Building an Energy Startup Hub

Let’s create a sustainable energy hub that is a desirable, pleasant place to work and live

Original image available here.

At the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Energy Technology Forum, start-ups from the region pitched a wide-range of energy technologies, from wearable power systems to unmanned aircraft systems. When the investor-panel was asked the “honest truth” about startups in the Mid-Atlantic region, one venture capitalist mentioned the advantage of great universities but the disadvantage of diffusion.

In its broadest definition, the so-called Mid-Atlantic Amtrak Corridor extends from West Virginia to Pennsylvania. And although it is relatively easy to access different parts of the region, it is not easy enough. “Easy enough” for startup ecosystems does not mean planes, trains, buses, and cars.

On recent trips to energy-focused discussions in Houston, Detroit, and Philadelphia, I found a common theme: density is not only good for environmental sustainability, but also for start-up ecosystems.

The history of the thriving startup culture in Silicon Valley is steeped in high density. In the late 1930s, David Packard and William Hewlett set up a research and development lab on the edge of a university campus that would become the Stanford Industrial Park. This was a cyclable area that promoted the cross-pollination of ideas and led to innovation after innovation.

I’ll put forward an idea already brewing in many parts of the world. Let’s create a sustainable energy hub that is a desirable, pleasant place to work and live. While Houston is arguably the U.S. oil and gas epicenter, Chicago has significant claims to rail and industrials, and Detroit is known for its automakers, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and otherwise disruptive energy products are scattered across the United States.

Distinct from the current hodgepodge of energy undertakings, this hub would enable both planned and unplanned innovations in our energy use for lighting, cooking, movement, heating and cooling, manufacturing and operating machinery and appliances. Taking the success stories of mixed use and intergenerational urban planning, this walkable (or at least cyclable) energy center would combine research centers, universities, venture capitalists, service firms and industrial companies.

A first attempt at teaming up has already begun as of March 2016: Case Western Reserve University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University are forming the Tri-State University Energy Alliance: “joining forces to accelerate innovations to address challenges and opportunities facing the energy sector.” But due to the geographic diffusion of the teams, the ability to attract capital and breed innovation is lessened.

The Urban Land Institute published a series on density — differentiating between desired (mixed use, connected, planned, cohesive, liveable, green) and undesired density (monotonous, isolated, unmanaged, segregation, unlivable, crowded, inflexible, ugly, polluting). The trend is clear for Millennials and Generation X, urban centers near transit lines (desired density) are more attractive than the inefficiency of the suburb. High-tech startups have followed this trend and it is time that energy startups follow.

The city of Detroit is a great example of the movement towards densification. NextEnergy, a center serving as a living lab for advanced energy and transportation technology development and demonstrations is across the street from TechTown, a business innovation hub.

Now the only question remains: where should we build this sustainable energy hub? I welcome your thoughts in the comments!


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