June 7, 2023—In early 2022, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) chose seven winners for its sixth cycle of the Channel Partner Strategic Awards. This funding addresses gaps in the cleantech ecosystem and aims to eliminate barriers startups face on the road to commercialization.
Many awardees focused on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion support, thereby driving significant change for underserved communities often most affected by climate change. This community is just as essential as any other to the energy transition, because for it to work, it must be everyone. Here is the story of how two of the winners used their awards and the impact they made in just one year:
FORGE used the IN2 Channel Partner award to expand its Product Development Grant program and bring new support to diversely led cleantech startups. These companies historically come in with less funding than the average startup.
“We wanted to make sure we were reaching new and diverse audiences,” Anya Losik, chief of staff for FORGE, said. “We wanted to better understand the pain points for these diversely led companies. It was important that the people who we were targeting with this award felt seen and meaningfully supported.”
Based on input from leaders of startups from historically marginalized communities, FORGE refined the questions in its application process, opened a question-and-answer period, and provided application materials in Spanish to increase the accessibility to information.
FORGE supported three startups with the IN2 Channel Partner funding:
- Atacama Biomaterials: An AI-robotics platform company developing low-carbon alternatives for plastic film.
- Robigo: Already an IN2 portfolio member, Robigo engineers microbes to create more effective and environmentally friendly crop protection.
- SEED: Democratizes access to agriculture technology and carbon-credit markets for urban and underserved farmers with its irrigation kit and soil carbon sensor.
For Atacama, the funding helped the company create a pneumatic gantry system for the robot that manufactures its product. Robigo purchased a bioreactor to establish a fermentation process and expand the company’s ability for field testing. For SEED, the grant helped the startup develop more ruggedized product housing for its sensor. All three companies are led by BIPOC women.
“It feels like a big victory, both for FORGE and for diversity in cleantech in general,” Losik said. “Getting the support from IN2 made it possible to attract additional funding to continue the program. As a result, we’ve received follow-on funding for two more years to award more Product Development Grants for cleantech companies.”
The initiative led to more inclusivity overall for FORGE, with 43% of its portfolio now comprised of minority-led startups. FORGE credits this progress to its membership in the IN2 Channel Partner network.
“For us, it’s been a really great way to connect with other startup support organizations across the country,” Losik said. “We’re all facing similar challenges and filling different gaps. For example, business development coaching is not a focus area for FORGE, so being connected to other organizations with these capabilities is helpful. We’re always cross-pollinating, and we play super friendly with everyone.”
FORGE plans to ensure its future diversity initiatives are more targeted to reach more diversely led companies, with a continued focus on helping startups with physical products with manufacturing and supply chains.
“It’s the best way we can get some of these world-changing products to market,” Losik said.
For CEO and General Partner of Innosphere Ventures Mike Freeman, the IN2 Channel Partner award was the continuation of a U.S. Department of Energy grant won less than a year earlier. Innosphere and Colorado State University (also a member of the IN2 Channel Partner network) were awarded $1 million from the Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Prize to form the Rockies/Plains Energy Accelerator for Commercializing Hardtech (REACH Energy Accelerator). With REACH’s initial success, Innosphere saw an opportunity to expand, so it applied for the IN2 Channel Partner Strategic Award, which supported three additional companies in the REACH cohort.
“We’re very appreciative of IN2,” Freeman said. “It saw the opportunity we had to scale our impact by supporting more founders of energy hard tech startups, and the Channel Partner Strategic Award from IN2 will help to eliminate the barriers that startups face on the road to commercialization.”
All companies in the REACH Energy Accelerator are early stage and share a unifying theme of strong technical founders with real IP. Due to the need for a physical product, hard-tech startups often need more support to commercialize including mentorship, business development, and connections to the community. The program runs for 12 months, with Innosphere helping each participant map out objectives, achieve milestones, and raise capital.
“Founders and teams in the program are developing critical technologies that will solve energy problems beyond Colorado and their local communities, said Freeman. “We know building an energy-hard tech company isn’t easy. It can be capital-intensive and require hard tech-based consulting and mentorship, prototyping and testing, techno-economic analysis support, market research, and a suite of business support services.”
After the 12-month program, one third of the companies chose to continue being a client company in the REACH Energy Accelerator to continue working on business milestones. The other companies, according to Freeman, are off and running.
“Ultimately, we’re advisors and work hard to help founders find the right game plan to be successful,” he said. “Our program pushes them pretty hard on business aspects they haven’t yet considered.”
OMC Hydrogen, one of the ventures in the REACH Energy Accelerator program, recently won first place in the EPIC Prize Showcase Pitch Competition, which featured 24 of the nation’s leading tech start-ups.
Innosphere joined the IN2 Channel Partner network many years ago because Freeman said it is important to stay connected with other incubators, accelerators, universities, and industry experts in the cleantech industry. “The REACH Energy Accelerator is an opportunity for Innosphere, in some respects, to give back to the IN2 program. It’s a win-win scenario for everyone.