Harvest Power CEO Talks Sustainable Startups & Lessons from Farming

In case you’re wondering why there aren’t more entrepreneurs tackling really big problems like alternative energy and sustainability, consider Paul Sellew. Here’s a guy who was never tempted by dot-com fame and fortune. Instead, he has built a successful career around cleantech and the environment—while also making a lot of money in his businesses.

Sellew (pronounced like “Saloon” without the n) is best known in these parts as the co-founder and CEO of Harvest Power, based in Waltham, MA. That’s the waste management and energy company that earlier this month topped off a $125 million financing round from big investors including True North Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, DAG Ventures, Generation Investment Management (co-led by Al Gore), and Piper Jaffray.

Harvest represents one of New England’s biggest cleantech bets, with more than $300 million in debt, equity, and grants raised since it started in 2008. And so far, so good: The company has about 400 employees (50 around Boston) and, last I checked, it was raking in more than $100 million in annual revenues. And that’s before the “power” part of its name even kicks in. Harvest’s organic waste-to-energy plants near Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, are slated to be up and running this fall, and the firm has broken ground on a new plant in Florida; these facilities will add to Harvest’s existing composting business for use as garden soil and fertilizer. As the new facilities scale up, they are supposed to fulfill the company’s vision in which millions of tons of food scraps and yard waste can be turned into natural gas and soil products. That’s the plan, anyway.

Sellew’s background helped shape his career—and Harvest’s vision. He grew up on his family’s farm in Connecticut, called Prides Corner, where they grew (and still grow) ornamental plants. He learned a fundamental lesson there. “If you don’t take care of [plants], they die. They need constant care and feeding,” says Sellew (see photo, left). “It’s not like a warehouse, where you shut it down and go home. It’s 24 hours a day, it’s a commitment. There’s a dedication and passion you have to have, if you’re going to be successful in farming.”

After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in horticulture in 1980, Sellew, who is 6-foot-8, played professional basketball in Argentina, Italy, and Belgium for three years. His position was “small center,” he says. Living abroad got him off the beaten track, he says, in his typical understated style (no mention of wild parties on the road). “It was good,” is all he says.

When he returned to Connecticut in 1983, he started Earthgro, a composting and gardening products company. He bootstrapped the firm, … Next Page »

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