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How a ‘Startup University’ Is Turning L.A. Into the Green Capital of the United States

A hub for green energy innovation in the heart of Los Angeles.

This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.

\nGoal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.\n

Ten years ago, entrepreneur and startup consultant Fred Walti was working with two partners who founded the Automotive X Prize, awarding companies for designing cars that could travel 100 miles to the gallon. Walti was forced to take a close look at America’s dependence on fossil fuels—and he knew that he wanted to help companies develop cleaner, more innovative ways of doing business, especially in the car-congested city of Los Angeles. So, in 2009, when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had the idea to build a green economy by creating a world-class innovation hub and incubator where clean tech startups would learn how to get in the market and grow, Walti started volunteering in his office, translating ideas for clean tech into more actionable business strategies.

Within the two years of his pro bono work, Walti took a three-month-long motorcycle trip to South America, observing what a lack of electricity and water really meant for families, and how one little solar panel propped up on a roof by a tire could change how children were doing homework at night. That perspective gave him further insight into how he could bring innovation and clean tech to the world, and in kismet timing, he got a call from the mayor’s office to come back to Los Angeles to become the CEO of Los Angeles’ Cleantech Incubator, the city’s primary economic growth strategy to drive green innovation and job creation. Walti could now take action on making Los Angeles the clean tech capital of the United States by helping local clean tech startup companies develop strategically so that they could sustainably and smartly accelerate the production and ultimately commercialization of their products internationally, for the better of the world. “It’s exciting when I know that what I’m building will last longer than me,” Walti says.

Sitting in an old converted bus repair terminal in the heart of the arts district, Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator has now been around for five years and serves as a clean tech startup university of sorts, a space where companies can focus on business instead of worrying about paying for rent, utilities, or furniture. Functioning less like a co-working space and more like an efficient one-stop-shop where businesses get connected to resources and learn how to maximize their impact through collaboration, LACI will be moving to a space twenty times its current size, where companies will have access to innovation labs, computer training rooms, manufacturing equipment, an LADWP testing and certification center, lawyers, accountants, and senior entrepreneurs who can give insight on investors, customers, grants, and international strategy.

Closely connected to the city council, Edison International, LADWP, Gas Company, private investors, and private and public partnerships, LACI has created a strong local ecosystem in Los Angeles that is reviving and reinventing manufacturing jobs that once thrived in downtown. Hive Lighting, for example, is a LACI company that is serving the entertainment industry with more efficient plasma lighting; REVOterial is using renewable materials to minimize the toxicity of the fashion industry; Repurpose is creating compostable tablewear; and Greenway is creating non-toxic cleaning solutions, while California Lithium Battery and Pick My Solar are innovating ways in which energy is produced. LACI is also providing work for the underserved and middle class based in East and South Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights, and Boyle Heights, ultimately creating a long-term clean economy. E-waste recycling company Isidore, for example, employs previously incarcerated people as a form of rehabilitation. Because Los Angeles is an international industrial city, LACI’s goal is to be at the center of a global network of innovation, including partners in the east coast of the United States, Berlin, Italy, Beijing, Shanghai, Mumbai, Finland, Japan, Israel, and Canada. The hope is to bring companies like 360 Power into India, where they can create on-site generators, making energy accessible to all.

In October, LACI hosted 10 to 15 clean tech transportation companies across the world for a week at their annual GloShow conference, attracting investors, thought leaders, speakers, and energy policy drivers. The idea is that in creating a community for international companies, LACI will either bring those companies to Los Angeles, or be able to buy and sell their products in the United States. Ultimately, Walti sees a future in which Los Angeles will be the driving force for a green economy, taking away our dependence on fossil fuels, and making sustainable energy both possible and available to all. “Fifteen years from now, our campus will be full of over 100 clean tech companies within five miles of us. The ultimate dream is to build yesterday’s industries (which are slowly eroding) with tomorrow’s clean tech,” Walti says.

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