Federal Grant Funding Boosts Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator

Nearly two dozen Northwest cleantech startup companies have found their footing in the last two years through the Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator, a pre-equity business development program that on Tuesday won a half-million-dollar grant to expand its curriculum.

The funding, through a U.S. Department of Commerce program focused on regional innovation, goes to Seattle-based industry trade association the CleanTech Alliance, and Oregon BEST, a state-funded independent nonprofit group. The two groups launched the accelerator in 2016 to iterate on the model of the volunteer-run Cleantech Open, an international program begun in 2005, and create a locally based program to support cleantech entrepreneurship in the region.

The accelerator is aimed at very early stage companies that are still trying to validate a newly commercialized innovation or idea and determine whether anyone will pay for it.

It’s one of several programs to emerge in the region over the last several years designed to support early stage innovation in the broad swath of industries lumped under the cleantech heading—everything from smart grid and energy storage to water conservation to eco-friendly cremation. Other examples include the Washington Clean Energy Testbeds and the cleantech-focused Element 8 Fund. More generally, industry advocates see better communication and collaboration among the region’s research institutions.

“People are talking to each other and trying to understand how we can do this stuff better, and things like this grant are the results,” says CleanTech Alliance president and CEO Tom Ranken.

The three-year funding award will help bolster the Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator curriculum specifically for companies that would manufacture cleantech hardware, helping them connect with prototyping facilities, supply chains, and fabricators. “It’s an underserved market and actually a very hard market to get into,” says Gabe Boeckman, who heads commercialization programs for the CleanTech Alliance.

Throughout the 14-week program, teams engage in the usual suite of lean startup development activities—creating business models, identifying customers, targeting funding sources—with mentorship from a network of cleantech professionals around the region. Most of the work is done virtually, with a handful of in-person networking opportunities and meetings scheduled around the big events on the region’s cleantech calendar.

The nascent companies don’t give up equity to participate; in fact, they must pay $775 each to take part. The idea is that at the end, they will be ready to face potential customers and raise money, either in the form of private investment or government grants—or participants could go on to enter higher-stakes accelerator programs. Either way, Ranken says that creating jobs is the most important goal.

The accelerator will begin recruiting companies for its third cohort early next year.

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