Getting Ready for Climathon Houston 2021: A Look at Climathon 2020 Winner InnoGrid
In 2020, 11 teams gathered at Climathon Houston to develop solutions to the challenges presented in the City of Houston’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). Three teams’ ideas rose to the top; and InnoGrid’s approach to addressing the lack of energy resiliency in our city was particularly relevant in the wake of Winter Storm Uri.
Q: How has your role evolved since Climathon Houston 2020?
Ed Pettitt: During the Climathon, I contributed relative to my roles as a Third Ward resident and community organizer, as well as a public health practitioner, business owner, and urban planning student. I provided input as a member of the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement (HCEDD), which engages in advocacy for the development rights of working class African-American residents in and around the Innovation Corridor, which we selected as the proposed site for InnoGrid. Since the Climathon, I have further delved into energy justice issues and am now an active member of the Equity in the Clean Energy Economy (ECEE) Collaborative and a Graduate Research Assistant with the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice (CECJ).
Bryan Gottfried: My background as a geoscientist has led me to advocate for the expanded use of geothermal energy resources. I am also interested in promoting the modernization of our electric grid and improving resiliency. During the Climathon, I originally suggested the development of a microgrid, although I had something like Austin’s Whisper Valley development in mind — a master-planned mixed-use residential-commercial community that uses geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling. We shifted the focus on the Innovation District to take advantage of the redevelopment and the clean-tech advancements occurring there. Since then, I’ve hosted our regular team meetings and reached out to others who could help the project. I’m looking forward to pushing things along now that we’ve gained support from crucial partners.
Paresh Patel: As a start-up founder focusing on energy poverty and a champion of sustainable energy for all (UN SDG7), I have been advancing deployment of solar microgrids and minigrids in off-grid frontier markets. In Asia and Africa, distributed renewable energy models (DREs) were enabling millions to essentially leapfrog centralized, legacy energy infrastructure. I was looking for a way to develop a microgrid closer to home. As an inaugural member of Greentown Labs Houston, I had been conceptualizing something similar, stemming from my recommendation for them to install rooftop solar panels. While it wasn’t financially practical there, I presented the idea of a microgrid for the wider Innovation District to its developer, Rice Management Company (RMC). It made sense to join up and work with the InnoGrid team. Since then, I’ve driven our partnerships with Baker Botts and Schneider Electric, and discussions with stakeholders like CenterPoint.
Q: What do you think of your impact innovation journey and progress since Climathon Houston 2020? Have you discovered anything new and/or surprising?
Ed Pettitt: Since the Climathon, we have learned a lot about the process of seeking funding and technical support for a microgrid startup. From submitting a Connected Communities grant application to the U.S. Department of Energy to partnering with Baker Botts for pro bono representation, I am very pleased with the progress we have made.
Bryan Gottfried: I echo Ed’s comments. This is an entirely new realm for me — from learning about various sources of funding to the numerous regulatory and technical challenges. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made considering we’ve been dealing with COVID throughout the life of the project, as well as the transition between federal administrations which has had a significant impact on policies and sources of funding.
Paresh Patel: It has been a discovery process on several levels. We’ve had to gather learnings and lessons on all aspects of building out a microgrid from the ground up. Our mission-driven model has resonated. There’s consensus that we should have a microgrid in the heart of Midtown as a source of resilient, sustainable energy — it’s become even more imperative in the wake of polar vortex Uri. We’ve been able to access industry leaders and stakeholders, forge partnerships, and consult a wide range of experts. Baker Botts and Schneider have helped us complete a project qualification study scoping the potential for a microgrid in the Innovation District. That’ll give us a clearer understanding of the technical and financial dimensions of the project, and will put us in a position to seek federal funding, grants, and other capital.
Q: How has your outreach to other organizations helped InnoGrid’s progress? Are there partnerships with similar organizations that you’d like to seek? Why?
Ed Pettitt: Our outreach to the Equity in a Clean Energy Economy (ECEE) Collaborative has opened up a number of opportunities to learn from and engage in best practices related to utility program design, customer research, public participation, and regulation and policy.
Bryan Gottfried: There are numerous individuals and organizations that have encouraged us and given us ideas on ways to push the project forward. I believe FEMA’s BRIC program (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) fits nicely with the goals of our project and I’m looking forward to exploring that avenue further as we move along in the process.
Paresh Patel: I too joined the ECEE with Ed. I’ve also had discussions on forming an alliance with Climable, which has developed community microgrids in the Boston area. We’re mission-aligned and their proven business model can be adapted for the Houston context. RMC is a key stakeholder, and we’d like to find a way to enlist them as a partner, with the potential to add The Ion and adjacent commercial buildings as a co-anchor site.
