McKinstry Innovation Center Cozies into Position as Cleantech ‘Accelerator’, Director Elsa Croonquist On What’s Next

Perched atop two floors of parking on the McKinstry campus, the Seattle-based consulting, construction, and energy firm has built the first real space of its kind dedicated entirely to fostering the local cleantech industry. The McKinstry Innovation Center is fast becoming a 24,000-square-foot oasis for up-and-coming clean energy startups.

Everything about this place, from the building materials it uses to the attitudes of the people inside, reflect its cleantech ethos. The walls are made from salvaged wood and metal bent in McKinstry’s in-house shop. The waste bins read “compost,” “recycle,” and “landfill.” A fallen tree from CEO Dean Allen’s property is saved, and recycled as a conference table. The word “Innovate” is mounted on the wall of the foyer in metal block letters. The space exudes creative—and clean—-energy.

Since plans for the Center were announced last October, the project has been hailed as ‘Seattle’s big cleantech hope.’ And since opening in May, it has sought to brand itself to be more than a traditional incubator—in fact, according to director Elsa Croonquist, the Center is more like a “commercialization accelerator,” poised to offer McKinstry’s significant resources, support, and office space to as many as 10 innovative cleantech startups for up to three years at a time. The idea is to help Seattle and the Pacific Northwest to become a leader in the cleantech space, just as the region has distinguished itself in so many other tech industries over the years. In just four short months, the McKinstry center has become beacon for many up-and-coming clean energy companies looking to plant green roots here in the Pacific Northwest.

“When industry meets, we hope they’ll meet here,” Croonquist says. “We really are trying to make this the base for energy, and renewables, and what’s happening here in Seattle.”

Elsa Croonquist

Elsa Croonquist

I had the pleasure of catching up with Croonquist a few weeks ago to chat about the center, the emerging cleantech space here in Seattle, and what she thinks is in store in the future of clean technology. As she showed me around the campus, I got a chance to see the center’s inspiration for clean innovation at work in both the space, and the three companies currently pursuing their dreams there.

“McKinstry definitely saw into the future and built a place where people can incubate that draws on innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Hydrovolts director of field operations and business development James Marvin. “[It’s] creating an opportunity to start drawing circles here in Seattle to help the country get back on their feet.”

Hydrovolts, the Seattle-based small hydrokinetic turbine developer, was the first startup to join the Center when it opened its doors just four months ago, followed by General Biodiesel, and most recently home energy retrofitting company EcoFab, which joined the McKinstry community in July.

According to Croonquist, this latest addition highlights a growing trend in the clean tech space. She described  it as “auditing, retrofitting, and everything involved in the retrofitting of systems.”

One thing Croonquist emphasized is that while McKinstry is keeping an eye on cutting edge innovation, sometimes the big new product ideas aren’t so much about creating something entirely new, but are really more about ways of improving on existing systems.

“All of the tools, all of the appliances, all of the systems that they are using are to retrofit,” existing buildings, Croonquist said. “If you look at that pipeline of new technologies that EcoFab is putting into a house, or McKinstry is putting into an industrial space—that’s what I’m seeing a lot of right now.”

McKinstry Innovation Center

McKinstry Innovation Center

With three new tenants in four months, Croonquist has kept busy. The next project on the table is readying a corner office for its newest upcoming tenant—a center for Washington state’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education foundation, which Croonquist says will bring the tenant count up to 20 people within 18 months.

But this doesn’t mean she’s not still looking for new cleantech companies to bring into the fold.

“I am meeting everybody who is a small business working in energy—they’re walking through my door,” she says. One of the first things Croonquist looks at when evaluating if a company will be a good fit for McKinstry, is whether or not it is beyond the startup stage. Beyond that, she takes into account referrals from other cleantech companies and investors, specific technological innovations, and patents, and whether a company would benefit from both McKinstry’s resources, and the collaborative relationship with the its other tenants.

“The idea is that you are developing a technology, a product, a service that is saving energy—that is our main goal,” Croonquist says, adding. “Because we are on the McKinstry campus, we have all of our experts to call on.”

The most important factor, however, is the meet and greet.

Waste bins at the center

Waste bins at the center

“We sit down and see if there’s a relationship,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t need McKinstry’s engineering—they just want to be around likeminded people.”

And that, she notes, is what the center is all about.

“The idea is that the tenants will have their shared office space and all of their meetings will happen here in the center,” Croonquist says. And in addition to providing resources and space for its tenants, the Center also hosts classes for the tenants on varying topics that will help them develop their business, and thrive.

And while the center is still in its infancy, we can expect to see a lot more out of it before the year’s end.

“I have several companies that I’m talking to,” Croonquist says. “There are three groups that I’m talking to right now, and three that I’m hoping to close.” Hopefully, that will happen before the end of 2010, she adds.

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