Grooming Green Entrepreneurs

The University of New Hampshire serves local and statewide business by funding and training entrepreneurs who want to launch green startups.
Grooming Green Entrepreneurs

Some of today’s most exciting new startups are built around sustainable products and green manufacturing, which have many advantages for businesses big and small. Sustain-able businesses can be a source of job growth during a down economy; they can lower operating costs as well as environmental costs; and they can lessen our dependency on fossil fuels by diversifying the energy sources we use.

But the green marketplace is challenging, and many new ventures have difficulty commercializing green technologies, developing new market niches, raising money, and finding staff. This is where business schools come in. They not only can train their students to work in green enterprises, they can help local entrepreneurs launch and commercialize their businesses, thereby improving local economies and strengthening the schools’ ties to their communities.

In 2010, the University of New Hampshire’s Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics partnered with the state of New Hampshire to create Green Launching Pad (GLP), an initiative designed to stimulate activity in clean tech industries throughout the state. This green technology commercialization program, which is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, connects entrepreneurs and private industry with faculty, students, and state-level resources.

Our goal is to have positive impact across five dimensions: environment, economy, energy, entrepreneurship, and education. The lessons we’ve learned can help other schools stimulate green tech in their own states.

How It Works

Operating annually as a competitive, two-stage grant program, GLP focuses on seed-stage enterprises with ideas that need to be commercialized. In the first phase, GLP invites entrepreneurs to submit two-page pre-proposals of 1,000 words or less. In these documents, entrepreneurs describe how their new ventures might increase energy efficiency or contribute to economic development, give technical specifics about the project, discuss market potential, and note the expertise the project will require. These pre-proposals are evaluated by members of the GLP Advisory Council, as well as experts from industry, government, academia, and the nonprofit sector.

Entrepreneurs selected to go on to the second stage submit much more detailed proposals (see “Making the Proposal” on page 40) and make brief presentations to a panel of judges. Then, up to six teams are selected to receive up to US$100,000 in startup funding. They also are assigned mentor volunteers, all retired or semi-retired business leaders, as well as faculty advisors and interdisciplinary student teams. These outside advisors offer help in areas such as R&D, market research, website development, design and engineering, sales and marketing, and patent and trademark applications.

Winning teams have six months to commercialize their inventions. During this time, they must develop a sales and marketing plan, secure new customers, protect their IPs, and raise new capital from angel investors and/or venture capital firms. Each team provides periodic updates on its progress so it can receive more assistance as needed. During GLP’s first two years, most companies were able to achieve these milestones within six months. Others experienced delays—in two cases, because founding team members faced personal and health difficulties. In those instances, the advice of mentors and other industry experts helped the companies make up lost ground.

Extra Efforts

To help these seed-stage companies develop their own market presence, GLP organizes community events that introduce consumers, government officials, and members of the media to GLP companies so potential customers will have these ventures on their radar. So far, these events have included:

Energetic Conversations tours. These allow GLP members to show how their green products and services could save energy and money. During the tours, the entrepreneurs meet with state agencies and energy-related partners to discuss critical issues, and they connect with organizations that might offer financial backing. One GLP company was working on a huge solar array installation for a local high school, and as a result the team members had a chance to talk with high school students and raise their interest in green energy.

Green Entrepreneurship seminars. This seminar series covers financial issues, such as securing startup financing; legal issues, such as protecting intellectual property and writing contracts; and other topics such as advertising, making sales, and hiring employees. Any entrepreneur in the state can attend, including members of winning teams, other GLP applicants, finalists, and future entrepreneurs. The GLP leadership team at UNH arranges the seminars. 

Other events. One was a “Green Community Day” that featured a showcase of GLP companies, as well as speakers, panels, and student presentations that focused on the green economy. We’ve also hosted several “GLP Roundtable” meetings at the State House to provide updates to the governor of New Hampshire and interested members of the media. In addition, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited one of the GLP companies, and his visit was attended by then-governor John Lynch and UNH president Mark Huddleston.

Successes So Far

Of the 140 proposals submitted since GLP’s inception, 14 have grown into successful New Hampshire companies, including four in green manufacturing, four in energy efficiency, and six in renewable energy. One company is based on the research of a UNH chemistry professor; another was started by a team of alumni and faculty from Dartmouth College’s engineering school. Since receiving support from GLP, two have received competitive grant funding, four have raised additional money from private investors, and ten have already begun to sell new products or services.

While GLP was funded by the Department of Energy for its first two years, its success has attracted the attention of private supporters, who have provided enough money to allow GLP to continue its operations. We are currently seeking to secure matching funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.

Other changes are ahead. GLP currently operates on a grant basis, giving the selected companies funding and business development support. In the future we plan to offer seed funding, which will support businesses in the earliest stages as they do rapid prototyping, conduct market research, and write business plans. We also plan to work with our investment partners to offer post-seed money to our GLP companies in the later stages of their development. Altogether, we believe these efforts will promote green ventures throughout the state.

Lessons Learned

We are still f ne-tuning our efforts, but we’ve learned a few lessons along the way—most important, that to be successful, a program like ours needs to attract volunteers and funding from the private sector and the state.

In addition, it needs to secure support from the university, so that it can engage faculty from many disciplines, including business, engineering, environmental science, and law. It’s useful to have backing already in place from the government and private sectors to help university administrators under-stand the greater possibilities an initiative offers.

It can also help to point out how much major corporations are investing in green energy. For instance, in May 2010, Google devoted $39 million to wind power and followed this up with a shared investment of over $1 billion in deep-water transmission lines for offshore wind. Procter & Gamble recently announced four impressive long-term goals: to use 100 percent renewable or recycled materials for all products and packaging, to have zero consumer and manufacturing waste go to landfills, to power all its plants with 100 percent renewable energy, and to emit zero carbon dioxide emissions. Figures like these help administrators see the rewards of investing in green energy.

Finally, it’s essential to involve students in the process, because their enthusiasm can also win over reluctant faculty and administrators. In addition, when students work with green startups, they can learn so much across so many disciplines that the experience is an education in itself. (See “Green Collaboration” on page 38.)

From my experience at UNH, I can say that it’s exciting and worthwhile to put a business school at the nexus of green innovation and entrepreneurship. GLP has enhanced the image of the University of New Hampshire as a key player in the state’s economic development. It also has set an example for how business schools can play a role in the local, regional, and national economies.

Venky Venkatachalam is professor and associate dean at the Peter T. Paul Col-lege of Business & Economics and Proj-ect Director of Green Launching Pad at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. More information can be found at www.GreenLaunchingPad.org.