ITHACA, N.Y.—Cornell University is partnering with a venture capital firm in a new initiative, Diversity in ClimateTech, that will attempt to eliminate funding and opportunity inequities for companies that are focused on addressing the climate crisis through technological advancement.
Officially, the partnership between Cornell and Chloe Capital is being touted as an attempt to “recruit, educate, inspire and support capitalization in Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and women founders developing startups with clean tech innovations.” More generally, it is an initiative aimed at leveling the entrepreneurial field for women and people of color, though with a particular emphasis on companies with the climate change fight at their core.
Elisa Miller-Out, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Cornell’s Center for Economic Regional Advancement, said the effort was spawned because of a shared interest from Cornell, student entrepreneur groups at the school, New York State and the involved venture capital firm in climate change, and the continued realization that the clock on climate change’s impacts growing more and more harmful seems to be ever-accelerating.
“With so many disadvantaged communities across New York State being places where there is a disproportionate impact of climate change, there’s also a recognition that folks within these communities should be a part of the solution to climate change,” Miller-Out said, referring to New York State’s involvement through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Because of some of those intersections, New York State saw a need and opportunity to lead the way in this space.”
Miller-Out said Cornell was a natural fit, in part due to its prestige in research fields but also two diversity-focused programs that already exist at the school: WE Cornell (Women Entrepreneurs) and BET Cornell (Black Entrepreneurs in Training). She also works at Cornell’s partner, Chloe Capital, a venture capital firm that is especially focused on fostering tech companies founded and operated by women.
Miller-Out said there is criteria that eligible companies must meet for enrollment in the program—Chloe Capital’s definition is a company that has at least one person who identifies as a woman in an executive role, who typically has 20 percent or more equity in the company. At least 50 percent of Chloe’s portfolio, according to Miller-Out, must also have a person of color in the C-suite or leadership role with something in the neighborhood of 20 percent of equity.
Those aren’t exactly difficult minimum thresholds to meet, Miller-Out admitted, but it partially speaks to the difficulty those groups of people face in finding success in the field. WE Cornell and BET Cornell both solely focus on their respective communities in entrepreneurship.
“The thing about innovation is we can target a whole number of different solution areas, as part of what we will be seeing is new solutions that we haven’t even seen before,” Miller-Out said. “It’s everything from advanced buildings, to renewables in energy storage, to smart grid technologies, to clean transportation solutions. We’re looking across the spectrum, as well as ag-tech.”
Innovation within those spaces is the focus of Diversity in ClimateTech. The success of the initiative, Miller-Out said, will be judged throughout the process. First, by identifying the validity of the start-up company’s idea and gauging its efficacy in addressing climate change—that will be handled by groups like WE Cornell and BET Cornell. Once that process is finished and certain companies have moved through it, likely refining their ideas along the way, Chloe Capital becomes involved with the funding aspects and job creation, the latter of which is another measure of success for Diversity in ClimateTech.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to drive more capital to women and BIPOC communities that have traditionally faced real challenges in raising capital and faced this real funding gap,” she said. “In the case of these early-stage companies, they’re still developing their technology but then once they’re out in the market and actually growing and scaling, then you can see a measurable impact on emissions and see what kind of impact they’re having.”
The program is a longer path, Miller-Out said, but it’s also a more “transformative” path, because it’s intended to find companies that aren’t using the same methods, or paths, that are already in use now. Optimistically, that’s where the different and disruptive solutions that are needed in the effort to combat climate change will be found.
Cohorts have already started, though they are companies that are in the very early stages of idea and feasibility verification and evaluation.
Aided by the geographic location of Cornell, the program is at least somewhat designed (though not exclusively) to find companies that deal with the specific climate change-related issues that impact the Southern Tier of New York, such as water quality, off-shore wind power and the like, so the local community could theoretically reap some benefits as well.
While the idea of a program built around fostering start-ups may make some locals wary, with the pervasive narrative that the local community incubates a company before they pick up camp and move to a larger city, Miller-Out said she believes appealing companies to move their headquarters to the Southern Tier long-term is inherent in Diversity in ClimateTech, especially considering the start-up resources available here.
“We are recruiting from all over the world for this particular program, but bringing companies to the Southern Tier to experience the resources here,” Miller-Out said. “In terms of the Southern Tier focus, some of it is also attracting businesses to come to the Southern Tier.”