When Monroe County was under lockdown, NextCorps learned that it had beat 13 competitors to secure a $10 million state grant for a cleantech accelerator. If successful, it could position the Rochester area as a hub for a growing clean energy industry.
NextCorps’ Cleantech Accelerator will help startups that have developed new technologies for producing, storing or using energy grow until they can enter the marketplace. To that end, the program’s mentors will use their knowledge and expertise to guide the young companies on their journey forward.
While in the accelerator program, the startups also will have easier access to the technical assistance that’s available at the Rochester region’s colleges and universities.
“Our main challenge was figuring out how we could put together the most compelling case as to why we were the best choice in the state to run this program,” says Jim Senall, president of NextCorps, headquartered in Sibley Square.
The New York State Energy Research & Development Authority unveiled the winner of the competition for the accelerator grant on April 9. The agency simultaneously announced that it had given a $6 million grant to a second clean energy accelerator program at Brooklyn-based NEX-NY.
The two awards are part of the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050, and to meet the energy production and usage goals that Gov. Andrew Cuomo enumerated in his 2019 Green New Deal. Those goals include the elimination of all carbon emissions from power generation in the state by 2040.
NYSERDA declined to be interviewed on the criteria used to pick NextCorps to run the Cleantech Accelerator, but a request for proposals for the project offers a few hints. According to the RFP, the accelerator’s main goal would be to “make early-stage investments to enable the development and validation of promising clean energy technologies.” Those technologies would then become “the platform for startup companies located in New York State.”
The RFP also states that the selection process for picking the winner of the grant would be “competitive,” but gave no other details about that process. Organizations had until March 6, 2019, to apply for the NYSERDA grant.
Senall believes NYSERDA was looking for an organization with the right track record when it picked NextCorps to set up and operate the Cleantech Accelerator.
“They were looking for somebody with track records that knew how to run programs, that knew how to work with startups, that knew how to connect with investors, and really, the entire ecosystem,” he says.
NextCorps appears to fit that bill. Starting in 2014, the nonprofit ran the NEXUS-NY Accelerator, a NYSERDA-sponsored and -funded program that was designed to prove out very early-stage clean energy technologies. By the time the program ended in 2018, it had helped 22 startups become full-fledged companies.
The firms that entered NEXUS-NY made use of technologies that were developed in Upstate New York labs, but NextCorps’ newest accelerator will have a much longer reach.
“The new Cleantech Accelerator program covers all of New York State, and will also reach out nationally and internationally to identify the most promising clean energy technologies that could be formed into startup companies,” Senall says.
To facilitate that outreach, NextCorps has partnered with SecondMuse, a Brooklyn nonprofit that advises and guides startups. Senall says the partnership might have sweetened the pot for NYSERDA.
“They are working with national groups and international groups all over the world,” Senall says of SecondMuse. “Bringing that aspect to the proposal was also something that was probably pretty unique, I would suspect.”
Luminate, NextCorps’ photonics, imaging and optics business accelerator, also may have brought the nonprofit closer to the winner’s circle. Born in 2017 with the aid of a $10 million Empire State Development grant, Luminate so far has helped 20 startups develop into full-fledged businesses and has 10 more in the pipeline.
NextCorps’ many links to the region’s educational institutions likely was a plus as well.
“We have connections and supporters in places like the U of R, and RIT,” Senall explains.
Those institutions are storehouses of technical knowledge and expertise. Through NextCorps’ links to them, startups can easily access both.
Finally, the young companies in the Cleantech Accelerator program will be able to use NextCorps’ Fabrication Laboratory, with its 3D scanner and printers, laser cutter and other tools.
To be successful, the Cleantech Accelerator will have to overcome a few challenges, however. Rich Notargiacomo, a venture coach at RIT, co-created the university’s Saunders Summer Start-Up business accelerator program (now the RIT Student Accelerator), and once helped run it. Back then, recruiting the right candidates for the program was paramount.
“I’ve got to have companies that are at the right stage … and of a quality that they will benefit from accelerating,” Notargiacomo says.
The accelerator also must have mentors who possess the expertise and skills that the startups require to grow.
“As you build this thing, you also have to attract people who are going to provide the services, deliver the services. A good roster of mentors and coaches and so forth,” Notargiacomo explains.
In addition, the Cleantech Accelerator’s graduates must be attractive to potential investors.
“They’re looking for investment-ready or near investment-ready companies,” Notargiacomo says.
Nabil Nasr, the founding director of RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability, says the Rochester area could prove fertile ground for new clean energy technologies.
“We probably have significant abilities and intellectual capacities to develop new technologies, to develop new companies, to innovate,” he says. “This (NYSERDA) grant provides significant opportunities.”
Though the benefits the Cleantech Accelerator brings to the Rochester region are yet to be seen, NYSERDA’s grant is another feather in NextCorps’ cap.
“To get a grant of this size in this space, I think, it speaks volumes to the reputation that NextCorps has,” says Theresa Mazzullo, CEO of Excell Partners and a NextCorps director. “That is already showing progress for NextCorps.”
NYSERDA will parcel out NextCorps’ grant over the next five years, as the Cleantech Accelerator achieves milestones such as acquiring a managing director or recruiting its first cohort of startups. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the nonprofit to take safety precautions, but its 19 employees continue to work in their offices.
Pending approval, NextCorps has hired a managing director for the Cleantech Accelerator, which will eventually employ three people. Senall hopes to have the accelerator up and running, and begin soliciting startups, in the fall.
“Once we start the recruiting and the marketing and the PR, I’m sure we’ll have a lot of applicants, Senall says. “I suspect we’ll have well over 100 applicants a year for what will be a 10- or 20-company cohort.”
Senall hopes to have the first cohort in place early next year.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.