Q: Stakeholders such as the City of Houston and CenterPoint Energy are excited about InnoGrid’s plan. What do you think the next steps should be? How do you help stakeholders like these move forward?
Ed Pettitt: One of the next steps should involve the City of Houston facilitating a signed Community Benefits Agreement between Rice Management Company (RMC) and the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement (HCEDD) that includes a provision for affordable housing and equitable access to affordable energy (like that proposed by InnoGrid) in and around the Innovation Corridor.
Bryan Gottfried: One of our most significant hurdles is the Chicken-and-Egg situation: It’s hard to get property owners to participate in InnoGrid unless they receive incentives from the City, but it’s difficult for the City to offer those incentives without a better understanding of the scope and level of interest they’d see through property owners’ participation. Similarly, without knowing the interest from property owners and the scope and level of support from the City, it’s hard to have substantive conversations with CenterPoint about Innogrid. I believe we need to get both CenterPoint and the City to agree that InnoGrid is something they want to see happen and will incentivize property owners to participate in.
Paresh Patel: CenterPoint has been supportive, providing helpful guidance on technical aspects of interfacing InnoGrid with their infrastructure. To Bryan’s point, we want to explore specific ways to partner with CenterPoint once we have the project qualification study completed by Schneider Electric. The InnoGrid aligns with the goals of the City’s Climate Action Plan and the Resilient Houston plan. Naturally, the City’s ongoing support would be indispensable.
Q: What kinds of financing opportunities are you exploring or would help develop the InnoGrid?
Bryan Gottfried: I mentioned FEMA’s BRIC program above, and I think the Texas PACE program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) will be a resource that we can guide property owners to so they can install generation capability that can then be tied into the InnoGrid.
Paresh Patel: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes new funding streams for grid infrastructure, much of which could directly or indirectly boost microgrid demonstration and resiliency projects that we are tracking. We might also consider a crowdfunding campaign as a way to invite community buy-in and raise public awareness of the project.
Q: In your wildest dreams, what would InnoGrid’s future look like and how would it impact the Houston area?
Ed Pettitt: I envision an Innovation Corridor that supports entrepreneurism and small business development while providing stable, decentralized, and affordable energy through an innovative microgrid that contributes to job creation and equitable access to clean energy that prevents the displacement of long-term and working class residents.
Bryan Gottfried: I can’t say it any better than Ed did! I would also like the InnoGrid to become something that Houston is known for within the world of clean-tech, and have it cited as a model for other urban microgrids.
Paresh Patel: Ed captured it quite nicely. Once the initial InnoGrid site is proven, the value will become obvious to others. I’d like to see the InnoGrid evolve into a microgrid model that can be deployed to serve LMI households across Houston and beyond that are most vulnerable to energy poverty and insecurity as extreme weather events become more frequent. In sum, Equity through Resiliency.
Q: Any additional thoughts or information you’d like to share?
Bryan Gottfried: I could have never imagined that signing up for the Climathon last year would have led to this amazing experience. I’ve learned so much and met so many great people. I encourage anyone who is considering participating in it this year to do so–you never know where it may lead!
Paresh Patel: I second Bryan’s invitation. The Climathon catalyzed the random collisions and connections of ideas and innovators leading to this collaborative—and potentially transformative—project. A huge thanks to Impact Hub Houston and partners for hosting the Climathon!
The InnoGrid team has had quite a year and we’re excited to see their continued progress. We hope that their journey is an inspiration to others who want to catalyze action and make an impact. We invite everyone to join us for the Climathon 2021 Kick-off on October 25th. As Bryan Gottfried said: I encourage anyone who is considering participating in it this year to do so–you never know where it may lead!
The impacts of climate change are all around us, hitting our region more seriously and rapidly than models have predicted. We invite you to leverage Climathon Houston as a way to start ideating and innovating solutions or to continue working on and engaging people in solutions you may already be developing.
Come learn about this year’s challenges, connect with the teams, and get ready for the week! We’ll see you at Climathon!
She was born Joy, but chose Action as her moniker. “After all, an idea without action is worth nothing,” she says. This intense need to turn ideas into action pushed her to open a media production company for small businesses back in 2018. It was also what brought her to Impact Hub Houston, where she found support to build a business model for her most audacious project: The Black Business Lab. Action was one of the 8 founders to participate in the Female Founders Program, an initiative of Impact Hub sponsored by Frost Bank. From May to July 2021, Action worked closely with Impact Hub’s CEO, Grace Rodriguez, and received support from additional experts to build the Black Business Lab Project business model. “The Lab” is a spinoff of the Black Marketing Initiative, which she created to help black owners thrive in business.
