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Episode 23: Dr. Emily Reichert

This week, Jon sits down with Dr. Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, the largest cleantech incubator in the United States. This episode discusses how Dr. Reichert leverages her technical experience and enhanced her skillset with management work to lead this incredible lab. The podcast dives into what the future looks like for cleantech space, how these incubators are emerging, and what VCs should look for in the space.

Dr. Reichert is a chemist by training and has spearheaded the rapid growth of Greentown Labs into a global center for clean technology innovation. She started her career as a Ph.D. scientist and progressed into R&D, business development and general management rules. Dr. Reichert holds a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and earned her MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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Transcript

Jon Powers:

Welcome to Experts Only podcast, sponsored by Clean Capital, and learn more at cleancapital.com. I’m your host Jon Powers. Each week we explore the intersection of energy, innovation, and finance with leaders across the industry. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jon Powers:

Thank you so much for joining us today at Experts Only’s podcast, sponsored by Clean Capital. Before we dive into our interview, I wanted to share some exciting news from Clean Capital. We just closed a new $250 million equity partnership to acquire solar assets in partnership with a firm called CarVal Investors. You can go to cleancapital.com to learn more about that. Or if you have assets, solar assets, we’re obviously very actively acquiring in this space right now. So I look forward to talking more about that on a future episode.

Jon Powers:

But today we are speaking with Dr. Emily Reichert. Emily is the CEO of Greentown Labs, the largest cleantech incubator in the United States. She helped grow the company from its four co-founders into a global leader in cleantech. Emily’s a chemist by training who went to MIT’s Sloan Management. We’ll talk a little about that in the interview and how she took her, I think technical experience and really enhanced her skillset with a management work and is now leading this really incredible lab.

Jon Powers:

So we are going to dive into what is in the future of the cleantech space, how some of these incubators are emerging and what VC should be looking for in some of those opportunities. Emily, thank you so much for joining us here at Clean Capital’s Experts Only podcast.

Emily Reichert:

It’s totally my pleasure. I’m excited to be here today.

Jon Powers:

I really want to start off with talking about your personal experience and your personal story, how you decided to get into the space. You’ve got a really interesting background and as we were just talking about off offline, you’re one of the few doctors in an executive role managing and leading. It’s exciting, but I want to ask you about the tipping point when you decided to seriously devote yourself to a green future and having a positive impact. You spent your early part of your career at a technology centered consulting firm, and then had a moment when you decided what you needed to have a positive impact and started creating the green chemistry program. So which set you on that current path? How did you decide to study chemistry?

Emily Reichert:

Well, it all goes back to where many undergraduates start who have any interest in the science. And that is, of course, I wanted to be a medical doctor. My dad was a doctor. And so I started taking chemistry and biology and I found that chemistry was interesting. You were solving problems and it was challenging. And for me, biology just seemed like you were memorizing a lot of frog parts, and it just didn’t really grab me.

Emily Reichert:

So over time and partly through the excellent mentoring I had at my small liberal arts undergraduate college, the University of Redlands, I moved towards chemistry and I did several summers of research, both at the school, and then later at Argonne National Laboratory, outside of Chicago, Illinois, and moved into that area as something that you could really know and understand that chemistry is based on mathematics and it’s based on being able to solve things. And you can talk about atom plus atom and molecule plus molecule. It’s knowable. And at that time, biology did not seem knowable to me. So I was attracted towards the chemistry and then … Oh, sorry.

Jon Powers:

No, no, no. Which is interesting because with that mathematical approach, you later went and pursued your MBA. So what an interesting mix.

Emily Reichert:

Yeah. Well, fast forwarding several years, so as you said, I joined a consulting company, was in that climbing the corporate ladder, doing the rat race thing, moving more from an originally science bench-based career, more into management. Because I was a person that could both understand and think about the science and do the science, but also I could manage people on time and on budget and figure out how they could get projects done, even if you were from different technical disciplines. So that was noticed early on and I started rising in the organization and that was a really great experience for me, to be put in that management role, because like you said, not a lot of scientists and engineers actually want to manage or can manage. It’s just not two skill sets that typically go together.

