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Was Houston’s Big Oil membership in Greentown Labs too strong for Boston?

Greentown Labs, a nonprofit incubator for climate solutions startups, is seen Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Houston.
Greentown Labs, a nonprofit incubator for climate solutions startups, is seen Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Houston.Jill Karnicki/Staff Photographer

Right where the tomatoes and plantains of the Midtown Fiesta were, a start-up called GigaDAC is working on a prototype that looks like an old-fashioned gramophone but which, if scaled to full size, would pick up gigatons of carbon dioxide from the air. .

At the end of the aisle, so to speak, another startup, Lignium Energy, converts cow manure into odorless fuel pellets. Another company, Global ROC, has developed non-chemical water treatment technology for industrial cooling towers.

Above it all – the laser cutter, vented hood and hand tools neatly mounted on the wall for more than 60 tech companies to share – a giant “Pepe,” the parrot, smiles at the large beak. It’s about the only souvenir from the old grocery store and an unlikely totem for species threatened by global climate change.

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Greentown Labs, on San Jacinto Street, is a place filled with great secrets and great potential. Some groups work behind screens to protect their intellectual property, and all photography is prohibited. No visitors are allowed beyond the community event space, although a member of the editorial board recently paid a visit.

We wanted to see what’s happening these days inside this high-profile high-tech incubator, especially after the May announcement that Greentown Labs CEO Kevin Knobloch was stepping down.

His decision came after Amanda Drane of the Houston Chronicle reported on tensions within the nonprofit’s board over a partnership with Saudi oil giant Aramco and negotiations with Exxon Mobil. Greentown has laid off employees even as it considers stricter criteria for vetting potential corporate sponsors.

Was Houston’s oily membership in Greentown Labs too much for Boston to handle? When the nonprofit expanded from Boston to Houston in 2021, it had support from Chevron, Shell and BP. The headwinds he faces don’t come from Texas oil barons. They come from those of environmentalist community that seems to want to put an end to the desperate race to save the planet from climate disaster led by the entities that helped get us into this mess.

Every nonprofit has the right, and obligation, to vet donors, but now is not the time to withhold funding or put the brakes on collaborations. Purity – of motivation or conscience – is simply not a luxury that their vital effort can afford at this time.

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Houston has the talent to accelerate the energy transition: scientists, engineers and geologists galore. We have industrial infrastructure that needs cleaning up. And we have deep-pocketed companies willing to invest. Consider that it took about a decade for the original Greentown location in Boston to host the number of startups that Houston attracted in its early years.

According to a report from Powerhouse, a climate innovation company, Texas ranks fourth among states in the number of climate technology startups per capita, but it ranks first for startups focused on industrial processes. In other words, Houston is where ideas can go from cute concepts to proven solutions at scale.

Fervo Energy was incubated at the Houston site. It now has a 3.5-megawatt geothermal pilot project in Nevada and is drilling a second 400-megawatt project in Utah. Syzygy Plasmonics, another Greentown Houston alum, has secured investment from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to use light instead of combustion in its all-electric chemical reactors.

“If you just want to work on the next big dating app, you should just move to Austin and do it,” Bobby Tudor, president of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, told us, but “if you want to work on the big things frustrating problem in human history, you should move to Houston and be in the middle of the energy transition, because that’s where leadership is going to happen.

Perhaps the culture clash between the crisp scrubs of Boston and the overalls of Houston was inevitable. Environmentalists have many legitimate grievances against oil and gas companies. In a world that needs to pay more attention to rising waters that are already forcing the evacuation of entire communities, it is reasonable for protesters to temporarily block tankers, even if their kayaks are made from oil.

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Bakeyah Nelson, senior advisor to the Rockefeller Family Fund’s environmental program, argues that oil and gas companies should not be allowed to greenize their history of climate denial and pollution with relatively minimal investments in clean energy. “Activists are demanding that oil companies pay to clean up their messes, be held accountable for years of climate denial, and be held accountable when they violate their permits,” she wrote to the Chronicle in a letter to the editor.

A partnership between Exxon and Greentown Labs in no way absolves the company of its sins. Calls for climate justice must continue even as others urgently work within or in partnership with big oil companies to move desperately needed technologies from prototype to large-scale reality.

Somewhere around what was once the cereal aisle of the old Fiesta now sit conference rooms and showers – a necessity as much as soldering kits and 3D printers. It’s not enough for entrepreneurs to dream big or invent the perfect gadget. Their sleepless nights won’t be enough unless they step up before the pitch sessions with investors and business leaders, and form a few coalitions that put the planet ahead of the purity of the process.