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With Hugo Mkhize

How project accelerators can propel your climate startup forward

You’ve likely heard of the typical startup accelerator that caters to early-stage companies across various sectors, offering a broad range of support to help founders refine their business models, develop products, and secure initial funding. While there are a growing number of well-regarded accelerator programs in climate, there’s also a unique set of players in town: a niche of programs targeted at scale-ready hard tech startups with a specific focus on project deployment.  

Introducing ‘accelerators for projects,’ such as those offered by Black & Veatch's IgniteX and Elemental Excelerator's Project Track, that focus on startups ready for scaling and deploying green infrastructure in specific industries, offering targeted support for project development, testing, and market entry. They provide mentorship, industry networks, and funding, emphasizing real-world application and scaling. These accelerated partnership programs are structured specifically for startups eager to test, pilot, and market their innovations but lacking the requisite support, including but not limited to engineering and design assistance, procurement services, and marketing and sales development.

In this piece, co-produced with Hugo Mkhize, we’ll look at why accelerators for projects are so transformative for climate startups, what you need to know before applying, and how you can make the most of your participation. This is the third of 5 pieces produced in partnership between Enduring Planet and Hugo, building on his research: A Financial Guidebook for U.S. Startups: Crossing Climate’s Valleys of Death and Achieving Scale.

The benefits of project-focused accelerator programs

1. Project-specific guidance from an expert in your field
Even if you’re working on a highly technical solution that requires specialized knowledge, a good program will be able to match you with seasoned professionals with profound industry knowledge and experience putting steel into the ground.  These programs are designed to help startups refine their projects, scale up implementation, and navigate the complexities of bringing innovative solutions to market, providing both financial and strategic resources to ensure successful project deployment and growth. This support helps in refining project construction plans, developing contingency strategies, and overcoming project-related challenges.

2. Project development support
An integral part of a good project-focused accelerator is ensuring your business has the resources to enable you to scale up project design and deployment. They’ll also provide you with access to co-development opportunities, partners, and other key ecosystem stakeholders to provide assistance in enhancing project execution.

3. Put your tech to the test
Project-focused accelerator programs offer real-world testing environments for startups to validate their solutions, providing valuable feedback and data for project refinement. As a result, you’ll receive actionable insights that will steer you in the right direction and help you refine your strategic roadmap and commercial deployment strategy. 

4. Financial support 
Many project-focused accelerators provide startups with non-dilutive grant funding or equity investment - or both - which you can use to cover early project expenses, facilitating quicker timelines and successful deployment. Plus, these programs provide in-kind services such as engineering and design support, assistance with grant applications, contracting as well as engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) partnership services. 

5. Introductions to investors and potential partners
Accelerator programs’ demo days will help you get your foot in the door when it comes to securing funding from investors. They’ll also connect you with potential advisors, other entrepreneurs, future customers and clients, and other key figures in your startup journey, so you can quickly establish an ecosystem of support that would otherwise take a lot of time and effort to build. 

6. Constructive market insights
Participating startups will benefit from insights into trends, competitor analysis, and customer needs, helping them to position their projects effectively within the market. Generally, program organizers have many years of experience building projects all over the world in your specific industry, so they’ll be able to provide insight that’s unique and otherwise very hard to come by.

7. Post-program support
Even after the official program has run its course, project-focused accelerators continue to provide support to members of past cohorts. Part of this package might include ongoing mentorship, further introductions to investors or clients, and guidance around scaling your solution.

What to know before applying for a project-focused accelerator program

1. The time commitment is substantial
While the current crop of these programs are largely virtual, they still require an intense, round-the-clock commitment. The full program of meetings and events over a number of weeks or months might distract you from the real work of building your business, so consider whether you have the organizational capacity to dedicate towards the enormous task of designing a large infrastructure project. 

2. You’ll likely have to give up some equity
While some of these programs do help source non-dilutive grant funding, signing the accelerator contract generally means handing over a slice of your company’s equity - either through a Simple Agreement for Future Equity (SAFE) or a convertible note. Furthermore, this funding is often milestone-based so you will need to make progress on the project to receive the proceeds rather than receiving a lump sum upfront. Think carefully about whether these trade-offs are worth it. 