Emily Reichert:

But I was always a people person. Even in graduate school, I got my PhD in chemistry, I was always looking for other things to do outside of the laboratory, beyond a graduate student faculty liaison committee. And my academic advisor was like, “Why are you doing that?” And I’m like, “I need people. I’m in the lab all day by myself.” So I had a strange set of skills or unique set of skills there that allowed me to understand and speak the science, but also be able to help the scientists get the work done. So after finishing up my consulting, well, I stayed in consulting actually. So I went to a green chemistry company.

Jon Powers:

Can you just step back for a second? When you say green chemistry, for our listeners, talk about what that actually means.

Emily Reichert:

Yeah. Green chemistry is basically doing chemistry in a way that is friendly to the environment. There are actually 12 principles of green chemistry that green chemists follow. And those are things like trying to use less hazardous materials, so safer solvents. It’s designing chemical reactions for energy efficiency. It’s using renewable feed stocks rather than petroleum-based feed stocks. It’s using catalysis where you can. It’s really trying to reduce the environmental impact of the products and the processes that go into really our everyday lives. So how can you make decisions that are smarter for the environment? That’s really the question that green chemistry asks.

Jon Powers:

And then you said you went to a green chemistry company. What was that?

Emily Reichert:

Yeah, so that was a Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. And it had been founded by John Warner, who is one of the two guys that literally wrote the book on green chemistry. He was at one of the local universities, spun out a company, really dedicated to helping large corporations make their products and processes more environmentally friendly.

Emily Reichert:

We worked on things ranging from helping a carbon black process be more efficient, carbon black goes into inks that you use in printing every day, to helping nail polish utilize less, shall I say, it’s not quite toxic, but not as great for your health chemicals.

Jon Powers:

Smells toxic.

Emily Reichert:

Yeah, it’s not a pretty smell and there are reasons for that. That’s the solvents that are evaporating out as the material dries on your fingernails. But there are ways that you can-

Jon Powers:

As a father or five year old daughter who loves to try to paint nails outside, I’m like, “You got to do it outside. You got to do it outside.”

Emily Reichert:

Well, the question is, do you want to do it at all? I have to say, I pretty much stopped using nail polish and stopped using plastics for cooking food after I was at the green chemistry Institute for a couple of years.

Jon Powers:

I believe it, I believe it.

Emily Reichert:

So a wide range of projects that you can work on, and the idea is can you make these products perform in the same way? So the nail polish, for example, being just as hard, if it has ingredients that are better for you and better for the environment in it. And that’s actually a pretty hard problem to solve, which is why you needed a firm that was full of chemists and engineers to help identify the solutions to these problems and then test them and evaluate them. So we worked on also hair dyes, we worked on making a more chemically friendly, really environmentally friendly solar cell. We had a vast array of products and processes that we worked on. And most of the time it was in the background. It’s not like companies are saying, “I have something in my product that is toxic.”

Emily Reichert:

It’s a lot of work that’s behind the scenes, but really interesting solving chemical challenges. And it just makes you think, in every aspect of your life, just what is touching you at all times in terms of the products you’re putting on your skin, what are you smelling when you get into your car, that new car smell? Well, that’s a chemical that’s added. So got to think about things. What is the bigger impact here when you are designing a chemical product? So that’s what we did at the Warner Babcock Institute.

Jon Powers:

So following that path, is that what began to lead you down the clean technology and clean energy space? Was it some of that research? Or what began to lead you in that direction?

Emily Reichert:

I stayed with the Warren Babcock Institute for two and a half years. And while I was there, we grew from a company of really kind of founding team, which was made up a lot of graduate students from the Umass, where Dr. Warner has spun out of to a company of 40 something. And that was all taking place in less than two years. So during that time, I got not only the opportunity to have my chemistry make an impact, because that was really what I was seeking when I left the general consulting firm, but also, I got the opportunity to see how you build a company and build a culture around that company and build the practices and processes and set up the lab so that they’re working in a way that’s good for the scientists, and think about how you communicate the results of your work to corporate clients.

