Grid Catalyst and the need to demonstrate emerging technology

August 26, 2021
We spoke with Nina Axelson, Founder of Grid Catalyst, about her history with Minnesota clean energy, how the idea for Grid Catalyst came about and the need to demonstrate emerging technology for northern climates.

Tell us about yourself

Nina Axelson of Grid Catalyst

My career has been a fortunate mix of working within community, business, and energy and environment. I studied environmental science and natural resources at the University of Minnesota. Coming out of that program, I was able to apply what I learned in really different spaces, spending time on state and national policy, working at the grassroots level in community organizing, managing energy and water research, helping Best Buy build a diversity giving and corporate social responsibility platform, and eventually landing with Ever-Green Energy in 2008. Over the last 13 years, I led the company’s sustainability and public affairs efforts. It is pretty amazing to have a job that enables you to lead a large-scale solar project development one year and a groundbreaking public art and energy project the next. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have this mix of experiences shape my career and prepare me for leading Grid Catalyst.

On the personal front, I live in NE Minneapolis with my husband and our 7-year-old daughter. Our family is a fun mix of science geeks who love music and playing outside. We spend a lot of time biking, swimming, and reading books about the zombie apocalypse (my daughter’s favorite).

What is Grid Catalyst?

Grid Catalyst Logo

Grid Catalyst is the first and only Midwest clean energy accelerator focused on demonstrating and scaling innovative solutions for northern climates. The program will focus on recruiting high-caliber, high-potential entrepreneurs and small businesses that are ready to grow their market position, but need a demonstration project to elevate their solution and show major users and investors they are ready for commercialization. In the energy industry, this lack of access to a viable demonstration can severely inhibit a businesses’ growth potential. We are already building an Innovators Network of companies, utilities, higher education, and community partners who are ready to partner for 2022 demonstrations with our first cohort.

The cohort application will open in the fall and we are seeking businesses that meet the following criteria:
• Businesses in early-stage development – must have a demonstration ready product or service
• Address climate change with decarbonizing solutions
• Deliver on technology needed for northern climates

Alongside the cohort programming, we are also working to build capacity and potential in Minnesota’s energy startup community. We will be developing events and other support services to help us increase the opportunities for innovation, climate action, business and workforce growth, and diverse leadership in our region’s energy sector.

How did the idea for Grid Catalyst come about?

The idea for Grid Catalyst originated from experiences developing renewable energy projects, mostly at campus and community scale. There was clearly an immense interest in decarbonization and achieving net zero site status. However, once it became clear that projects needed to move beyond traditional approaches, project partners became less certain about trying technologies that were new to them. Even if those technologies had been vetted, demonstrated, and successful in other parts of the world.

It highlighted the need to demonstrate emerging technology and approaches to create more acceptance in the market. There is also a need to develop a more collaborative approach to these demonstrations and deployments that reduces risk and increases the adoption of innovative solutions. This lack of demonstration pathway was clearly a problem holding back efforts to develop, deploy, and scale clean energy technology.

How did your experience at Ever-Green Energy shape the ideas for Grid Catalyst?

Ever-Green was founded on a commitment to environmental stewardship balanced with the priorities of fiscal responsibility and reliable service. This balance of values is important when considering what it takes to operationalize new technology and stay financially viable, even as you are working toward big decarbonization goals.

I was also fortunate to work on the discovery and planning forefront of the business, which meant exploring the potential of emerging technology. We led planning efforts for several net-zero aspirational development sites and examined how the convergence of energy sectors (electric, thermal, industrial, and transportation) created challenges and opportunities.

At the heart of much of this work is helping developers, communities, campus, and other leaders understand how technology and innovation can meet their goals.

What do you hope to accomplish with the first year / cohort?

There are four primary goals for the first year of Grid Catalyst.

