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New Minnesota accelerator aims to energize an emerging cleantech ecosystem

Nina Axelson
Nina Axelson

Former utility executive Nina Axelson spent years listening to energy startups with great ideas but no demonstration projects to showcase their progress. Axelson’s new venture, the accelerator Grid Catalyst, aims to address that weakness in Minnesota’s nascent clean energy entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In a collaboration with Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, Axelson plans to recruit four to six companies to Grid Catalyst to conduct demonstration projects for technology specifically built for cold weather climates. Clean Energy Economy Minnesota Executive Director Gregg Mast said he and his staff worked with Axelson for more than a year to develop the accelerator. 

“The focus of the program is in perfect alignment with our mission as an organization, which is on growing clean energy jobs,” he said. “We also believe that there’s massive opportunities for the economy as we decarbonize. It’s a great fit.”

Axelson has a two-decade career in renewable energy, most recently as the vice president of sustainability for Ever-Green Energy, which plans and operates district energy solutions for communities and campuses. Grid Catalyst hopes to attract women and minority cleantech entrepreneurs, with early investment and counseling leading to more businesses and jobs.

Why Minnesota?

Minnesota is a good place for an accelerator because of the state’s support for clean energy through legislation, regulation, and innovation, Axelson said. Clean energy accelerators in other parts of the United States and in Europe have moved innovation faster to market.

“We have lots of emerging tech in Minnesota that is poised to solve climate problems, to get us on the path of decarbonization, and to create jobs and new economic opportunities here,” Axelson said.

“Sometimes you just need a platform, or some other thing to give it that nudge, and that can be an accelerator.”

Grid Catalyst’s first class will include entrepreneurs working on geoexchange, an approach using water, ground, and sewer heat for heating and cooling. Other prospects will have next-generation building performance innovations that offer grid interaction efficiencies. Another promising category features products that prepare buildings for successful electrification, she said.

“These are a couple of key areas that we see that are just right at that precipice where there’s a lot of interest in it in the marketplace — there’s a lot of interest in testing things,” Axelson said.

The accelerator will offer startups $20,000 to $40,000, a demonstration partner, guidance through the testing period, and counseling on working with investors and scaling up production. Several Minnesota utilities have volunteered to serve as demonstration site partners and, even before Grid Catalyst formally launched, investors called Axelson to discuss how to meet companies chosen for projects.

Why now?

Axelson believes the time is ripe for more investment in clean energy as capital becomes available as companies divest from fossil fuel holdings, she said. “That money has to go somewhere, right?” she said. “I think this is an emerging category and that there’s both going to be federal and private investment into this space. There’s so much innovation happening in these technologies.”

Even if plenty of investment capital emerges, plenty of problems could trip up a clean energy boom, she concedes, among them an aging grid infrastructure and the potential lack of patient capital. Clean energy companies can take years to establish and become profitable. Axelson believes creating a green bank and other investment tools that take a longer-term view of the marketplace could develop a clean energy innovation ecosystem in Minnesota.

Axelson said Grid Catalyst will be successful if half the first class of companies commercialize their products. “If we just keep churning out people in the accelerator, and they don’t actually get to the next stage of growth, I don’t think we’ve really fulfilled our promise,” she said. “I can’t say that 100% are going to get there because you have to accept that there’s going to be some failure there and that’s OK.”

The accelerator’s first cohort will be announced this fall.