To understand how she got here, we must look back to 2020, when COVID hit and caught her by surprise. At that time, Action was celebrating one-and-a-half years as head of Action One Media. She wanted to change the narrative about Black business owners and started by helping small businesses communicate with clients and the community through media content, especially in video format. The company was online but got its client base from having 20-100 people come to their small studio every week and doing events outside. Action decided to close the company as soon as COVID hit. The following three months were hard. She had no clients, no revenue, and no clue where to go next. But she knew she had to do something, and she decided to start by listening.
In June 2020, Action and her team–the Action Squad–led a survey with 226 small business owners. Over a hundred of them answered they were about to close if they didn’t get online. Action soon realized the need and the urgency to do something about it. She used the data from the survey to pivot her business and offer a well-rounded marketing strategy for clients.
“In a nutshell, you can get video to show your face. You get the consulting to know where to put your video and help yourself get the clients you want. And we can also save you time by automating the process for you.”
She implemented an entirely new system to meet the unique needs of small businesses. Finally, things started getting better, but Action was still not happy. She knew from the surveys that most owners couldn’t afford the service. Action was struggling herself to put her company back in business after months without revenue.
“We realized we didn’t need just to sell the services. We could create a program and offer the services to the business through the program funded by grants, crowdfunding or anything we could pull together to help Black owners.”
Impact Hub was crucial in implementing the first pilot she did with 16 Black owners. Grace Rodriguez even participated in some of the sessions and helped shape the business training. But Action wants to go further. Her next goal is to build a Black innovation corridor in South Houston. She compares it to other Houston initiatives, such as the Energy Corridor and The Museum District. She already gathered more than 20 businesses, and they are working together to create a safe space to help Black owners get the support, the funds and the collaboration they need to thrive.
Action’s pitch sounds firm and convincing. She says this was one of the best aspects of the Female Founders Program. The constant practice and interaction helped her strengthen her case for support. Frost Bank’s advisors also helped her build some new financing strategies, especially regarding balancing her statements.
“They gave their hearts to make sure we learned. These are things sometimes we ignore as founders. I got some strategies behind changing our financial year.”
The three intense months of coaching sessions and hard work also helped her build new perspectives on her business. “We got counsel from them to build up the part we were missing. If you are a service business like us, you think you don’t need a supply chain, for example. Until you answer those questions in the assessment that they gave us. That in itself opened my eyes the most. It gave me a different perspective. And you need all the perspective you can get.”
Since we are talking about Action, we shouldn’t be surprised by how fast she is putting everything she learned in the service of her community! She is working with partners to expand the Black Marketing Initiative into the Black Business Lab. They applied for grants and are developing an asset map for the Black Innovation Corridor. The project has the support of some of her largest clients, including NANCo Aero–an aerospace company creating a “flying car”; South Union CDC–a STEM Foundation for youth and seniors with a solar co-op; and The Fish Bowl Experience–a pitch competition that gives away up to $50,000 in funding to small businesses owned by college students, veterans, and entrepreneurs with serious hustle.
“The ability to be who we are, take action on the things that matter, and impact is a blessing. We can build business models that can be used by the world to improve the world while making money. The sky is no longer the limit.”
Founder and President of McMac Cx, a company devoted to safer and healthier buildings and environments, David MacLean shares his story behind the meaning of his mission and how Impact Hub Houston is helping to achieve his goals. McMac Cx aims to achieve SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. While SDG 11 is their primary goal, the company addresses needs that also target SDG 4: Quality Education and SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure.
David joined the Accelerate Membership Program to increase his knowledge on branding and marketing to further advance his goals for his company. His biggest challenge, he shares, is getting people to understand why they should care. Why is it important to create buildings which are above minimum code requirements?
It begins with addressing the unrealistic expectations of inhabitants and what creators can deliver with the institutional barriers getting in the way. That is where McMac Cx comes in. To minimize the sacrifices on the health and safety of citizens and maximize on impact, MacLean and his company look at first, costs of buildings while also evaluating what the social and environmental impact would be. They work with partners around the globe and use advanced social tech to have immediate implementation of sustainable improvements for a safer environment. David works diligently to change the reality of the current operation of buildings and create a standard that is above minimum code.
“The pivoting and changing conversation is all about education, and people understanding the order of magnitude of the problem.” David says.
