of chemical products.
Reichert is leading the organization's foray into Houston, a city known more for fossil fuel than clean energy, announced last year. The lab will be the centerpiece of the Rice University Innovation district in Midtown, the development by Rice University's endowment company that owns the land.
Greentown Labs Houston will move into the former Fiesta grocery store this spring once the old store is renovated and office and lab space is added. Leading the day-to-day operations for Greentown Labs Houston will be Juliana Garaizar, former director of the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund. Reichert discussed the new outpost and the impact she expected Greentown to have in Houston. Her edited remarks follow.
Q: Why choose Houston, essentially the epicenter of oil and gas, to open your second location?
A: There are many reasons to be located in a certain city. Certainly the talent, the other companies and the ecosystem that already exists there are some of them. But when you look at the challenge around climate change you realize a lot of it has to do with making sure everyone is marching in the same direction. In order for that to happen, we can't just be trying to solve climate change from the coasts where Greentown Labs was founded and grew up.
We need to have the entire country engaged in the fight. And in my mind, Houston is the best place that we can have an impact on climate change because it is the energy capital of the world. If that energy capital moves to transition from oil and gas to the future of energy, then we've won in a sense.
Q: Is it also a challenge that Houston's leaders has been focused on oil and gas and for a long time and sort of dismissed the renewable sector?
A: When I started having conversations in Houston about expanding Greentown Labs, one of the first questions I asked was it OK to say "clean tech" in Houston. What will their response be? Since then over many conversations with many leaders in the business community in Houston I have been overwhelmed with the support and the interest and coordinated approach and the opportunity that is very apparent . They see it and they want to grab it for Houston to continue as the energy capital of the world.
I think it's clear to the business leadership that the oil and gas industry probably has 10 to maybe 20 years to continue to support the local economy in the way that it has in the past. So I think the business community has really come together around the idea that Houston has to build up other industries. It's not only building up clean tech or climate tech but also building up robotics and IT industries and others that make sense for the base of talent that Houston has to offer.
Q: How can Houston's expertise transfer from oil and gas to more clean tech?
A: It's important to understand that climate tech, as we call it at Greentown Labs, is really broad and fundamentally about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it's really across industry sectors. It's about the electricity sector but also manufacturing, transportation, buildings and agriculture. The expertise that Houston has is applicable to a lot of these different sectors, because fundamentally these are all engineering related problems, they are finance and business related problems and a lot of times they involve big data and technology.
The workforce that Houston has around engineering, around technology are really the perfect base for moving us to new sources of energy, as well as addressing how we get from where we are today. Those are science and engineering problems and science and engineering talent, STEM workers, Houston has this. These folks can be redeployed to this different future.
Q: Houston already had some wind and solar companies here before you arrived. Were you surprised about that?
A: I was pleased to find out that Houston has quietly positioned itself as a national leader in renewable energy. I believe it's home to more than 130 solar and wind companies. Texas is the biggest wind energy state, with more jobs in wind than anywhere else in the country. What we are doing is allowing there to be more of a spotlight, more viability and understanding of people who are already working in this field. We're helping them find one another and helping build that community. That is a large part of what we do in the Boston area. We are a convener of a community of not only startups but those folks who are working in our industry. They may be investors, corporate partners, students from universities, professional service providers that support the industry. They need to be able to find one another and share ideas.
Q: One complaint about Houston has been that it doesn't have much venture capital.
A: First, funding climate tech has always been hard. And funding energy startups has always been hard because it's a very complicated and highly regulated sector. Investors have rushed in and been burned by perhaps not having that deep knowledge of energy and scale and understanding the complexity of energy they might have had to make smarter investments. Houston should be really well positioned for the capital that already exists to be making smart investments because of that knowledge base. And I think there is a little misunderstanding of capital. I've been in the industry for about 10 years so I've had the opportunity to watch this evolve. When I started there was less capital going out of state. If you were Silicon Valley based, you tended to attract Silicon Valley investors. If you were Boston based, you tried to pitch the Boston investors. Today, capital is much more mobile than it used to be. Companies in Boston go to California to raise funds, they go to New York to raise funds or they can go to Houston to raise funds. So I think that Houston entrepreneurs can do the same.
Q: So where will you fit in?
A: The key is whether (those companies) have the connections and the knowledge to know where those investors are and what they're interested in. Greentown Labs helps entrepreneurs find those investors who are knowledgeable enough about energy to make smart investments in energy. There is a lot of capital in Houston, and a lot if it has been focused in later-stage investments. One sector that could support startups that could be stimulated more is what we call angel investment, which are essentially high-net-worth individuals. We were able to attract about 150 participants to two training sessions for angel investment in climate tech.
Q: How much of the funding for startups is coming from traditional oil and gas companies?
A: Traditional energy companies are quite active in the investment space for climate tech. Some companies are making it core to their business strategy, and some are learning and growing into it. Almost all of them are engaged at this point. You want to go where your customers are. You want to go where the future opportunities are. It's absolutely a fundamental business question for these companies. It's hard because their operations are in oil and gas and they're sustaining them and paying the salaries of many people. I think companies know the transition is coming and need to help drive it instead of staying on the sidelines.