THE VIEW FROM HETI

Q&A: Houston organization empowers science entrepreneurs paving the way to a low-carbon future

Jeremy Pitts of Activate joins the Houston Energy Transition Initiative for a Q&A. Photo via LinkedIn

Founded in 2015, Activate Global Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that partners with US-based funders and research institutions to support scientists at the outset of their entrepreneurial journey by providing personalized expertise, tools, and resources that may otherwise be inaccessible. The organization recently launched its fifth community in Houston, and just closed the application window for the 2024 Activate Fellowship Cohort.

We recently connected with energy industry veteran and Activate Houston Managing Director Jeremy Pitts to learn more about how Activate is empowering scientists and engineers as they pave the way to a low-carbon future.

HETI: Activate was founded in 2015 and has established fellowship programs in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, and a remote Anywhere Community. Why was Houston the next logical choice for an Activate Community?   

JeremyPitts: There is no doubt that Houston is going to be a major player in the energy transition, so it’s a logical place for Activate to be as we do our part to help bring ground-breaking technology out of the lab and deploy it to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

Houston is already the best place to scale a company working on the types of hard tech solutions that Activate focuses on. Houston has the talent, capital, and resources to build and deploy things at the scale needed to have a global impact. There is a good chance that many of our current Activate companies and alumni will end up in Houston as they pursue their scale-up plans. Activate alum Tim Latimer and Fervo Energy are great examples of this.

Houston is also an interesting fit for Activate as we believe we can fill a gap in the current ecosystem by providing support for entrepreneurs at the earliest stages of their journey. By providing funding and support, we can keep those entrepreneurs in Houston as opposed to moving to the coasts. We are hopeful that not only can we directly support a small number of the most promising entrepreneurs, but we can indirectly support many more by creating an ecosystem where early-stage capital starts to find its way to Houston to support these revolutionary and impactful technologies.

HETI: Activate Communities work closely with climate tech programs at leading colleges and universities, including UC Berkeley, U Mass Boston, and Columbia University. What can you tell us about Activate Houston’s plans for collaboration with area colleges and universities?

JP: Activate’s goal is to be as inclusive as possible. One of our main goals is to find fellows who we can have as big of an impact on as possible, potentially being the difference between whether they are successful or not. To that end, we plan to partner and engage with all of the research institutions across Houston and the surrounding areas. In just our first few months of being on the ground in Houston and recruiting for our first cohort, we have already engaged with Rice, UH, Prairie View A&M, TSU, Texas A&M, UT, and the Texas Medical Center. We have also begun outreach and preliminary conversations with institutions outside of the Houston area, like UT Dallas, SMU, Baylor, UTEP, etc. Our goal is to find the most promising entrepreneurs and the most impactful technologies that we can help and support, regardless of where they come from.

We will also be looking to engage with some of these institutions to make resources available to our fellows to support the research they are doing once in the Activate program. These conversations are in the early stages, but the facilities at UH Technology Bridge and TMC’s Innovation Factory are great examples of how the Houston ecosystem can support our fellows.

HETI: How do fellowships like Activate differ from traditional accelerator programs and why are they such an important component of the energy transition?

JP: Accelerators in general are a great resource for entrepreneurs to quickly learn the fundamentals around building a company and gain access to a network of investors, mentors, and partners that they would have trouble accessing on their own.

While Activate has a lot of overlap with accelerators in terms of what we provide, we classify ourselves as a fellowship and not an accelerator. The reasons for this primarily lie in the fact that we are a non-profit. This allows us to do a few things different from traditional accelerators. First, our program does not charge any fees or equity. Because our success is not tied to the financial outcomes of the companies, we are able to take much bigger risks in terms of the technology we support and we are also able to take a fellow first approach, as sometimes the best outcome for the fellow as a person is not the best financial outcome for the company. Second, we are much more patient, offering a full two years of support for our fellows and continuing to support our alumni community after they have left the program.

Activate’s unique fellowship program can play an essential role because many of the technologies and breakthroughs necessary to solve the world’s biggest challenges are really hard. It can take a long time to develop these technologies and often they are too risky and unproven at the early stages to be able to attract the capital they need to turn the technology into a commercial solution. Activate can support these hard technologies and provide a two-year safety net for our fellows as they work through those early challenges and progress their solution to a point that the private markets will support the business coming out of our program. We have been quite successful with this approach thus far, as the 145 companies we have created have raised nearly $1.4B in follow-on funding, representing a 23X multiplier on the funds Activate has directly deployed to support the fellows.

HETI: You’re the co-founder of Greentown Labs, now the nation’s biggest climate tech incubator. How does that experience help in your new role as MD at Activate Houston?

JP: The biggest takeaway for me from my time building Greentown is the power of community. Early-stage deep tech founders face monumental challenges. Having a community of like-minded individuals nearby who are facing their own similar challenges and serve as both a support network and a sounding board to help work through those challenges can be the difference between success and failure. I hope to leverage those learnings to really focus on Activate Houston being an incredibly strong community where the founders can lean on each other, and me, for the support they need.

In addition, Greentown also serves as a gathering place for bringing the larger climate community together, which is so vital in pushing forward the energy transition. In the early days of Greentown, those events happened on an almost ad hoc basis, as there wasn’t previously a place for people interested in climate to gather. Greentown has changed a lot over the years – the facilities are quite a bit nicer than where we started – but it has done an amazing job continuing to fill that role as the center of the climate ecosystem and bringing together a community of like-minded individuals. Anyone who attended the recent Greentown Climatetech Summit and experienced the standing-room-only crowds of passionate people can attest to that. Certainly, Greentown already fills that role for Houston and does it well, but my experience with the power of community will lead me to lean into Houston’s climate community and encourage our fellows to do the same, to be active members in strengthening the entire climate and innovation ecosystem in Houston. All boats rise together in the rising sea that is Houston’s climate and innovation ecosystem.

HETI: What are you most looking forward to with the upcoming launch of Houston’s 2024 Cohort?

JP: I’m looking forward to getting started – welcoming our first cohort into Houston and showing the rest of the country that Houston can hold its own when it comes to hard tech and world-changing innovation.

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This article originally ran on the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative blog. HETI exists to support Houston's future as an energy leader. For more information about the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, EnergyCapitalHTX's presenting sponsor, visit htxenergytransition.org.

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A View From HETI

The cuts to positions affects both Greentown Labs locations. Photo via Greentown

Greentown Labs has announced a reduction in its staff, which affects both of its locations.

In a letter addressed to the Greentown Labs community, the organization's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch reported that Greentown will be reducing its staff by 30 percent, eliminating 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston. Knobloch noted changes in leadership, growth of the team, and adjustments following the pandemic.

"Greentown Labs grew rapidly over the past four years in pursuit of advancing its mission to catalyze climate action through entrepreneurship, partnership, and collaboration," Knobloch writes in the letter. "This created a structural deficit where growth outpaced revenue."

The letter did not provide details of which positions were eliminated at either location.

With these resizing of the staff and reduced expenses, Knobloch writes that the organization is positioned well for its future.

"Despite this decision, I remain optimistic about the future for Greentown and the impact we will have on addressing the climate crisis," Knobloch tells the community. "Our mission is as urgent as ever and we remain committed to supporting all of you—our startups—by prioritizing core operations, member services, and strategic partner engagements."

Knobloch took the helm of Greentown last summer. He previously served as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

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