Emily Reichert:

All of that really gave me the bug I would say, to have in my head. Hmm, could I build my own company that would be doing cleantech? And so I went next, as you mentioned to the MIT Sloan School of Management, where I did something called the Sloan fellows program, I was a one year MBA for folks who have already been in a workforce 10 years. And it was really an amazing, very international program. Was there for a year on the MIT campus and that’s really where I discovered just how much was going on in the clean energy space. And my mission had really been to grow or start a cleantech company. And that was what I wanted to find while I was in MIT. And so many opportunities presenting themselves, I’ve talked to so many people. I’ve probably had hundreds of coffee conversations, because of course that’s the way that you find what you’re going to be working on in this day and age.

Emily Reichert:

And I just learned just how much was going on and how exciting this field was. That was 2011, 2012 and it was a couple years post stimulus so there was still a lot going on in the government. There was also a lot going on in the state I was in, Massachusetts, where there are very forward leaning policies. And at that time we had governor Deval Patrick in place, clean energy was really at the forefront of his agenda. And then there was a lot going on just at MIT. We had the MIT energy ventures course, which helps undergraduates and graduate students to form ventures that can then launch. And one of the ways that they launch is through the MIT clean energy prize. There was also clean energy night.

Emily Reichert:

There was just a whole bunch going on at MIT around this because a couple years back, Susan Hockfield had really started this MIT energy initiative. She was the former president there and brought the university together around the idea that this is something that is hugely important and that MIT could actually contribute to. So that, what was going on at the school, what was going on at the government level, and then what I saw in terms of entrepreneurs, starting new companies, there was a lot going on in the clean energy space. So I think I naturally gravitated towards there. And I started out more on the materials end thinking about energy storage companies, but I learned just how much there was going on in the wider, clean energy, cleantech space.

Emily Reichert:

That really led me to finding the folks that founded Greentown Labs, which was a bunch of entrepreneurs in a subbasement in south Boston, who were all building cleantech companies. And someone had said, you really need to head over to this Greentown Labs, because if you’re looking for a cleantech company to join or to start, there’s a whole basement full. So that’s what I did, and that really started the trajectory that would be the next five years of my life so far.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, it’s interesting. It sounds there was a perfect ecosystem being developed there in Boston around MIT, the work you were doing, the basement full of companies. So when you came into Greentown Labs there’s been obviously significant growth in what you’ve been doing and the mission and the companies you all are bringing in. So I want to highlight some of the major successes at Greentown Labs, I think just to show or you too to show some of the impacts of what you’re incubating there and who’s making in changing markets. So to paint a picture for someone who is not familiar with the incubator and the work you’re doing, talk about maybe a successful company or what are some of the companies that have emerged from, from Greentown?

Emily Reichert:

Yeah, absolutely. I can highlight a few of the major successes, just that I think demonstrate just the type of company that we’re trying to help and who we are. So I’d say a couple examples really shoot to mind. One is a company called Bevi. Bevi was founded by a couple of entrepreneurs who were worried about the problem of plastic collecting in the oceans. When you throw out those plastic water bottles, you use them once and they end up, you hope, in the recycling bins, but maybe not.

Emily Reichert:

In fact, there’s this giant island of plastic out there in the Pacific. Well, this entrepreneur, Eliza Beckton, had an idea that she wanted to solve that by reducing the number of plastic water bottles that were used. So she came up with the concept of the Bevi and the Bevi is basically a machine that allows you to get water, could be all different types of flavors, plain water, fizzy water, could have grapefruit in it, or mint, or lime, or whatever, but it’s basically a water dispenser that lives either in your kitchen or in your office space or in your gymnasium, wherever it is that people would normally be just using these one use plastic water bottles.

Emily Reichert:

That company was really founded out of Greentown Labs. They have now expanded in Greentown Labs by our entrepreneurs. So if there’s anything that our entrepreneurs can do well, it’s break stuff. And so this machine ended up being real robust, but they are now scaled to be in not only Boston, but New York and California. And there’s a show, I think it’s on HBO, perhaps, that is all about startup culture. It’s called Silicon Valley. And the last few episodes have actually had a Bevi in the background.

