Rewire: Another unexpected road taken

Transitions. I'm no longer the guy on the right, having shifted to the guy on the left. Sometimes -- OK, most of the time -- one can't plan what's ahead, as we've proven time and again. Three months ago we were in Bolivia, a country caught up as much in the past as in the future. Today, we're in downtown Los Angeles working on this city's (and country's) future. Go figure.

Three years ago I drank the Kool Aid regarding the importance of “sustainability” to this country’s (planet’s?) future.  It’s all Neal and Mark’s fault (my partners at The Propellant Group) as they had launched the Automotive X Prize, a competition awarding $10M to the team that could produce a production capable car that could get at least 100 mpg.  It was a pretty amazing project that even a Jaguar driver like me could appreciate.  Much like a sinner who is forced to live in a monastery,  I couldn’t really ignore  the evidence that Mark, Neal and crew kept harping on; this country’s future was tied to eliminating its dependence on foreign fossil-based fuels.  And the planet was burning way too much fuel to either be sustainable or not to punch a hole in the atmosphere.   The only way to do this, no matter how long it takes, was to shift to sustainable energy sources.  Things like solar, or wind, or bio fuels, or… whatever.

But I wasn’t selling the Jaguar just yet.

Me and Antonio as he announced the Cleantech Los Angeles partnership on the steps of City Hall.

One thing led to another and I found myself working with various formal and informal groups dedicated to making Los Angeles a cleantech economic center.   There were lots of meetings:  with  the Mayor’s economic development staff, with the Community Redevelopment Agency/LA, with the Los Angeles County of Economic Development Corporation, with  UCLA, and the technology transfer office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  I was even  invited to the press conference on the steps of City Hall in which the Mayor announced the “Cleantech Los Angeles” partnership between the Mayor, UCLA, USC, Caltech, JPL, LAEDC, Los Angeles Business Council, and the Chamber of Commerce.

But I felt like an interloper in these groups as they were all long-time dedicated green advocates and I was a new convert who didn’t know much.  Moreover, what I did know — how to build companies and make money — was as strange to them as bio-fuels were to me.  I began writing a series of white papers on what the City needed to do to implement Mayor Villaraigosa’s vision.   These were not met with open arms and most disappeared into basement storage under City Hall.

After a couple of years of tilting at windmills, I slowly faded away…

Alternative sources of energy and "off the grid" delivery is transforming small villages in third world countries across the globe. This solar panel is on a floating island in Lake Titicaca, Peru. It's funny how one small solar panel hooked up to a car battery can change lives so thoroughly; a family can gather around the kitchen table at night doing homework together, or listen to the radio, or charge a cell phone, or put florescent lights in rooms. All stuff we take for granted, but much of the world just doesn't have because of ... NO AFFORDABLE, ACCESSIBLE, SUSTAINABLE ENERGY SOURCE.

Then in March while Karen and I were in La Paz, Boliva I got a call from the person who wrote the business plan for Los Angeles’ cleantech incubator.  He wanted to know if I was interested in applying for the new position of Executive Director of the yet to be built Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a quasi-government initiative funded by several City organizations.   There were no promises, of course, as this would be an open competition, but he knew of my interest and thought I might be a good fit.  Just having a conversation via Skype in the middle of Carnival  in a city that had yet to discover traffic signals was an accomplishment in and of itself.   I said “yes” and wrote a proposal a couple days later in Cochabamba, Bolivia and sent it off.

We proposed that the Propellant Group run the new incubator, that  I would lead as Executive Director and my partner Neal Anderson would serve as Assistant Director.   We were a long shot as neither of us had any experience with running incubators, but we were both very experienced in helping early stage technology companies grow and prosper — the core task of any incubator.

In the remote chance that we would be called in for an interview, I modified our trip’s route, skipping all of  Brazil and heading straight for Buenos Aires.  Less than two weeks later Now Voyage was on a ship sailing north and we were sitting in the leather winging our way to Los Angeles.  I’ve already written about the shock of “re-integrating” with normal life in Hollywood in past posts (Stranger in a Strange Land). A couple of weeks later we were in for a real shock.

After three sets of interviews, Neal and I won the contract to manage the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) for the City of Los Angeles.  Everything about our plans–  Neal’s, Karen’s, mine — changed in an instant.  Things would be different going forward.   Once again, I didn’t have a clue  as to how much they would change, but I did my usual when being thrown into a new challenge — I shifted into high gear and raced full speed ahead.

Time out for a footnote explanation of what a cleantech incubator is. First question I’m asked is, “what is clean technology?”  Answer:  there is no one answer, but it includes all the processes and technologies related to the sustainable consumption of our natural resources. It includes companies involved in clean automotive, energy efficiency, energy generation and storage, water efficiency, pollution reduction, waste management and related fields.   Things like wind, solar, electric vehicles, and  the “smart grid” necessary to integrate all of this into the current electrical transmission grid.

