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5 Incubators That Are Shaping the Future of Green Business

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5 Incubators That Are Shaping the Future of Green Business

If  you're a startup housed by a business incubator, odds are you're in good hands.

The National Business Incubation Association (NBIA) estimates that 87 percent of the firms that have graduated from their member incubators are still in business. The organization also says that those graduates create jobs, revitalize neighborhoods and innovate new technologies at a much faster rate than their counterparts who go it alone.

The benefits to companies and their customers only increase when those incubators espouse sustainable practices or primarily deal with environmentally conscious firms. Whether their tenants create technologies to deploy renewable energy, sell organic foods or engage in any other mode of sustainability, green business incubators provide the working space and infrastructure startups need to grow into the environmentally sound enterprises they likely dream of becoming one day.

Here's a quick look at five green business incubators around the country.

Green Spaces

Green Spaces New York Office. Photo credit: Green Spaces

Green Spaces houses about 100 firms between its New York City and Denver offices, along with the legacies of dozens who have expanded beyond their walls.

In New York, you'll find businesses ranging from a.d.o. (Anjelika Dreams Organic), a clothing creator with products in stores in states like Alabama, California, New York, West Virginia and more, to Via, a premium transportation service that provides rides to New Yorkers in WiFi-enabled vans while saving the emissions those individuals' vehicles would have contributed to the atmosphere.

"The energy at Green Spaces is so inspiring," Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender said after a visit. "Spend an afternoon with them and you'll witness how this coworking space is creating real, innovative systems [and] change for our country's new economy."

Rutgers EcoComplex

Photo credit: Rutgers University

The Rutgers University EcoComplex is known as New Jersey's first environmental research and outreach center, but it also houses a few startup companies with their eyes on contributing to a greener planet.

The EcoComplex's business incubator segment was once home to TerraCycle, which now operates in 20 countries and makes $2o million per year, according to NBIA's New Jersey chapter. The company moved into the EcoComplex in 2004. Three years later, the company was selling its products in Walmart and Home Depot.

“The incubator saved TerraCycle,” CEO Tom Szaky said. “We were going broke. We had to install our unit to demonstrate how we could produce our product. At the EcoComplex, we had access to the whole Rutgers team.

"We really only started raising money once we were in the EcoComplex, because that gave us great credibility that allowed us to accelerate our business and grow. Without the incubator back then, we never would have made it through.”

The Rutgers facility has been providing resources for green businesses like TerraCycle since 2001.

Green Exchange

Photo credit: Green Exchange

With a 272,000-square-foot, LEED Platinum-certified building in Chicago's Logan Square area, it's easy to understand why the incubator deems itself the largest green business community in the U.S.

The facility is home to Climate Cycle, a nonprofit that hosts the annual Ride to Recharge biking event—a Downtown Chicago event that has raised $360,000 since 2009. That money has helped pay for 13 solar panel arrays at 11 schools, along with various sustainability projects at about 40 schools.

Customized organic garden provider We Farm America and the Green Choice Bank—a Certified B Corporation—are among the 21 tenants at the Exchange. Altogether, tenant companies represent about 1,500 workers.

The Green Exchange will serve as an example for the forthcoming Madison Sustainability Commerce Center in Wisconsin.

Project for Innovation, Energy & Sustainability (PiES)

Photo credit: Project for innovation, Energy and Sustainability (PiES)

This Davidson, N.C. incubator has been the home of startups like Focal Point EnergyEco-Revolution and more. In addition to office space, the group offers public relations and marketing assistance, as well as networking events like the monthly “Green Drinks.” The facility will also host the Green Idea Factory Competition as part of the North Carolina Science Festival.

PiES is also planning a South Carolina location in the future.

NYC Accelerator for a Clean and Resilient Economy (NYC ACRE)

Photo credit: NYC Accelerator for a Clean and Resilient Economy (NYC ACRE)

Located in New York City's SoHo neighborhood, NYC ACRE houses 13 tenants with more than 150 employees. The companies raised $32.3 million in investments as of 2013.

The incubator specifically targets clean energy and technology companies, and has drawn praise from the likes of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"(NY ACRE) shows how local action on climate change can spur private innovation and help cities become a model for environmental sustainability and economic recovery," he said. 

Tenants include HEVO Power, the company that created a pavement-based wireless charging network for electric vehicles, and solar industry financial advisory firm DG Energy Partners. NYC ACRE's graduate list features ThinkEco, which is now a $2.5 million company that used the incubator's guidance to deploy an air conditioner efficiency technology that was used in about 10,000 units across New York City, according to NBIA.

"The incubator’s advice, support, community and services helped ThinkEco establish itself in the market," ThinkEco founder Jun Shimada said. "Our mission to reduce energy usage matched up well with ACRE’s mission to develop a low-carbon economy in New York City.”

Visit EcoWatch’s SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS page for more related news on this topic.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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