Los Angeles might not immediately come to mind as a cleantech pioneer, what with gas-guzzling SUVs crowding the city's gridlocked 10-lane highways.
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But LA officials are working to get off fossil fuels—in part by tapping into the innovations coming out of organizations like the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI), a non-profit founded by the city, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and the former Community Redevelopment Agency.
At LACI, housed at the La Kretz Innovation Campus in the DTLA Arts District, cleantech startups can rent flexible office space and get access to capital, experts, CEO mentors, and strategic partners from schools and agencies like Caltech, NASA JPL, UCLA, USC, and Cal State.
"Each month, about 15 companies apply to become portfolio companies of LACI," Erik Steeb, LACI Chief Programs Officer and former Intel executive, told PCMag during a recent tour. "We accept one to two each month and, while we don't invest cash in these companies, we invest a significant amount of resources including work space, entrepreneurial training, the Advanced Prototyping Center, community, investor engagement programs, pilot demonstration facilitation and expert guidance from our EIRs (Executives-in-Residence).
"When we bring on a company, we expect to work with them for five years, getting them to market and helping them build a strong vibrant company," he said. "In return, there is a monthly membership fee of $500 per month and a small equity position in the company. In our eyes, this represents the best approach to align everyone on successful outcomes at the riskiest stage of a startup's trajectory."
In 2015, LACI was recognized as the No. 3 Global Incubator with university association by UBI. Since launching in 2011, it has helped 60+ companies raise over $123 million, creating over 1,300 jobs and delivering $293 million in long-term economic value for the city.
As Steeb points out, the La Kretz Innovation Campus itself is a cleantech facility: "The Campus has LA's first public greywater filtration and microgrid systems, bioswales, to remove pollution from runoff water, a 175 kilowatt photovoltaic solar canopy, fast charger EV stations and numerous bike lock-ups."
As one might expect, many of those who work here have ditched the car, disembark at Little Tokyo, the local light rail station, or vanpool with one of LACI's own incubator companies, Green Commuter.
Barton Sidles from Green Commuter was waiting for us in the lot inside a Tesla Model X, currently the only EV van with seven seats, the minimum for vanpool services. "We want to improve the gridlocked traffic situation in L.A. and reduce CO2 emissions through not only electric vehicle-only vanpool, but also repurposing the vehicle during the day for carshare, especially for underserved areas," Sidles told PCMag.
Green Commuter is a typical LACI incubated company, melding cleantech (reducing CO2), mobile tech (an app assesses cost savings and manages carshare hours and vanpool bookings), and futuristic aspects. Green Commuter owns its fleet outright so, as in Minority Report, if something goes awry, it can use GPS to locate the vehicle while calling the cops.
It was time for a tour of the 60,000-square-foot facility. Kay Yang, director of the Advanced Prototyping Center, handed us protective eyewear.
"We have everything a startup company needs, right here, on site," she told PCMag. "It's the highest caliber facility for prototyping on the West Coast. We have wet, core, cell, chemistry and electronics labs, a CNC center, 3D printers and premium CAD software, welding shop, laser cutters, a precision waterjet, training centers, and assembly bay."
Essentially, everything startups used to have to source in Shenzhen, China, for prototyping and small scale production, can now be done here.
In the robotics section of the Advanced Prototyping Lab, we meet with Dr. Helena Yli-Renko, a specialist in entrepreneurship and industrial automation systems back in her native Finland. She now holds the Orfalea Director's Chair at USC Marshall's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, and is the co-founder of Perception Robotics.
Part of LACI's current crop of incubated companies, Perception Robotics is commercializing touch- and vision-based sensing solutions for modern industrial robots and next-generation assistive robots. The company's GeckoGripper product, which integrates an adhesive material made of nanoscopic "hairs" with electrostatics, is built on an exclusive license with NASA JPL for the technology tested on the International Space Station.
One of Perception's first customers was Del West, an engineering firm that specializes in automotive and aerospace parts. "Robots equipped with our PolySkin-compliant tactile sensors can pick small, shiny, and expensive engine valves for Ferrari and Formula 1 cars out of a bin without dropping them," said Dr. Yli-Renko.
During a demo of PolySkin and GeckoGripper, Dr. Mohammad Dadkhah Tehrani, senior mechanical engineer, ran the robots through their paces as they picked up fragile glass panels and held them firmly, but didn't crush, break, or drop them, using Instantaneous Attachment, which is 10,000 faster than vacuum.
So what made Perception Robotics apply to LACI? "As a startup with limited funds, we needed a space like this, for our chemical lab and robots, from day one. It wouldn't have been possible to grow as quickly as we have without them," Dr. Yli-Renko explained.
In an interesting generational shift, Dr. Yli-Renko has also noticed how many of her USC students are being drawn to cleantech ventures.
"Cleantech, as a sector, is increasingly attractive for people who want to find solutions to society's problems," she pointed out. "LACI is playing a critical role for entrepreneurs who otherwise wouldn't have the resources, connections, working spaces, investors, potential customers and like-minded people to work with."
Kabira Stokes, founder and CEO of Isidore Electronics Recycling, is one of these entrepreneurs. She started her full service e-waste recycling social enterprise company, which provides employment to those who were previously incarcerated inside the criminal justice system, in 2011, and brought it to LACI in 2013. Last month, it emerged from LACI, rebranded as Homeboy Recycling after a sale to Homeboy Industries.
"Simply put, I wanted to create green jobs for people who are left out of the grey economy," Stokes explained. "The electronics recycling, refurbishment and data destruction waste market is estimated at $8.4 billion in the USA and is growing at 15 percent per year, so I knew there was a business there.
"Since 2011 we've recycled over 2 million pounds of electronics which would otherwise have gone into a landfill, releasing harmful toxins into our water system, and helped many formerly incarcerated people, who would otherwise face hurdles getting employment, stay out of the prison cycle," she said.
The cleantech company handles all aspects of e-waste. If you live in LA, you can schedule a pickup, request repairs or data destruction to ensure all passwords and old memorabilia are off your hard drive. Stokes confirmed they don't employ anyone jailed for fraud or identity theft.
"I'd known about LACI, and we'd chatted before, but suddenly, in 2013, the warehouse we'd been sub-letting burned down," Stokes told PCMag. "LACI said, 'Come on in. You need a team, and you need support.' And they've been amazing."
With the sale and rebranding, Stokes is staying on as CEO, and her company is a salutary example of how LACI supports cleantech company founders.
In stark contrast to many other incubators and/or accelerators, LACI does not have VCs in suits behind closed doors while tense cubicle-dwellers keep their heads down in an effort to meet the next shipment date. It might just be because this is laid back LA, but the whole place is light, airy, and there's a real excitement about what's being built. Because, in a very tangible way, cleantech will save LA and, by extension, the planet, from an apocalyptic fate where fossil fuels expire and we're screwed. Just saying.