Now, what the heck is an incubator?  It’s an organization — in this case a non-profit funded by city/county agencies — that is dedicated to helping very early stage cleantech companies grow and become successful by:  (1)  providing them with fully fitted-up office/lab space, at a reduced rate and with no lease requirements;  (2) Providing them CEO coaching and mentoring by very senior people who’ve been there, done that;  (3) Introducing them into a network that can help them get funding, find customers, find the right talent, etc. ; and (4) Giving them access to domain experts that are willing to help them for lower, preferably no, rates.

Back on the road to... conferences of all sorts. Bad news is that one could go to some cleantech event every day and night. Good news is that one can learn a lot from going to as many as possible.

Why is the City of Los Angeles in the cleantech incubator business? Because the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) will become the City’s economic equivalent of its farm team, growing our own cleantech companies here in Los Angeles.  It all comes down to J_O_B_S.   In this case, high paying jobs in a high growth industry.   And jobs are incredibly important in the US, but perhaps even more so in California/Los Angeles where the unemployment rate is at least two percentage points above the national average.

Here’s an article in the LA Times that touches on the importance of incubators:,0,1977549.story

This is game-changing stuff, if arguably ahead of its time.   Why?  Well, because sooner or later, whether its two, ten , twenty or fifty years from now, the United States of America will have to rebuild its energy infrastructure causing the greatest industrial shift in my generation.  Don’t believe me? well join the crowd of skeptics and naysayers.  But this isn’t the first technology-driven industrial revolution that I’ve been a part of.  First up was the advent of personal computers (Why do YOU need a computer, you can have a terminal to our mainframe that we’ve just spent millions and millions on…What’s this “Power to be your best” shit?) and then the Internet (Where’s the business model?  People won’t actually buy things online, it’s too risky. People aren’t going to stop reading newspapers…). At every step of the way during these revolutions, there’s been huge resistance and skepticism by whatever powers to be will be affected. It’s natural and to be expected.   But sustainable energy is coming, and its going to change everything.

OK, back to Planet Walti. Being selected as LACI’s Executive Director pretty much changed everything for Karen and I as well.   All long-distance travel has been put off a bit.  We needed a more substantial home base in Los Angeles than my one room apartment afforded.  KR found herself “stuck” in Puerto Vallarta without Her Man for much longer periods of time than either of us originally envisioned.   Now that I worked for the City and worked in the City, I felt we needed to live downtown. I even had to pull the suits out of storage and get back in the saddle of the “hi, how are ya?” circuit of serious networking.   And I’d soon have an office to report to for the first time in years.

When I started The Restless Traveler,  I wanted to write about how one goes about rewiring their lives. It’s something that KR and I have been actively, purposely doing for a couple of years now.   We downsized; shed unneeded responsibilities; found a new, cheaper base of operations; learned how to make a living from most anywhere; and looked forward to figuring out how to get control of our lives and how we made a living.   We were in the process of totally changing how we lived our lives.  And then this happened.  Now what?

Building LACI certainly requires a rewire, but of a different sort and on a different plane than I had imagined.  I hesitate to predict what’s next, having a rather bad track record of charting what’s ahead so far.  Not too long ago KR nailed a poster to one of LBS’s walls that pretty much sums up my thinking:


And so we will. It’s always good to hear from you.  Please don’t hesitate to send me your thoughts — good, bad or ugly — as Karen and I really enjoy them.


The beginning. Neal and I go to LACI's temporary building to inspect construction progress. Reps from the Mayor's office, CRA, DWP, the PR department, the architect, etc. came out to see the progress too.

One month later and all we're waiting for is furniture and IT

Ian (new LACI Operations Mgr), Alex Paxton (CRA champion) and I get the keys to LACI's temporary home

Almost done. LACI's temporary home is 4000 sq ft and will house 4-6 cleantech start-ups while permanent 25,000 sq. ft. facility is being built-out. Permanent home will house 20-25 companies along with space for labs, demonstrations, prototype manufacturing and a public park (this is LA, after all)

A four mile swath of land that borders the LA River in eastern downtown Los Angeles has been designated a development area called the Cleantech Corridor. Made up of mostly warehouses and other industrial buildings today, LACI is on one of the few streets in the Corridor with any retail activity. The Urth Caffe is a goldmine as it serves as THE meeting place for downtown workers and government officials.

A block away from LACI are old warehouses, most of which are empty, awaiting their new fate as live/work lofts or other "creative" space.

Old habits die hard. One of the first places I found was The ONE bar in the area. Villains was established way back in 2010.

LACI is located in the "Arts District," hence the high concentration of murals painted on buildings. This is a combo brewery/art gallery, The Angel City Beer Garden, which sounds weird but works pretty well once you're inside. A couple of brewskies and the art starts to look like art : )

Down the street is the Southern California Institute of Architecture, in the long dock-loading warehouse on the left.

