Inside the McKinstry Innovation Center: A First Look at Seattle’s Big Cleantech Hope

Elsa Croonquist of McKinstry would cringe at the hype, but I’m here to say it’s at least partly true.

The Seattle alternative energy scene has been eerily quiet as of late. This is not to diminish the efforts of organizations like the Clean Tech Open, Washington Clean Technology Alliance, Clean Energy Council, Climate Solutions, and various local companies, but by and large the region still needs to build critical mass. Cleantech proponent Michael Butler of Seattle’s Cascadia Capital told me last fall, “We are falling further behind other regions, and the window will start closing if we can’t get the ecosystem built.”

McKinstry, the Seattle-based construction, consulting, and energy-efficiency firm, could play a big role in building that ecosystem. Croonquist is the managing director of the McKinstry Innovation Center, which she calls a “commercialization accelerator” for cleantech and energy-related companies. (Few people seem to like the term “incubator” these days, but “accelerator” is as popular as ever.) The $5 million center, which is slated to open in late April or early May, will house about 10 companies of up to eight people each. Croonquist says she is still accepting applications, and is working closely with four companies already.

The idea is for startups and small companies across a wide range of energy sectors—smart grid, energy efficiency, biofuels, hydro power, industrial, wind, and solar—to sign one- or two-year leases with McKinstry (up to three years max, which is still more flexible than the typical five-year office lease in Seattle). The vetting process involves making sure each company has strong technology that is out of the lab with at least a tested prototype; potential markets that are deep and strong; a clear plan to access these markets; a strong organizational team; and financing.

So this is not about incubating early-stage companies, and McKinstry is not funding them or buying an equity stake in any of them. “None of these companies are bright eyed and bushy tailed, fresh out of college with a brilliant idea right now,” Croonquist says. “Maybe they’ve gotten contracts and they need to gear up, and they need to develop the structure for their company and for their distribution, and the monitoring systems for, say, something electrical…We’re looking for companies that are ready to make a difference.”

McKinstry "Don't Call Me an Incubator" Innovation Center

On a recent visit to the company’s Georgetown headquarters, the 40,000-square-foot center was still being completed, with a construction crew installing beams and such. The center will have lots of open space and natural light (see artist rendering, left), as well as a nice view of downtown Seattle. The companies housed there will share conference rooms and a kitchen, and receive mentoring and exposure to business leaders through McKinstry.

In return, it sounds like McKinstry will gain new partners who are building and deploying some of the most creative energy technologies around. And that could make a difference not just in Seattle, but around the country as well. As a whole, McKinstry has some 1,600 employees, about 400 of whom (including 140 engineers) are in the Seattle office. The company has developed major construction projects for high-profile customers like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Qwest Field, ZymoGenetics, and VMware.

“We want to be a resource for Seattle, outside of this area, and across the nation. Seattle is becoming a place where in energy efficiency, we’re going to find the answers,” Croonquist says. “The image of the Seattle area is we’re all very green, but are [important energy technologies] being produced here? We want to change that.”

Croonquist has been with McKinstry for about a year. The Seattle native was brought in by CEO Dean Allen specifically to manage the innovation center. Before that, she was a marketing and business strategy consultant, and also worked in real estate development and corporate communications.

McKinstry’s innovation goals would seem to include engaging with the local cleantech community, as well as big tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and Amazon, who all have green initiatives. “All of those groups in Seattle have special project groups who know of startup companies that have great ideas, and they’re interested in furthering green [tech] and energy efficiency,” Croonquist says. “We’d love to partner with them. We’d like to talk to them about supplying the office space, the mentoring and the engineers, and our expertise.”

But McKinstry also has to balance its community relationships with its desire to get things done fast without much bureaucracy. “With the different universities, economic development councils, and all the alliances and associations, we have a lot of relationships, and we’re exploring ways we can work together,” Croonquist says. “We’re excited to move forward, and because we’re private, we hope we can move forward quickly.”

For now, the innovation center’s advisory board is made up solely of executive staff from McKinstry. “As we open our doors and get more firmly established, we’re looking at inviting other people from outside. We’ll be pulling from all sorts of industries for that,” Croonquist says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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One response to “Inside the McKinstry Innovation Center: A First Look at Seattle’s Big Cleantech Hope”

  1. Tom Witkin says:

    The term “accelerator” may be less popular after the Toyota debacle.