  1. Creating a culture of energy innovation – We are trying to create a paradigm shift that enables major energy users to lead on clean energy innovation. This requires us to lower the risk and increase the value for them to be part of demonstration projects. We can accomplish this by attracting high-caliber businesses and solutions and making sure our vetting process confirms that they will be a viable match to the demonstration partners.
  2. Attracting a high-potential cohort – Our cohort selection and development is key to establishing our standing as an accelerator. We are already networking and recruiting in advance of our fall application opening to connect with businesses at the right stage for our program. We are seeking businesses who are beyond the R&D stage, have a market-ready solution, and need our help to get them the right scale of demonstration to achieve their next stage of deployment and investment. Matchmaking for demonstration and providing development support to these businesses will also be crucial to helping them move through this next year of growth.
  3. Empowering diverse leaders – There is a lack of diverse representation in the energy sector, complicated by a history of disadvantage in energy planning, impacts, and energy burden experienced by communities of color. The accelerator program itself cannot repair the complex challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion in this sector. However, we can work toward lifting up leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, workers, and others through how we structure our program, select our cohort, and develop hiring relationships for these growing businesses. This work will need to be considered over many years, but in our first year, we aim to bring more perspectives into how we shape the program and build the startup network. We are committed to being part of systemic change in this field.
  4. Deployment – Our accelerator is unique, because it focuses on demonstration, rather than just standard business development. But we are not focused on demonstration, for demonstration sake. We believe this is a critical aspect of bridging the commercialization valley-of-death. This is the step needed to help businesses attract investors for their next stage of growth. It enables investment in supply chain, manufacturing, workforce, among other deployment priorities. This mobilization is key when considering the immediacy of addressing climate change and the importance of attracting and preparing workers for clean energy jobs.

What kind of business would do well with Grid Catalyst?

The energy market is prioritizing decarbonization, big changes for the electric grid, and a continued emphasis on efficiency. With all that under consideration, we observed a gap for market development for northern climates. The solutions that will work to decarbonize our building sector and electrify more industries and functions works differently in the Midwest and into the Northeast part of the U.S. Additionally, we spent the last year asking utilities and major users what they were looking for in innovative solutions to help shape our focus areas.

These market indicators have led us to feature the following technology categories in our initial recruitment, but we expect other high-potential businesses will also emerge:

  • Renewable thermal (ex. geothermal)
  • Small-scale batteries
  • Controls and metering
  • Building electrification and performance
  • Grid adaptation and modernization

Other criteria for selection include the following:

  • Address climate change with decarbonizing solutions
  • Advance Minnesota’s economic position in this sector
  • Businesses in early stage development who can benefit most from this model (must have a demonstration ready product or service)
  • Preference given to BIPOC, GLBTQ, and women-owned ventures

Where do you see Minnesota’s clean energy future going and how will Grid Catalyst help get us there?

Minnesota already has great momentum in developing its clean energy market position. Fortune 500 companies investing in and developing clean energy solutions, a strong small business sector, major research institution, forward-thinking policy initiatives, an evolving startup landscape, and an adaptive workforce. However, elevating our market position depends on the ability to step in front of the pack. To show both U.S. and international business partners that we are serious about demonstrating and deploying clean energy here. In particular, this leadership can focus on northern climate solutions. Our businesses have a better understanding of what is needed, how it operationalizes, and how it can be developed to serve other markets.

We have the potential to be a larger developer and exporter of clean energy solutions and exceed the clean energy jobs goal of 100,000 by 2030. Grid Catalyst will become part of the portfolio of advantages to doing business in Minnesota, developing a stronger innovation environment, increasing our national profile, and attracting more businesses looking to build, deploy, and hire in the Midwest.

What makes you excited about this work?

Nina AxelsonIt is easy to get excited about the technology innovation. I’m a geek at heart and love learning about the creative solutions and approaches entrepreneurs and inventors are developing for the market. The real potential here is the relationship building and systems change we can create with the accelerator program. We have exponential opportunity to introduce more products to the market that can address climate change, elevate more diverse voices and leadership, and establish stronger pathways for these businesses and this sector to succeed. They are ambitious goals, but I believe that establishing more relationships and a stronger network for demonstration are the first steps to reaching that bigger potential.

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