Part 1: The Journey
From the Garage to Around the Globe and Back Again
One Sunday morning in March of 2011, I was recovering from a night of partying in La Paz Bolivia. The Bolivian’s throw a pretty wicked Carnival. Karen (my wife) and I could never resist a good party, especially a street party in a new city. We’d spent the winter in South America riding our motorcycle. I felt we were just getting started on our m/c journey, while Karen felt it was about time to call it quits. Then the phone rang and everything changed.
Jim called to ask if I was interested in starting up a new incubator in Los Angeles focused on clean technologies. Jim was a consultant to the City of Los Angeles, preparing the RFP seeking candidates to lead the project, and he was pretty persuasive that I should apply. Three weeks later I was in LA, interviewing for the job. In June 2011 my partner, Neal Anderson, and I got the contract to build a cleantech incubator for Los Angeles. I would become CEO and Neal would be COO.
Three weeks later I was standing in a gutted 2000 sq. ft. bus repair garage, wondering one thing — how could this empty building become anything? Frankly, few people believed that we could/should build a business incubator dedicated to clean technologies in Los Angeles. Most thought the concept of LACI wouldn’t amount to much. What was cleantech? What was an incubator? Why should the City spend its money on this with all its other problems? I went through 1,500 business cards that first year trying to answer those questions and many more.
We sold our house in the Hollywood Hills and moved three blocks away from LACI. We needed to be all in if this was going to work. Not because I wanted to make a lot of money, but because I thought it was the right thing to do, that it would help the citizens of Los Angeles, and primarily the citizens of Boyle Heights, East LA, Lincoln Heights, and South Central. It was my way of giving back.
Over the past six years the team at LACI has figured out how to create an ecosystem that helps entrepreneurs make their ideas a reality. I’ve seen the power that creating a nourishing environment and providing practical support can have on the entrepreneur, on the community, on the country, and on students. We’ve helped build these “things” for the City of Los Angeles, the City of Fremont, Mexico City, the State of Washington, CSUN, the Port, and Ethiopia.
Here’s a touch of background on LACI for those of you who don’t know much about it and want to. The Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator brings together capital, universities, research, government support, entrepreneurs, corporate partners, and business leaders to drive innovation throughout the regional, state, and (now) global economy. LACI has helped 100+ companies raise $135M+, create 1,500+ jobs, and delivered more than $340M in long term economic value for the City of Los Angeles. As a result, LACI has ranked in the UBI Global’s coveted “Global Top 10” in 2014, 2015 and 2016. LACI was also selected as the Department of Energy’s clean energy incubator for the State of California and the California Energy Commission’s manager of its Southern California Clean Energy Innovation Cluster.
In December 2015 LACI moved into the 60,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art La Kretz Innovation Campus which houses all of LACI’s Portfolio Companies as well as providing chemistry and electronics labs and prototyping center. LACI is the only incubator that is housed in the same facility as the R&D department of a major utility (the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power).
Building LACI has been the most rewarding work of my life. I’ve learned a lot about government, how to grow economies, what cleantech entrepreneurs need, and what I’m good at (and what I’m not). Building a complex entrepreneurial support system is part hard work, part smarts, and a whole lot of “magic.” How do you get all the pieces to click? I’ve spent six years figuring that out.
Now it’s time for my “Next Big Thing”.
Strangely enough, I first glimpsed my future when visiting one of the oldest places on earth – the Cradle of Civilization. Frankly, visiting Ethiopia was pretty much a shock to the system. It’s a country where women spend the majority of their day getting water and preparing food, while the men and boys farm with truly ancient farm tools. How could this ancient, backward country represent the future of cleantech? Well that’s for Part 2 of this story.