3. The time frame is very limited
Accelerator programs that are project-based are generally very brief, usually lasting a matter of months. For shorter programs, this means the main outcome might be limited to finalizing the project scope or closing out specific topics such as site selection. For longer programs, you may make significant progress in constructing the project over the program duration. For projects with longer development timelines, there may be a mismatch between program expectations and your reality, so be careful when signing up and committing to milestones.

Pro tips for participating in a project-focused accelerator program

1. Think about what you need help with
Partnerships are key to leveraging your technology into a project finance deal. But there are many considerations to take into account before you can embark on them - such as insurance, market risk, operational risk, and technical risk. These can be mitigated or at least better understood by taking part in an accelerator program, but you’ll get the most out of your access to experts if you have a solid understanding of what areas you’re lacking in and where they can help fill in the gaps. 

2. Make sure you have enough bandwidth
Getting your technology ready is no easy task and requires a lot of capacity on your side - if you haven’t yet hired a VP of Engineering or similar-level technical staff, you’ll find it immensely difficult to instruct and collaborate with the partners who’ll help to bring it to life. You’ll also need to make sure your process and technology is documented rigorously enough so that it’s actually possible for another party to build it. 

3. Center surrounding communities in your project design
Demonstrate how your project not only innovates in climate technology but also meaningfully involves local communities and addresses equity concerns. Highlight any partnerships with community organizations, how your solution benefits diverse populations, and creates employment opportunities. Aligning your project outcomes with mission of the program organizer increases the likelihood of the project’s success and helps your application in standing out.

Examples of accelerator programs tailored to projects

While still in their infancy, there are a number of programs revolutionizing the accelerator model by providing an intensive engagement, aiming to refine their deployment projects, explore market opportunities, and potentially secure additional funding or partnerships for growth.

Black & Veatch IgniteX
The Black & Veatch IgniteX program is a 12-week, primarily virtual accelerator designed for startups offering scalable solutions for critical human infrastructure. It empowers participants by providing mentorship, industry network access, product testing opportunities, pitch development coaching, and investor introductions. Startups receive up to $35,000 in non-dilutive grant funding, with potential for equity investment of between $50,000-$100,000. The program emphasizes collaboration with Black & Veatch experts for co-development, piloting, and marketing of new technology, aiming to reduce development time, cost, and risk, and improve market entry strategies.

Elemental Excelerator Project Track
The Elemental Excelerator Project Track program supports companies focused on deploying commercial projects that can significantly impact climate change. It offers $1,000,000 in funding and tailored support to help companies launch transformational projects, emphasizing community engagement and equity. The program encourages collaboration with community-based organizations, leveraging Elemental’s Square Partnerships model to ensure projects reflect community values and have a broad, inclusive impact. It's designed for ventures that have a working prototype, initial pilot, and the capacity to scale significantly within three years.

New Energy Nexus The Clean Fight 
The Clean Fight program managed by New Energy Nexus and sponsored by NYSERDA is a growth stage accelerator program focused on reducing the barriers growth-stage climate tech companies face when scaling their solutions in New York. The Clean Fight works to collapse the sales cycle by shortening the distance between initial meetings and ultimate deployment through high-touch customer matchmaking, connections to the right sources of capital, technical assistance to facilitate scaling, and access to non-dilutive funding for first-of-a-kind or demonstration projects in New York State.  The program is generally organized around various themes or Prize challenges, which have varied incentives and benefits.  For example, their current open Storage Challenge, provides up to $1.2M per company (with $200K in non-dilutive funding from Clean Fight and $1M from DevEngine).

Additional readings about accelerators for climate tech

If you’re looking to learn more about accelerators generally and how you can take advantage of these programs, check out these related posts:

Hugo Mkhize is currently an MBA candidate at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge with a concentration on Energy & the Environment. Prior to that, he completed the Master of Advanced Studies in Climate Science & Policy (MAS CSP) program at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. During this time, he compiled a financial strategy manual titled “A Financial Guidebook for U.S. Startups: Crossing Climate’s Valleys of Death and Achieving Scale.” As part of this body of work, intended for academic founders, he conducted interviews with 44 industry practitioners, Climate Tech founders and CEOs, and funding organizations.

Professionally, he previously spent 5 years at Morgan Stanley, a global Investment Bank. Across both Johannesburg and London, he worked on M&A and capital markets transactions in the renewable energy, environmental services, and infrastructure spaces.


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