Imagine an app on your phone that challenges you to buy used clothing, or sets a goal of reducing your carbon footprint by walking to work a couple of times this week, or going meatless for the day.
When GetGreen, a Seattle startup, went fishing for an established partner to help the environmentally-conscious mobile app make its debut, Nina Axelson got busy playing professional matchmaker. Axelson, a Minneapolis-based clean-energy advocate, introduced GetGreen to organizations large and small, including Ecolibrium3, a Duluth, Minn., nonprofit that jumped at the chance to work with the Duluth mayor’s office and roll out GetGreen citywide as part of the city’s climate action plan.
In Burnsville, another startup company known as Carba is building a biomass facility with the intent of removing carbon from up to 15,000 tons annually of ash trees and other waste wood. With Axelson’s help, Carba founders hope to team with investors who will help them pioneer new ways of reducing CO2 emissions from decomposing plant life.
“Nina’s doing some pretty phenomenal work,” said Mahmoud Kabalan, founder of the Center for Microgrid Research at the University of St. Thomas, who hopes to team with Axelson to test new startup technologies relevant to small-scale power grids. “Her work is pretty important to our state.”
Bringing clean-energy-related startups to Minnesota — in person or virtually — has become a full-time job for Axelson, a familiar face in St. Paul’s environmental sustainability circles.
After 12 years in leadership roles at Ever-Green Energy — a subsidiary of downtown St. Paul’s nonprofit District Energy utility — Axelson decided it was time to branch out on her own and tackle the same eco-challenges from a fresh angle.
Imagine the television show “Shark Tank,” but with startup technology aimed at saving the planet.
In 2021, Axelson founded Grid Catalyst, a business “accelerator” that connects clean-energy entrepreneurs to Minnesota-based mentors, investors and partners while allowing them to demonstrate their designs over the course of a year.
While the Land of 10,000 Lakes is rich with environmentally-conscious talent, thanks in large part to both its universities and its greenery, entrepreneurs have long bemoaned the shortage of investors and other backers that can help bring a startup to scale.
“When I worked at Ever-Green Energy, what I saw was a gap in a way to get new technology in the marketplace,” Axelson said. “And because of the cold climate, people don’t often think of Minnesota as the best place to test their technology. Places like California, Boston, that’s where you go to bring tech to market.”
Startups make their pitches
A key showcase rolled out Oct. 4 and 5 when seven startups selected from across North America were scheduled to make “Shark Tank”-style pitches to the 30 or more partners that form the “Grid Catalyst Innovators Network,” made up of local Fortune 500 businesses, nonprofits, municipalities, utilities and higher education.
The network includes 3M Co.; the cities of St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth; the University of Minnesota; the Center for Microgrid Research at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul; Carleton College; Xcel Energy; Centerpoint Energy; Ever-Green Energy; Connexus Energy; Great River Energy; Otter Tail Power Co.; Cummins Inc.; Mortenson; and the Science Museum of Minnesota, among other member organizations.
Also involved are Full Stack St. Paul, a coalition of public and private partners invested in St. Paul’s startup climate, and University Enterprise Labs, a St. Paul lab building known for drawing the private commercial ventures of science faculty from the University of Minnesota.
Two Minnesota-based startups are hoping to match with a partner this cycle: Carba, a “cleantech” company with a pilot plant in Litchfield, Minn., specializes in innovative ways to remove carbon dioxide through biomass conversion and other technologies; and Aza Power Systems — based in Minneapolis near the St. Paul border — which utilizes ammonia as a combustion fuel, a 100%-carbon-free energy.