Jon Powers:

No kidding. That’s awesome.

Emily Reichert:

So you know you’ve made it when you’re on Silicon Valley TV program. But they’re doing great. They’re scaling, they’ve got a series B round of investment last year, $16 million. So they’re well on their way.

Jon Powers:

That’s great. So folks that are interested in the plastic ocean that Emily mentioned, there’s a great documentary that came out last year led by Jack Johnson, actually, the musician who went out to that place and captured some of that. It’s mind boggling to think about this entire island that’s been developed of our plastic water bottles and plastic bags out there from all around the world. That’s a good example when the leaders of that company were coming through the labs, they’re getting their technology tested. How are they getting leadership, mentorship, leadership guidance? Going back to what many of us in the startup space struggle with is really starting to build and scale a company and how to do it, which for many might be outside of their basic skill set of developing that technology.

Emily Reichert:

Yeah. That’s absolutely true. And there’s actually quite a few things that startups in general struggle with. And I’d say that scaling experience and also just general management experience, especially if you’re coming from a technical background, like we said at the beginning, management and technical background don’t always go together. In fact, they very rarely go to go together.

Emily Reichert:

So that’s definitely something that entrepreneurs are doing while they’re at Greentown Labs is building out that team, building out that advisory board. Often they come to us from an earlier program, an accelerator program like Techstars. I think maybe Bevi did Techstars, I’m not quite sure. But the idea is that a lot of times they pick up their early mentors there and then when they’re with us, we’re specifically trying to focus with them on the things that hardware companies struggle with.

Emily Reichert:

When I say hardware, basically I mean you’re making a physical product that needs to be manufactured. And in Cleantech, most of the products that are being made are going to be of that ilk. So Greentown Labs is really structured around the idea that these Cleantech companies have a tough road ahead of them, not only in fundraising, but also in so many different aspects of a company that a software company doesn’t have to deal with.

Emily Reichert:

For example, you have to be able to test your technology in a real world environment. So you got to have fine eyesight. You got to show that it works on the scale that really matters. So maybe you have a technology that needs to be tested on the grid. How do you do that? How do you inform those connections? Our companies also need something around typically to set up a supply chain and start doing some early manufacturing to get to the point where they can test a technology at scale.

Emily Reichert:

Those are a couple areas that these companies need help with. So over the years we’ve developed a couple programs that are specifically focusing on areas hardware companies need help. So around manufacturing, we provide mentors that are working with them to try to think through, okay, great. You made this in the lab, but how are you going to make it in real life? How are you going to make a hundred or a thousand or a million of these? What different steps do you need in your supply chain?

Emily Reichert:

Then we help connect them to those manufacturers. The other thing that these companies need is typically some kind of corporate partner relationship. And this is really critical in the Cleantech arena, because most of the time, these are B to B companies. These are companies that are selling not only to end consumer, but to someone along the value chain, that is not the end consumer. So usually they’re going to have to partner with a large company, like a GE or a Shell or, or some electrical utility, Angi, for example.

Emily Reichert:

All of those are partners that can either be at the simplest end, mentors to help them understand markets, but they can also be pilot partners and customers. They can also do investments and we’ve seen quite a few of those and they can also eventually acquire the company and we’ve seen that as well. They can be customers too. So we have a special program around having startup companies be better prepared to interact with large corporations because it’s not the same pitch as you give to a venture capitalist. A venture capitalist simply wants to see often that big curve that shows you have a gigantic market and that all things will be good.

Emily Reichert:

Whereas a strategic partner needs to see how you fit into their five-year strategic plan. And you need to be able to speak about that strategic plan in an intelligent way. And so it’s a very different pitch and we help prepare our companies for that. And then finally, we work with companies on their investor, their general venture capital pitches and angel investor pitches, which are often the stage that companies come to us.

