(Photo by Flickr user Sue, used under a Creative Commons license)
Joseph J. James wants to bring a new kind of urban farming to Baltimore that can help clean up contaminated sites and improve air quality, all while creating jobs in the city.
The key? Crops that can reach up to 20 feet called biomass sorghum, and a process that James’ company ATP-MD created to grow and harvest them as a renewable source.
“We have a way of taking care of environmental matters using the crops, harvesting the crops and then converting them into a variety of bioproducts that are also good for the environment,” James said.
As it looks to grow in Mid-Atlantic cities, ATP-MD is one of 10 startups developing technology addressing climate change that is getting investment from the Climate Change Investment Initiative (2c2i).
The initiative is a partnership between the Exelon Foundation and Exelon Corp., the Fortune 100 energy company which is the parent of Baltimore utility BGE and has a large local employment base in a namesake tower in Harbor East. 2c2i is making its first round of equity investments totaling $1 million ($100,000 per company) and providing another $1 million through in-kind support by offering access to members of Exelon’s internal innovation team for guidance. Applications are open for the next round of startups it is looking to fund.
It’s the kind of program we’re used to seeing from nonprofit incubators and universities. Now, add one of the towering names in Baltimore’s business community — with a dual environmental and social mission. 2c2i shows where Exelon sees a role for early-stage companies in mitigating and adapting for climate change. According to Chris Gould, Exelon’s senior VP of corporate strategy and chief innovation and sustainability officer, these are companies “that have some of the best up and coming ideas that can really make a difference if they’re properly incubated and helped along the way. We thought this was a special way for us to get involved where others might not take that risk.”
With the program, it is also working directly to address goals and objectives set out by the cities where it operates. In Baltimore, for instance, it is guided by the city’s climate action plan, which was released by the Baltimore Office of Sustainability after getting input across the city.
One of the startups that is getting support is working directly with the city on that effort. Dynamhex is implementing its platform that brings together data on emissions so that policymakers and staff can get a look at that info and compare it to what they need to be doing relative to the city’s climate goals. The city is interested both in the impacts of the fleet and buildings that it operates, as well as spreading info to the community as a whole.
“To bring it altogether we need more collaboration and that’s what excited us about Exelon as an organization broadly and in terms of investment,” Sanwar said.
Exelon's support will vary based on the startups' needs, but can help provide insights in areas like the operations of a power grid and finances, or making an introduction to a local stakeholder.
The Kansas City-based company opened a Mid-Atlantic office in Fells Point in the fall, where two employees, including CEO Sunny Sanwar, are based. Sanwar sees Baltimore as a “very vibrant” startup community and is looking to scale not just Dynamhex, but also to help others and play a role in the community.
It’s one of at least four startups out of the 10 companies that are looking to work in Baltimore, or already are. New Ecology, which has an office in Baltimore, developed a remote monitoring and optimization system that’s designed to improve performance of buildings in the affordable, multifamily housing sector. Radiator Labs, which makes technology to solve the problem of uneven heating in apartment buildings, is looking to bring the solution to buildings in the area through partnership with Exelon.
“We think there’s an advantage to attracting new technology and startups into the region. We think there’s an obvious advantage to helping homegrown ones and if you do both going to end up with a very vibrant ecosystem,” Exelon’s Gould said, adding that half of the startups are women and minority-owned.
Gould points out that “the impacts of climate change have not always been equal” and 2c2i also takes a particular focus on underserved communities.
That resonates with James, of ATP-MD. Over a 33-year career in economic development leadership roles that has taken him to Prince George’s County, Philly and Chicago, he has carried Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insight that economic justice was a part of the fight for equality. “If you could add value to whatever the assets were to a city or community, that’s a way to create jobs,” he said.
He created the production process that’s at the heart of ATP-MD after arriving in South Carolina and seeing poverty in rural areas: “If you could add value to biomass it was a way to create jobs that were essentially tied to the land, tied to the communities,” he said. The biomass from these crops have uses as eco-friendly fillers for certain products when they are ground up, and he sees manufacturing those products in the same area where they are grown as way to create local jobs. With vertical farms, James said the crop that typically lives for a six-month period can be extended to year-round.
On Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a test crop the Salisbury-based company’s process has been used to grow the biomass sorghum, which can remove excess phosphorous — a pollutant found in fertilizer — from the soil. The crops themselves were then shredded and used as bedding in poultry houses.
They also have benefit for the community around them while growing, James said. In Baltimore, James sees potential for the crops to be used to help clean the many brownfield sites that remain as a result of the city’s industrial past, where the roots could pull substances out of the soil. It is also an effective crop at capturing C02, so could be planted near power plants or in areas of the city where there are heat islands and low air quality to help filter out particulate matter.
“There are all kinds of applications that we’d like to explore over time that would make a contribution to better health, particularly for poor inner city communities,” he said, adding that the company is looking to open an office in Baltimore.
Like the other startups, James will now be among the founders that can work with Exelon’s innovation team as they develop and scale products. This support will vary based on the startups’ needs, but can help provide insights in areas like the operations of a power grid and finances, or to make an introduction to a local stakeholder.
In supporting the companies, Gould said the goal is to help the startups get through the “valley of death” that many startups face and be attractive to the next round of investors. Though Exelon is making an equity investment and the goal is to eventually exit, any returns would ultimately go back to the foundation. Rather, the goal is to get to the next level.
“We want to be very flexible and helpful to the startup, recognizing that they’re early,” he said. “Given that this is philanthropic funding we can do that.”
When it comes to larger corporate entities support startups, Exelon sees the investment as a “more lasting” way to support the development of the company as a whole through the management team, product and offering support, as well as send a signal to others who may be interested in investing.
“We think it positions them stronger in the market for follow-on funding than to do a one-off grant,” Gould said.
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