We’re pleased to introduce David Kenney, Executive Director of VertueLab, as this week’s Sponsor Spotlight.
OEN: Hi David, thanks for supporting OEN! Tell us about your role in the local entrepreneurial community.
DK: VertueLab’s role is to support entrepreneurs solving major environmental challenges. We’re really focused on the climate crisis because it’s such a pressing challenge for the world. We recognize the important role that technology innovation can play in solving that crisis and many other environmental challenges, but those technologies often have more difficulty accessing funding and the support they need to get to market because they can take a lot of research, time, and capital to develop.
OEN: What type of entrepreneurs are you best suited to support?
DK: Early stage cleantech (or climate tech). We fill a gap before traditional investors usually get involved. We partner with a range of entrepreneurs including those emerging out of university labs as well as mid-career professionals who have been working in industry and then have a burning desire to solve a problem that they’ve seen. We’re well-suited for folks that have a lot of technical expertise and are working to develop business expertise as well.
OEN: What qualifies as Cleantech?
DK: Cleantech, or climate tech, can mean a lot of things. With climate impact, we’re looking at any technology that can reduce the amount of emissions being put out into the atmosphere. That comes from electricity generation, but also enabling technologies like batteries and other energy storage technologies. That’s all part of making renewables a viable technology at scale so we can get to 100% clean energy. Other areas include transportation, food and agriculture, and other concepts that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
OEN: What do you think is the opportunity for Oregon’s entrepreneurial economy to grow?
DK: I think one of the key things is to define what we mean by grow. One of the challenges that has perpetuated systemic racism and caused climate change is the “grow at all costs” wealth orientation of our dominant culture. The mainstream business community paradigm is still growth, and growth is required for economic success, but there’s a key opportunity right now for our region to define growth in a way that creates a model for sustainability — both environmental sustainability and social equity. I feel like there are a lot of people — even in the business community, not just activists — who actually are thinking about these questions. I feel like if there’s anywhere that could potentially try to show that you can have a successful business community that’s not creating more problems than it’s solving, it might be here. Every time I hear that word “success” or “growth,” I want to make sure that we’re defining those terms from the start.
OEN: What are your most common recommendations to first time entrepreneurs?
DK: Talk to customers or people you think are your customers before you finish developing your product, or even start. Our Cascadia CleanTech Accelerator program is a structured way to support them doing this. We encourage founders to talk to as many potential customers as possible to understand whether the solution they’re envisioning actually meets a need. A technology alone is not a solution is one of the things we emphasize for them.
OEN: What do you think should be OEN’s role in the entrepreneurial community?
DK: Part of the value proposition of OEN is that it works across sectors. I think there’s a role for OEN in connecting and cross-pollinating.
OEN’s had a chance to reinvent itself. If it chooses to, it can really help infuse some of the things that we were just talking about into the entrepreneur community here. We all want to be viewed positively by those in our ecosystem, so if we can create a culture where it’s the right thing to do to be concerned about climate change, it’s the right thing to do to be concerned about racism, it’s the right thing to do to be concerned about wealth inequality, and therefore we’re all going to try to build companies that are designed to, at a minimum, not make those worse, and maybe even to solve some of those problems.
I think OEN can play a big role in making sure that every entrepreneur it touches, just like we’re trying to do at VertueLab, it’s making people more aware, asking them questions and making them think about, “What is the composition of your team now, and how can you make it more diverse? Who benefits from your product and technology? Is it making the world better or worse?” Sometimes it’s a trivial question that just never really lands, and that’s the worst case scenario. Best case — it makes someone think and changes their trajectory.
To learn more about VertueLab, please visit https://www.vertuelab.org/. Help VertueLab support Cleantech entrepreneurs by entering their Earth Day raffle from now thru April 23rd! https://vertuelab.org/earthday