What if venture capitalists prioritized funding a new technology not only for its return on investment, but also based on its potential to positively impact people and communities? The Greenlining Institute has been working as a CalSEED partner for the last year doing exactly that. CalSEED is a program that funds innovators and entrepreneurs who work to bring early-stage clean energy concepts with social impacts to market. As California continues its path towards a clean energy economy, Greenlining is here to ensure that this new economy does not continue to leave underinvested communities at the epicenter of environmental pollution burdens behind.

CALSEED clean tech entrepreneurs

To achieve this mission, we have been conducting targeted outreach to bring regionally and demographically diverse entrepreneur applicants into CalSEED to ensure that diverse and underrepresented communities have an important role in shaping California’s green economy. Once grant recipients are selected, Greenlining works one on one with individual CalSEED awardees to bring their innovative clean energy solutions to our most vulnerable populations. These two strategies work to increase economic opportunity in historically underrepresented communities across California as well as to target environmental solutions toward areas that could benefit the most.

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Interweaving Social Impact with Clean Tech Innovations

Positive social benefits don’t have to be simply a product of the clean tech innovation itself, but can also be created through almost every stage of business development. For example, a clean tech innovation might reduce air pollution in a heavily polluted community, but an entrepreneur can multiply the benefits by locating their offices in a low-income community to create jobs, pilot their innovation, provide training opportunities, and contract with local manufacturers. Under this model, an entrepreneur not only provides benefits to an underinvested community with its innovation, but also creates economic growth for their business by diversifying their employee workforce, tapping into new markets and even perpetuating innovation.  Research has shown that companies with high levels of diversity more easily solve problems, bring in higher revenues and create a larger customer base leading to greater market shares. This opportunity has now created a win-win situation for the entrepreneur and for the affected community by providing business growth on both sides.

Awardee Highlights

With CalSEED in its second year, we are hard at work broadening the program’s outreach strategy and working with awardees to find ways to create economic opportunities in California’s underinvested communities. For example, CalSEED awardee Aaron Clay is developing a community solar marketplace platform to maximize participation in community solar projects, with a focus on benefiting low-income communities. His company, Sunswarm, was created to address the reality that low-income families spend the highest percentage of their income on utilities but often can’t take advantage of cheaper renewable energy technologies such as solar due to high installation costs or simply because they don’t own their own homes. Clay’s innovation aims to provide consumers with educational tools, utility savings calculators, and automated matching of subscribers to available renewable energy projects in their area.

Kim Goodrich, another CalSEED awardee, has tackled one of California’s greatest energy efficiency challenges by developing a platform that streamlines California’s compliance process for building officials, contractors and engineers — making energy code compliance simpler and leading to energy cost savings by impacting efficiency at the time of construction. Goodrich’s company, CodeCycle,  has created a platform that allows for long-lasting, cost-effective energy savings to the grid while increasing efficiency during construction. It has plans to be piloted in the Central Valley, one of California’s most environmentally burdened regions.

These two CalSEED awardees have developed innovations that not only provide clean energy solutions, but also positively impact communities and the people who would benefit the most from them. The first year of CalSEED achieved great success, and Greenlining will continue to evolve our outreach strategies to help reach a regionally and demographically diverse applicant pool whose clean tech innovations will provide targeted solutions for our most vulnerable communities. Stay tuned as we report back on our work to ensure that social impact has a place in clean tech entrepreneurship!

Victoria Paykar is Greenlining’s Environmental Equity Fellow. Follow Victoria on Twitter.