Emily Reichert:

They’re really at that seed stage where they’ve just raised a first round of capital. It’s probably in the tens to hundreds of thousands and often they need to tune up their pitch. And so we help them in a variety of different ways to do that. So investors, corporate strategic partnerships in manufacturing are pro specific programs that we find are typically gaps in early stage company knowledge and expertise. So we seek to specifically fill those gaps with our programs.

Jon Powers:

So with those programs, I think you hit on two really interesting spaces. You talked about what’s corporate, America’s looking for in partnerships where a lot of these technologies will be feeding into, but also what the folks trying to look out on the markets, the venture capitalists, the seed investors and others are and where they’re playing. If you merge those two, what are you seeing as some of the larger market trends that are driving some of the innovative technologies that are really, I think, helping to disrupt the power and energy sector.

Jon Powers:

What are driving those trends? Because I think the reality is you can create the greatest bread slicer in the world, but if no one needs a bread slicer, it doesn’t help you. So what’s driving some of these trends and what are some of the market trends that you guys are most excited about?

Emily Reichert:

Yeah. Well, when you look back at what’s driving them, I think in general, on the corporate side, there’s an understanding that there is a need for open innovation. There is a need to be seeking innovation from outside of the company. And I think that that’s really across the board with all of the companies that we work with, again, the likes of GE and Angi and National Grid and Shell and others like that.

Emily Reichert:

They see that they need to bring technology from the outside, because corporate R and D budgets have been slashed and then slashed again over the last 10 to 15 years. So they’re recognizing that they need to be able to bring this technology in from the outside. And they’re realizing that it makes sense. Even in the last five years I’ve been working in this industry, we used to have large corporations coming to us and saying, I don’t look at anything until series B.

Emily Reichert:

And we don’t even … For our incubator, that’s way beyond. Those are graduates of our incubator. Now, people want to, the Scouts and the VCBC vet folks are basically coming to us and saying, we want to see the companies much earlier. They want to know what the trends are, what is going on in a particular field or area. And they want to be there right beside and sometimes being a mentor or being involved in that company’s development by providing market information.

Emily Reichert:

So it’s a really different posture that I’ve seen evolve over the past five years. And that is that companies are realizing they need to get the intellectual property and the ideas and the talent from outside of their corporate office parks that typically ring American cities. So to mention some specific areas that we’ve seen a lot of interest in, I’d say these are somewhat related to clean energy in particular, but also they’re broader than that.

Emily Reichert:

And really, we think about cleantech as doing more with less. And so for us, cleantech really spans a much wider gamut than often what people think of as clean energy. So you might think of clean energy as wind and solar. And we think of clean energy also as wind is solar, but then we also accommodate a lot of cleantech companies beyond that. So energy storage, grid related stuff, so energy distribution, energy generation.

Emily Reichert:

We also see companies in ag, water, and waste. Transportation and E mobility. We even have companies that are in manufacturing and robotics because often you can make those processes a lot more energy efficient than they are today, by, for example, using robotics. And then there’s, of course, some IT type companies and apps, which are a very small proportion of our portfolio, but often underpinning hardware type technology.

Emily Reichert:

So it’s a broad gamut. In those areas, I’d say we are seeing a lot of momentum in cleantech and agriculture technology, or AgTech. We’ve seen at least at Greentown, a lot of applications in this space recently, ranging from energy efficient cooling systems that utilize waste heat to provide cooling for indoor agriculture, to highly efficient irrigation technology.

Emily Reichert:

There’s a lot in that portfolio and we see the interest on the corporate side there as well. Another big trend we’re seeing is the use of drones and software for solar and wind farm inspections. That’s a more traditional clean energy type application. And these would be typically trying to reduce maintenance costs and increase power generation.

Jon Powers:

Excellent. So if one of the listeners … Oh, sorry, go ahead. It sounds you got a big one to end with.

