"How do we get smart people out of their hotel rooms?"
That's the question Dawn Lippert, Energy Excelerator's director, asked herself several months back. Being Hawaii, it's difficult to understand how any visitor wouldn't want to leave their hotel room.
With Lippert's team focused on transforming Hawaii's approach to energy, and Hawaii's attractiveness to alternative energy companies, she knew that dozens if not hundreds of the smartest energy innovators visited Hawaii every year. Why? In Hawaii, everyone feels the pain of high energy costs, so we're very amenable to being early adopters of new technologies and ideas, such as residential solar.
Energy Execlerator's new headquarters gives them the space to pull portfolio companies together to learn, inspire, and grow. (Photo credit: Energy Excelerator)
Ironically, Energy Excelerator alone is responsible for bringing many of those people here. Their program helps chip away at Hawaii's energy challenges by investing in and providing strategic support to energy-related startups that can have some impact in Hawaii. So far, they've invested over $10 million into 34 companies, including 17 which were just announced recently.
But their team is also focused on finding, understanding, and engaging with energy innovators and investors from all over the world. If a company is serious about renewable or sustainable energy, chances are they are considering doing something in Hawaii, again, given our attractive financial incentives and, more so, our outrageously expensive electricity costs, which are highest in the USA and more than triple the national average.
Togetherness breeds innovation
Innovation sometimes happens as someone sits alone working on a problem, but more often it happens when different viewpoints get together and let the magic happen. It's cliche at this point, but Jonny Ive's designs needed Steve Job's marketing and technical talent to ever see the light of day, and vice versa. Being a catalyst for that type of cross-pollination of smart ideas is what Energy Excelerator hopes to bring with their new space at 1000 Bishop Street.
"We know that these energy innovators are coming to Hawaii all the time," Lippert said. "We want them to work here when they're in town. We want them to open their networks to other startups in Hawaii, mix with other people, and we want to build long-term relationships with them and their companies."
Energy Execlerator pulls innovators from around the globe, yet they remain focused on how these innovations can impact Hawaii's energy challenges. (Photo credit: author)
At this point, they're extending that invitation to work at their modern, open space only to their portfolio companies, and even that is, coincidently, helping to expand their list of portfolio companies.
"The entrepreneurs that we work with are our best source for finding new entrepreneurs to work with," added Lauren Tonokawa, communications director at Energy Excelerator.
Energizing their own growth
Speaking of new entrepreneurs, Lippert mentioned that Energy Excelerator is also starting to work in spaces adjacent to energy, like transportation and water conservation.
If you think about it, that makes total sense. Reducing traffic congestion reduces fuel consumption, as does removing cars from the roads or adding bike lanes or building more efficient busses. Same with water, especially in Hawaii. If we start having issues with fresh water, energy-hungry options like desalination will be on the table, further exacerbating our energy issues.
Unlike the typical early-stage accelerator, Energy Excelerator has a wide range of companies that they support at various levels, not just fresh startups.
"About 85 percent of this year's applicants have had previous outside funding," Lippert mentioned to further explain that their portfolio is also backed, vetted, and supported by other investors and technical experts.
Energy Excelerator invest in about 15 companies each year, but their attraction is strong and global, with over 250 annual applicants vying for those 15 opportunities.
They're also a bit different in the world of government-funded energy innovation, or even other accelerators: their funding is provided as a grant, but they then ask companies to make an equity donation to the program's parent non-profit in exchange for the services provided by the staff. Their goal is to have these equity donations "pay it forward" to future entrepreneurs as current portfolio companies reach liquidity events.
"Customer traction is obviously needed for growth," Lippert added. "Hawaii is a great place to do business for energy companies and startups need revenue to be successful. Working with us helps open up access to our state's attractive market."
Startups that need revenue? Now that's innovative!