As one of his current initiatives, David created the USGBC Texas Best Practices App as an educational tool and a way for members to connect with nonprofits and other organizations achieving similar altruistic passions. He is also the founding Board Member of the Texas Chapter of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) and created the Best Practices Committee as a platform of connection between the creators and inhabitants to work together.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about me doing something that anybody else can do” David says “it’s actually me helping somebody else over that lift so they can be more successful, because it’s about impact that we want to make, right.”
Part of the reason David was drawn to Impact Hub was because of the global Sustainable Development Goals they use as a guide and a lens for their work. Out of the 17 SDGs passed by the United Nations in 2015, IHH primarily focuses on six. David says the SDGs create a global language to articulate what is important and what more can be done. Although he strongly resonates with three or so of the goals, the Accelerate Program keeps him engaged in how the rest of the world is acting across the 14 other SDGs.
Looking ahead, David wants to keep growing his company nationally and globally. His current services are largely focused locally in Texas, but are all transferable to any other place in the world. He recently launched a global video competition to reach advocates across the world to become ‘Air Champions’ in their neighborhood. The video content focuses on why they think air quality is important. Although having McMac Cx recognized is a priority since it is a for-profit company, David prioritizes sending a certain message to his community which he is eagerly passionate about.
McMac Cx works with partners from around the globe to aggregate advanced Social Tech, allowing the immediate implementation of sustainable improvements that create positive social and environmental change. Its goal is to economically enable everyone to live, learn, work, and play in places that are safe, healthy, efficient, and prosperous. Learn more about McMac Cx and connect with David.
Our team at Impact Hub Houston is here to help you take your venture to the next level. Learn how with an Accelerate Membership.
Varina Rush has always carved her own path and believed in herself as a social entrepreneur leading her to where she is today as CEO and co-founder of AmazingBond, a for-profit company revolutionizing senior citizen care by creating a space for them to be seen, heard, and experience vitality. She joined Impact Hub Houston two years ago and shares her story focusing on SDG 3: Health and Well-Being. Varina developed a variety of small businesses starting with selling candy in high school to selling her art and jewelry about twenty years ago. Fast forward ten years, she started practicing yoga to help ease anxiety and used art as a way to create peace in her own life and others. She then worked with veterans struggling with PTSD, recovering addicts, and was an avid volunteer for seniors and caregivers.
“I had volunteered every year with Alzheimer’s Foundation and the caregiver foundation and would donate my time,” Varina said, “and this was really sort of in honor of my grandparents, my grandparents are very important to me. And my grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and my grandmother was his caretaker. And so a lot of times when I volunteered, it was giving back to them, sort of feeding my lineage.”
One day, three years ago, Varina reflected on the work she was doing. She was creating art, she was promoting healthy practices, and she was working with elderly people in her community, so why not create a business out of it? Looking back at her life, Varina says all the things she did unknowingly created this path for her business. When Varina heard about Impact Hub Houston, she was really into the concept of social entrepreneurship and says she joined at the right time. The pandemic drastically changed the plans of AmazingBond, forcing them to pivot and adapt to a virtual world.
“I remember talking to Michelle. We had a call and it was like I was just trying to hold it all together,” Varina says, “and I didn’t even know it but I just needed someone to listen and I had been strong for everyone. And I got on the call with her and I just started crying like…I don’t know what to do. And she gave some ideas, and it just was, you know, she just pumped some extra energy into me. And they’ve been really good at that. So I honestly don’t know, without the support, even if it was just listening, how we, you know, we would have survived the pandemic at certain moments.”
One remarkable moment for Varina was a workshop conducted by Grace Rodriguez on Lean Startup principles. The pandemic completely uprooted the practices of AmazingBond. They were unable to see their seniors, they were all isolated in their homes, and there was no way to help. The workshop taught her to get creative, to think outside the box, and how to work with practically nothing. Varina thought many seniors don’t have access to technology or they simply were never taught how to use it. However, what most of them do have is a phone. From this lesson, SeniorConnect was created.
This program pairs over 100 college and high school students in the Houston area with isolated seniors to have weekly 30-minute meaningful conversations to provide a connection. The program started as a way for students to get volunteer hours, but became something more. With time, students began to have real, meaningful conversations. They started learning things and unexpectedly relating to their seniors. This intergenerational program has connected a group of kids invested in their phones and social media to listen and develop a unique bond with a group of seniors who now feel empowered with something to offer.