Emily Reichert:

Just one more big one I’ll mention is US energy storage market is projected to double this year and we are absolutely seeing new innovations in energy storage and the distribution technologies that back them up. So whether it’s peak power, shaving technology, or flow batteries capable of replacing the fossil fuel based power that primarily makes up the US base load and electricity. This is a place where we’re seeing more and more applications and where our members are headed and going to do big things in 2018.

Jon Powers:

Exciting. So many more questions I have, but obviously we’re limited on time. For one of our listeners who may be in the venture capital space or large corporation interested in getting connected, how do you connect it to Greentown Labs?

Emily Reichert:

Well, it’s pretty easy. We actually have an investor relations program, not in the traditional IR sense, but we actually interview, so companies can reach out to me on LinkedIn, then reach out to the Greentown info and they will be funneled to our strategic partnerships manager. And what she does is typically has these companies in, or talks to them on the phone to do an interview. We try to get a sense of what the investor is looking for, where they are in their fund cycle and suggest who would be the best matches for them within Greentown Labs.

Emily Reichert:

Honestly, we have a pipeline of 3 to 400 companies at any one time that we’re watching. So sometimes we can push a few of those that might be on the waiting list or in the pipeline towards investors as well. So investment is something we do every single week. We have office hours of different investors coming in, so we welcome them and we just want to learn, what are you looking for and how can we help you connect to our companies?

Jon Powers:

Well, you certainly sit at the intersection of energy, innovation and finance, which is what we look to explore here at Experts Only. I want to ask a final question I ask all my guests, and if you can go back to yourself, you’ve got an amazing established career here and coming out of getting your PhD or coming out of high school or college, what advice would you give yourself at this time?

Emily Reichert:

Well, I think probably three things and maybe the last two were really one. First of all, I’d say jump up and grab opportunities when they come and don’t be afraid to take risks. That is something that you go through life and you have things given to you or thrown at you, or questions are raised, should you go into this field. If it seems interesting, it’s worth trying. And so I think that oftentimes we hold ourselves back, because we think we should be on a particular path. But you don’t really start having fun and exploring an adventure, get a little off that path that you imagine for yourself.

Emily Reichert:

Second, I’d say follow your passion. Every single one of the employees I have here at Greentown Labs are passionate about clean energy and clean technology and getting those to market and ha helping entrepreneurs. And that makes them work really hard and it also makes them very successful. So when you can align your passion with your work, that is when you get the really winning combination.

Emily Reichert:

Then I like to think about a career mission as the third thing I’ll suggest. So there’s probably something that is really a driving force for you. For me, it’s making an impact, positive impact with my training and education and that impact, I believe can be made the best and the most efficiently in cleantech and helping cleantech get to market.

Emily Reichert:

So as I’m looking forward to my career and I advise my staff to do this as well, what is it that helps me continue along that path, on that mission? So it’s not as much about did I get to the next step or the next title, but it’s how am I moving forward and making progress towards meeting my mission as an individual and as what my career is really all about.

Emily Reichert:

Sometimes along that mission, you’ll take side steps. It won’t always be a direct, I must achieve the next step, next step, but what is your mission? And that helps you align your career and your goals and move forward in a way that pretty much always makes sense to you because you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Jon Powers:

Outstanding. Emily, thank you so much for your time today and fascinating conversation. And I challenge folks to check out Greentown Labs. It’s the largest cleantech incubator in the United States, doing an amazing work based out of Boston. I look forward to continuing our conversation. Thanks Emily.

Emily Reichert:

Well, it’s my pleasure.

Jon Powers:

I’d to thank Dr. Emily Reichert for joining us today. What a fascinating conversation. Really, I think, understanding the market effects that are driving some of these future companies we’ll be hearing more and more about. You should follow Greentown Labs to continue to track their progress and go to cleancapital.com to learn about what we’re doing and our recent announcement in our new partnership with CarVal. I’d like to thank our producers, Emily Connor and Lauren Glickman, for their hard work and look forward to continuing the conversation. Thanks.

Jon Powers:

Thanks for listening in today’s conversation. Find more episodes on cleancapital.com, iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe and leave us a five star review. We look forward to continuing our conversation on energy, innovation and finance with you.