Across Alameda is Little Tokyo, with enough Sushi places to put the hurt on Tuna across the Pacific.

Quicker than you can say, "tall drip please," I found the local Starbucks in Little Tokyo. Statue out front is of a Japanese diplomat stationed in Europe who issued more than 3000 exit Visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust in defiance of his government.

My contribution to sustainability is taking LA's public transportation whenever I can. Whether its the Amtrak to Ventura or the Red Line to Hollywood, most things go through Union Station, which is an art deco masterpiece.

Looming like a giant pink elephant, the largest clothing manufacturer in the US is located a couple blocks south. American Apparel has been controversial from day one, partly because of its immigration stance and party because of the sexual habits of its CEO. I find it hard to believe that employing people -- anyone willing to do the work -- is a bad thing and continue to wonder about the wisdom of wanting to deport illegal immigrants.

I decided to move close to LACI in the Arts District. My thinking,what there was of it, was I needed to "live it in order to sell it." Two blocks away I found a loft development called Factory Place. It's a campus of old converted buildings with a mix of work/live lofts and (eventually) retail space. That's one of the buildings on the right.

I knew I'd like living any place which has a new Lotus in the parking lot. My apartment is right over its nose. #117 was the last to rent as it was too small for most people.

Neighbors were impressed that I made it to the pool on the first day after moving in. It's been a while since the girls around the pool had seen Abs like mine.

This is the office, living room, dining room, den and guest bedroom.

Kitchen and "master" bedroom

Back home south of the border KR has taken in a new companion -- Lola. Both Lola and Lilly have bum legs and hop around on the remaining three. Lilly might need an operation, although we're hoping not. I went home to PV in May and KR is coming up to Los Angeles in July. Makes for long periods of talking on the phone twice a day...

After more than a month on a ship (background), I picked up NOW VOYAGER on the Ventura docks. For the trip back, I used the roll-on, roll-off method which way easier and a whole lot less expensive.

Contrary to my fears, roll-on, roll-off didn't mean that NV sat on deck in the salt air, but was in a special RoRo ship all safe and sound. That's not to say that NV didn't need a little freshening, but it wasn't because of the ship ride home.

My version of a Man Cave is a Man Driveway out front of my apartment. NV spend two months in the dealership getting freshened. The Bullet was ready to go as soon as I got home -- pretty damn surprising since its a Jaguar.

Don't go in THIS water. KR and my motorcycle suits get the South American dirt soaked out in my new bathtub.

Almost ready to go again. July sun readies our road armor in anticipation of... hell if I know:)

12 replies
  1. Joe says:


    What a hipster! Looks like we’ll have to do FMI Reunion Dinner with Erick, Mark, Mark, Bill in Little Tokyo very soon!

  2. Jayson says:

    You are inspiring, Fred. Your inspiration is the reason I came to work at Full Moon Interactive Group almost 15 years ago. And your inspiration is why I can’t look away. What a fascinating path to explore. As a fellow adventurer (not nearly as robust a resume, however), I’ve been piloting several discussions with our Audi clients regarding the future of the brand, the automobile and the transportation industry; much of this points to the same horizon – smarter technology and cleaner engineering. It would be great to hear more details on what and how you and the LACI group are up to. Might be that we can join forces again… if only for a coffee. 😉 Congratulations and keep the stories coming! And bring KR back for goodness sake. I can’t stand the idea of her out there alone. Much love and respect, Jayson

  3. Sam and Jill says:

    Awe-inspiring, impressive, scary and great reading as usual Mr. Walti. All of us that know you are proud of your endeavour to save LA and the planet. Who’d have thought a “Mad Man” who pushed Apple Computers and other BBDO and Full Moon brands to an uneducated and unprepared world would be on the forefront of the future? We know LACI will be successful with you at the helm.

  4. FHW says:

    Jason- It would be good to touch base. There’s a pretty popular restaurant in the neighborhood where we could have lunch/coffee or something stronger after the day is done. It’s called Urth Caffe. Give me a couple of dates. fred

  5. Chuck says:

    Hi Fred……….you are in an interesting place in an interesting time to say the least. It’s almost like putting Exxon in charge of climate change science. (just kidding).

  6. Carlos says:

    I didn’t get to finish my last note…..? For some big picture idea of where we, as a species, are headed I suggest you become familiar with Jeremy Rifkin if you already haven’t. From my perspective he is right on target.
    here’s a link……..cheers

  7. Gregg & Tish says:

    Good summary of an exciting new venture for Mssr. Walti. Happy to have visited all the sights first hand – especially Villains.

  8. FHW says:

    Ha! At least you didn’t say putting Enron in charge… Well, someone has to figure out how to make a business out of this green stuff: ) I guess I’m the man. fw

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