Plastic world: Indiana plant seeks difficult-to-recycle plastics to process

♼ RECYCLING: Brightmark wants your difficult-to-recycle plastics. The California waste solutions developer is seeking more than 1.2 million tons per year of postconsumer plastic #1 through #7 to convert to usable materials at its upcoming plastics recycling plants. The company’s first plant, in Indiana, is in the testing phase and is slated to open early next year.

🔬 RESEARCH: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers released a study about their work to speed up the breeding process for a perennial grass called Miscanthus, which is used to create biofuels. The process they developed halves the breeding time for new Miscanthus hybrids.

***SPONSORED LINK: The Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition is hiring a Manager of Community Engagement and Equity. Join the team to play a leadership role in developing an equitable and diverse Midwestern coalition to advance affordable homes and businesses that are free of climate change-causing air pollution.***

🌬️ WIND: Plant-based food business GoMacro, headquartered in Viola, Wisconsin, worked with the Viola Municipal Electric Utility and the Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group on an initiative to replace all traditional energy sources in Viola with wind power via a renewable energy credits program.

💰 FUNDING: A Michigan State University researcher received a three-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of drought on soil conditions and soil’s ability to store carbon. She will try to create predictive models to help with sustaining ecosystems and crop production, while potentially combating climate change.

***SPONSORED LINK: The Cleanie Awards — the #1 awards program in clean technology — is now accepting applications! Submit to win, or contact us with any questions. Applications close July 30.***

🗺️ JUUUST OUTSIDE THE MIDWEST:

  • Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee developed a smart power electronic inverter platform for local energy resources and allow them to smoothly interact with a utility grid. Inverters convert electricity generated from sources such as solar panels, battery storage, and electric vehicles to the type of current used in homes and the electric grid.

  • The University of Memphis created the Center for Transportation Innovation, Education, and Research to advance technology and innovation related to transportation issues, including increasing efficiency and reducing pollution.

  • The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado announced a new product called OptGrid, an operating system that will optimize real-time coordination of distributed energy resources. It has applications for utility-scale and community microgrids, solar panels, batteries, and electric vehicle chargers.

  • Also in Colorado, zero-emissions commercial electric vehicle developer Lightning Systems launched a new division, Lightning Energy, that will provide charging technologies and services for commercial and government fleets.

  • Houston-based Halliburton launched Halliburton Labs, a collaborative space where entrepreneurs, academics, industrial labs, and investors will work on cleaner, affordable energy technologies.

🏃 ACCELERATOR: Canadian science and tech startup accelerator Creative Destruction Lab will launch its second U.S. location this fall, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The new accelerator, called CDL Risk, will work with entrepreneurs who aim to develop technologies to reduce risk in a variety of fields including the environment.

Speaking of accelerators, yesterday Centered ran part one of an interview with Adria Wilson, entrepreneurial program lead for the Chain Reaction Innovations incubator at Argonne National Lab. She offered advice for entrepreneurs — especially physical science innovators — to achieve success, and discussed resources available in Chicago and the Midwest compared with those on the coasts. Now, part two of the Q&A.

Q: What are your thoughts on tech entrepreneurs being based in the Midwest, and specifically, the Chicago area where CRI is based?

A: I think Chicago is a fantastic place to build a business. When you take a look at the country broadly, the cost of living in Chicago is lower so that makes it easier to exist as an entrepreneur than it is on the West Coast or East Coast.

There's a diversity of businesses in the city. I read that no one industry makes up more than 12% of Chicago's local economy and that’s an indicator of that diversity. There are a lot of partnerships to be had here. That’s really great for our innovators because many of them have a physical focus and they can find people who are manufacturing things and who could be potential supply chain partners. It's a livable and vibrant hub. All of that creates a good space to be in for entrepreneurs. 

Similar to the two coasts, we have some really great universities and research here. Not all of them are focused on cleantech or energy... I think cleantech also meets at a nexus point with clean water and there's a lot of that going on here, too.

I sense there's a little more of a pragmatic nature here. It helps our innovators understand that you need to be able to form partnerships and make some progress in building something to show there is potential to chart your course going forward. In that way it’s a little different than, say, the Bay Area.

The liquidity of the capital in the Chicago area and Midwest also seems to be a bit lower. Some innovators who have come through the program have looked to the West Coast to help with fundraising for their first round. That being said, we do have local investors who have provided funding for some of the innovators coming through our program. There's a lot good about being based in Chicago.

Q: One of your CRI innovators, NUMiX Materials, recently received an inclusion award. Do you think there is currently a greater focus on bringing women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups into the tech space than five years ago?

A: There's definitely a lot more happening right now than five years ago… I know that the awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusion within a startup’s culture and leadership has increased, especially because of the Black Lives Matter activity that has been occurring over last two months. At least with our innovators, I've seen an increase.

I’ve made it obvious to our innovators that if they want to be a diverse and inclusive organization, it starts now when building out their culture. We’ve had conversations with the startups about how to do hiring in a diverse and inclusive way — like what language you use and some techniques that can reverse your own implicit bias. They've been very proactive on going out and finding and sharing information with one another on hiring and how to recruit more diverse board members, which I think has been a real sticking point.

We have been trying to work with our partners in the region to recruit more diverse candidates for our program so we can find entrepreneurs who are generally underrepresented in science and engineering, but also in the entrepreneurship space. We’re trying to change it from the ground up in that regard.

I think people are being thoughtful about the question of diversity. Frankly, I think we're in a good place to draw on the pools of talent that exist here to make that happen.

Q: Keeping in the vein of recent events accelerating change: Are you finding pandemic-related challenges, and do you have ideas for getting past them?

A: Some of the things that CRI does for entrepreneurs is provide mentorship and help to incubate their companies. And we provide them space and tools to enable them to make a protoype while reducing the barrier of cost… But with COVID-19, Argonne and most of the physical spaces across the country have shut down. That really hamstrings startups that are building a material innovation — something that requires chemicals and unique equipment to do testing. It makes things come to a halt a little bit.

There's only so much you can do in terms of business development as a young startup. Eventually you just need to get back into the lab or test facility… Having the space is critical to physical product startups. One of the things we’ve been trying to do is help the CRI innovators find a secondary space that can be their own so they’re not necessarily near anyone else but can do basic stuff that requires minimal equipment, just to keep the ball rolling.

It's tough to find one place that has enough availability for more than one person. I think it’s pointing to a need in the city for available space for physical product startups, which are different than non-physical product startups. Some places in the city are doing it, but it seems like they’re oversubscribed. What those organizations is doing is good, but I think we need more spaces where innovators could go to pay a reasonable fee and use the space and tools.  

Q: Do you have any other messages for Midwest entrepreneurs?

A: Our next call for applications will open September 15. It’s usually in-person during demo day, but now it’s completely virtual. That's an opportunity for anyone who wants to dive into this entrepreneurial world from a technical background. We're excited to see the new innovations that are coming through!

Let me know which other Midwest cleantech leaders to feature in Centered! Reach out with news tips, press releases, and feedback via email to katie@centered.tech or connect on LinkedIn and Twitter @centereddottech.


Centered is a publication of the Energy News Network, in partnership with the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation and mHUB.