RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – As cleantech startups from around the country descend into Charlotte and Raleigh for the Joules Accelerator this week, Susan Sanford, executive director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC), recently chatted with WRAL TechWire about what it all means for North Carolina.

Its sixth year running, it’s the first time that the accelerator has partnered with the RTCC to bring about the program thanks to a a three-year, $1.5 million matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Strategies program and North Carolina’s business community.

Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster

The aim: to launch a “cleantech corridor” that will tap into the strengths of the region between Charlotte and the Research Triangle to promote local expansion, relocation and project deployment for emerging technology companies.

Here’s what she had to say:

  • What does the new partnership with Joules means for the state?

This partnership means North Carolina has a collaborative framework to advance smart cities and cleantech. RTCC is working with Joules Accelerator for the next three years to create a ‘cleantech corridor’ that will help deliver cleantech solutions to communities across North Carolina.

Our partnership has three primary goals: to expand a Cleantech Catalyst accelerator program that will connect startups to North Carolina markets and advisors; engage stakeholders as part of a Corridor Committee to identify regional ‘pain points’ and opportunities for tech deployment; and to develop the region’s cleantech ecosystem through events, marketing, and business development. In the long term, one of our goals is that more of the startups going through the Accelerator program are created here in North Carolina and reflect our diverse population.

Startups converge for accelerator aimed at growing cleantech corridor in NC

The US EDA grant allows us to focus on building a corridor between the Triangle and Charlotte along I-85, but we know communities outside these regions are interested in getting involved. We are looking at expanding the project in year two to share solutions, best practices, and storytelling across the state.

We are especially excited about the opportunities that the partnership will bring to smaller communities – by connecting them to cleantech startups interested in piloting, we can help them with broader conversations about Smart City initiatives, sustainability goals, and long-term technology planning.

  • How did the regional stakeholders selected these startups, and what do think they’ll bring to North Carolina communities?

RTCC and Joules identified dozens of regional stakeholders to provide feedback throughout the entire selection process for this cohort. The grant enables us to expand stakeholders to include industry leaders (like Duke Energy, ABB, SAS, Cisco, and more) – but also state agencies, universities, regional nonprofits, and local governments like the City of Raleigh, City of Wilson, Town of Chapel Hill, Town of Benson, Warrenton, City of Charlotte, and others.

We started gathering feedback from this coalition of stakeholders in January, asking what their pain points were and what the region saw as top priorities for the next three years. From that feedback, we narrowed down the breadth of cleantech verticals to three focus areas for the startup cohort: Smart Cities, Circular Economy, and Electric Vehicles. Joules reviewed over 3,000 startups and invited the stakeholders back in March to select from 24 semifinalists.

Charlotte’s Joules Accelerator links cleantech startups and utility providers seeking innovation

Almost 40 stakeholders were involved in the final cohort selection, many of whom explicitly expressed interest in piloting with the finalists to solve issues related to water quality and conservation, electric vehicle chargers, battery storage, food waste, mobile sensors, and more.

  • Why is there only one North Carolina startup?

Great question. Our advisers asked the same. This is a function of the pain points our advisers identified during this cycle and being able to find startups that could meet those needs. Our team scanned 3,000+ startups and identified several startups based in North Carolina that are exciting but in early stages of development. These are less appealing for pilot opportunities, but we will work to prepare these companies for a future cohort.

There are multiple ways you can create jobs in North Carolina—you can accelerate companies based here, import companies to create jobs here, and you can create efficiencies for organizations so they can expand their employment. Our goals with the Corridor are to approach economic development from each of these angles.

For example, State of Place, a female-led cleantech startup based in Boston graduated from the Joules Accelerator and has developed relationships with the City of Durham, Town of Benson, and City of Charlotte and hired a student from Duke University as a result. And ZapGo (a UK-based fast-charging technology company) completed the Joules Accelerator program in 2018, opened an office locally, and is now hiring 20+ PhDs in Charlotte.

It is our goal, and is built into the grant, to increase the number of startups created in North Carolina. That is what the Ecosystem Engagement pillar of the project is about: producing programs to educate students on the opportunities in this industry and creating relationships with innovation hubs to increase the number of “home-grown startups” in North Carolina.

RT Cleantech Cluster, Joules Accelerator land $748K federal grant