CalSEED has gotten its fair share of applicants looking to bring clean energy concepts to market. However, we see an important group mostly missing from this collection of entrepreneurs eager to advance their hardware or software concepts in energy efficiency, energy generation, storage, electric vehicle technologies and more: nonprofits.
CalSEED funds innovations that have a social impact or provide social benefits, but we haven’t had a large number of nonprofits apply. I mean, who better than nonprofits to pitch social good concepts and carry them out? Most of you are already doing it, and let’s be real: Whatever your idea for combining clean energy solutions that have social benefits, it would probably help out to have $150,000 combined with business classes and mentorship to maximize opportunities for success!
One of last year’s nonprofit awardees, Subin DeVar, who works for The Sustainable Economies Law Center, graciously sat in an interview with me to share advice for other nonprofits looking to apply to CalSEED. “We (nonprofits) don’t have to change our equity and justice goals,” says DeVar. He explains that his organization has been learning how to frame its innovation, specifically designed as a social good, into a business model. Many nonprofits are technically in the “business” of providing benefits to communities, and while they don’t sell a product, they might have great innovations and concepts that can be scaled up to serve a larger population.
Last year, CalSEED awarded a grant to The Sustainable Economies Law Center to create the Permanent Community Energy Cooperative model. This model plans on increasing renewable energy projects on the community level to make sure that solar can actually be accessible for all. Each solar project will be community led and designed for long-term community ownership. As it stands, solar panels (including the benefits that come with ownership, such as reduced electricity bills) are not readily available to people who do not own their home, people who have low credit scores or people who just don’t have thousands of dollars readily available to pay for upfront costs. The Permanent Community Energy Cooperative model, exemplifies one of the few clean energy innovations that has made low-income Californians its target beneficiary. Clean energy benefits have continued to miss the 74% of low-income Californians who don’t own their homes — the very people who would benefit the most from access to technologies like solar panels as they disproportionately pay a higher percentage of their income on electricity bills and disproportionately live in the most polluted communities.
In our interview, DeVar made it clear that while applying for CalSEED came with challenges, the process has opened doors and provided valuable lessons to him and his team. Last but not least, DeVar had some great tips for nonprofits and others who might not necessarily have a background in engineering or environmental science, yet can still be great candidates for a CalSEED award:
- As a nonprofit, focus on how a certain project may provide benefits to a particular community. Since CalSEED focuses on providing benefits back to all California ratepayers, make sure you take your time to brainstorm how a project can be piloted in one community and then be replicated to provide benefits to the whole state.
- Use CalSEED tools such as webinars and info-sessions to understand technical terminology that may otherwise hamper your efforts if you don’t have a technical background.
- Remember, an innovation that the market needs might not necessarily be a specific piece of technology, but a new way of using or administering it.
- Nonprofits have a clear mission, so use it to your advantage to develop a concept or project that fits with that mission.
- Make sure you highlight your strengths in the CalSEED application. On the flip side, make sure you don’t ignore your group or organization’s weaknesses. This shouldn’t stop you from applying but instead serve as a talking point to describe how you can overcome weaknesses.