“Most people don’t know that the people 85 and older have the second highest suicide rate,” Varina says, “you know, once you get a certain age, sometimes you’re invisible. And, and so they don’t feel like they have a reason to live. And that’s one of the reasons why we created SeniorConnect is…for them to experience that connection and experience the youth, right?”
Help us also celebrate Varina’s recent marriage to Allison Bond, who is both her life and business partner, in the midst of a pandemic. Varina came out to her parents when she was just 13 years old and never thought same-sex marriage would be possible in her adult life. She says the LGBTQ+ community has come a long way and how the world has changed in the last decade is significant. Varina and Allison got married in April 2021 at a place that holds special meaning to the couple: the Houston Arboretum. Every day during quarantine, they would have a 3-mile walk to the Arboretum and give it all to nature. It became a safe and sacred space for them and they knew that was the place they wanted to get married.
“I’m really happy for the young LGBTQ+, I know we still have a lot to go, but just how much more accepting it is in the world today than what I’ve seen. And then I’m also just really grateful that my family has gone through the process. And they were so welcoming to Allison and our relationship. And they actually said, you know, ‘it’s about time.’”
AmazingBond is changing the world for seniors and caregivers by improving their quality of life with therapeutic art, chair yoga, and tai chi. They believe at any age their tactics can be used to have good health and a positive mindset. Learn more about AmazingBond and connect with Varina. Connect with them on Instagram to stay updated on their journey!
Impact Hub Houston is here to help you take your venture to the next level. Learn how with an Accelerate Membership.
When you talk to Margo Jordan it is hard to imagine that she once suffered from low self-esteem. Yet, this confident and persuasive entrepreneur says she struggled when she was a little girl back in Milwaukee, WI, where she grew up. Today, she is a successful and passionate founder who turned her own struggle into an educational company that helps students overcome low self-esteem and depression. Her entrepreneurship journey started in 2013, after 10 years in the Army and a brief experience in the finance sector. She was only 26 years old when she opened her first company, a facility in Northeast Houston to offer enrichment programs for children, including day camps and workshops.
Thanks to a combination of creativity and strong knowledge in finance, Margo was able to develop her leadership skills and grow her business. But like many founders, she had to deal with unpredictable events that tested her resiliency and leadership skills. The first big challenge came in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey destroyed her facility in Northeast Houston. Nevertheless, Margo didn’t give up and was able to raise funds to continue serving families in Houston.
Two years later, another major disruption menaced her business. COVID forced her to stop the in-person programs, but also offered an opportunity to make a greater impact and help students cope with a new reality marked by isolation and uncertainty. She pivoted and focused all her efforts on her e-learning platform, Enrichly.
Currently, Enrichly has 500 subscribers and impacts more than 10,000 students from different grade levels and backgrounds. The platform offers self-esteem-based learning workshops and curriculum, live content with teens and influencers, and mental health resources. The goal is to help members build their confidence, recognize their capabilities, and put limitations in perspective. According to Margo, having high self-esteem helps prevent depression, anxiety disorders, and even suicide. It affects all aspects of life including academic performance.
When parents and schools from countries worldwide started coming back to her for help, she realized she was dealing with a global issue and started expanding her business outside the US. Her platform currently reaches members from 12 countries, mainly parents and educators trying to help students overcome depression and low self-esteem. Margo is also negotiating with corporations and schools in countries such as Brazil and the United Arab Emirates. Her most recent contract was with the Arabian American School, which will bring a self-esteem learning program to their campus middle school students in Dubai.
The power of connections
As a visionary entrepreneur, Margo thinks it is important to take risks and learn from mistakes. She recognizes the value of connections and resources for her business. In 2021, Margo was selected to participate in a three-month support program offered by Impact HUB Houston in partnership with Frost Bank. Since May, she and seven additional Founder women had weekly meetings with advisors and mentors to refine their business model. The program has also helped them gain a deeper understanding of business and financial management, while working on their pitching and funding model.
“The amount of resources we received are invaluable. Being able to connect with Grace and Michelle has allowed me to put some of the pieces I’ve been missing together. Grace and I worked on my diagnostic and defined a lot of what my company does and gave me a more concrete plan moving forward. This was very instrumental in making sure I’m capturing my impact more efficiently,” says Margo.
Margo’s next steps include launching the Enrichly app and growing her membership program. She is also working on a side project to help students develop leadership skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. She admits it was particularly difficult to build her reputation and raise money being a Black woman, and she wants to inspire others to believe in themselves and fight for their dreams. Considering her personal story, and the passionate way she talks about her mission, Margo is certainly a great inspiration.