st thomas biz school

Q&A: Midwest cleantech incubator entering a new era

Justin Kaster is handing over oversight of the Midwest Cleantech Open to the University of St. Thomas.

The Midwest office of one of the nation’s leading nonprofit cleantech incubators has moved to the business school of the University of St. Thomas after being operated for years by a Twin Cities entrepreneur.

The Cleantech Open Midwest will now be part of the university’s Schulze School of Entrepreneurship after being operated for six years by co-founder Justin Kaster.

With the move will come greater institutional resources, more staffing, access to startup expertise and the university’s extensive business network, he said.

“St. Thomas has a great background in entrepreneurship and it was looking to grow that effort,” Kaster said. “Having the regional office of the Cleantech Open located there will add significant resources to the program and a dedicated staff.”

The move was engineered by Kaster and the Schulze school’s associate dean, Brian Abraham, who arrived in the Twin Cities from Michigan State University last year. Cleantech Open Midwest will fit into a center for nonprofit management that includes a “social enterprise” portion, said Abraham, who will help oversee the program.

The school already manages a small business center, a $5 million angel investment fund and an entrepreneurial award program. It also actively participates in the Clinton Global Initiative,  said Abraham. Those programs will offer cleantech startups plenty of opportunities for ideation, collaboration, networking and capital access.

“Justin’s done a great job with the Cleantech Open but as a standalone entity it’s difficult to leverage resources,” Abraham said. “We have faculty, staff and various assets from different departments.”

Cleantech Open Midwest is part of the California-based nonprofit Cleantech Open, which assists entrepreneurs through an annual “Accelerator” mentorship program which has had more than 1,000 companies participate since its 2006 inception. Those companies have raised more than $1.1 billion while creating thousands of jobs, Cleantech Midwest says.

This year, 17 Midwest companies from six states have been selected for the Accelerator program, an intense 20-week engagement offering participants tools to build their businesses and connections to potential investors. They will be mentored by experienced business professionals, marketing and communications specialists and financial experts.

The recipients are focused on energy creation, wastewater treatment, green building technology and other industries. After they graduate they compete in a contest that awards two participating companies $20,000 each in cash and in-kind services.

They, in turn, compete at the national Cleantech Open for up to $200,000 in cash and services.

Cleantech Open Midwest will be the only regional member operated out of a university, a distinction that does not surprise Abraham. It’s been difficult for universities to support social enterprises and nonprofit initiatives within the confines of a campus, he said.

“We’re excited about the program,” Abraham added. “I was out on the West Coast at a Cleantech event and it was very impressive. They have all the right people sending all the right messages to entrepreneurs.”

A former New York banker , Kaster had  returned home to establish a Midwest beachhead for the Cleantech Open in 2009. He built up business support for the Midwest office while recruiting  two major sponsors, NextEnergy, a Michigan-based advanced energy and transportation company, and St. Thomas.

Now Kaster, 38, has started his own consulting firm, 2100 Advisors, to work with a variety of clients in cleantech and other industries. He helped facilitate the Midwest Energy News 40 under 40 Clean Energy Awards program.

Midwest Energy News sat down with Kaster to discuss his tenure as the leader of the Cleantech Open Midwest.

Midwest Energy News: How many companies have you worked with over the years?

Kaster: We’ve assisted more than 100 companies in our 13-state region. I think we’ve worked with companies in every state, except maybe Kentucky and Kansas.

What are the key things you can do for these young companies?

We have a regional, national and global network of experts and investors they can tap for guidance, whether they’re in Minneapolis or Milwaukee. We have regional events, usually 10 or 20 a year, along with national events where they can network and learn from one another and experts.

Entrepreneurship is usually associated with just a couple of places, namely Silicon Valley, Boston and a handful of regional hubs. Are we any good at starting cleantech businesses?

In emerging markets involving energy, water, food and the agricultural industry, the Midwest could be a potential leader and has startup companies operating in those markets. We want the Midwest to be connected to solving these large national and global issues. We have abundant natural resources and, among other assets, the Great Lakes, and the issue of water is huge throughout the world.

We’re a bit reserved, aren’t we?

I think the Midwest is often overlooked, but that’s because we overlook ourselves. Look, there’s only one Silicon Valley and there’s no need for another one. We have great assets right here for cleantech.

Can you give us some examples of graduates of Cleantech Open Midwest that have gone on to great things?

There’s Akhan Semiconductor in Gurnee, Illinois, which has a diamond semiconductor platform that allows companies to create more powerful electronic devices using fewer materials and electricity. It is creating hundreds of jobs. 75 F in Minnesota has an innovative heating and cooling control technology. SiNode Systems, started by Northwestern University students, has a breakthrough battery technology. And Igor-Tech in Iowa has an amazing intelligent light control system.

What did you like about running Cleantech Open Midwest?

It’s been a lot of fun and personally I’ve been inspired by the more than 100 entrepreneurial companies I’ve worked with over the six years. We’ve built connections between them and created a regional network. When I think of the challenges we will have in the next 20 years with the global population growing from 7.2 billion to 9 billion, all of them buying and consuming more resources, we will need more disruptive technology and new business models to manage it all.

What’s your plan for 2100 Advisors?

We’re going to focus on food, agriculture, energy and water but not limit it to just cleantech. We’re looking at market disruption opportunities and companies with a different vision for the future.

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