Grid Catalyst wins award for work with energy start-ups and entrepreneurs

January 2023


Minnesota’s Grid Catalyst is a semi-finalist in the American-Made EPIC Prize Round 2!

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded $50,000 in cash prizes to Grid Catalyst along with 23 other clean tech incubators and accelerators across the country, for their high-impact ideas that support energy start-ups and entrepreneurs. We spoke with Grid Catalyst Founder & President Nina Axelson to learn more. 

PowerNorth Incubator - EPIC Prize Video

Tell us a bit about your PowerNorth Incubator work.

The PowerNorth Incubator is the latest in our efforts to strengthen the energy innovation ecosystem in Minnesota, in the hopes of supporting and advancing more entrepreneurs, startups, and emerging technologies. This particular opportunity was enabled by the DOE EPIC program, which provides funding for planning, pilots, and mobilization of incubator platforms.

American Made Challenges U.S. Department of Energy

EPIC supports programs across the country designed to help energy startups, but each of the 24 programs selected is taking a unique approach to catalyzing innovation in their region. For us, we were looking to accomplish the following 1) support more energy entrepreneurs and startups in our region; 2) engage more businesses with the potential to mentor, incubate, and commercialize technologies; and 3) establish a more connected and productive energy innovation ecosystem.

"Our vision is to create a well-integrated pipeline of cleantech innovations connected to market needs through incubation with a network of industry partners."

Grid Catalyst Founder & President Nina Axelson

The development of this platform ensures that science and innovation moves swiftly through its testing rigor and into the marketplace. The PowerNorth Incubator can be the tipping point for scaling energy innovation, particularly those ideas that address northern climate resilience. Given the unique challenges of the Midwest and northern climates, the forecast for investment in energy innovation through the Inflation Reduction Act, and the potential of our region, now is the right time to invest in programming that will widen and support the pathway to commercialization for energy innovators tackling cold-climate challenges.
PowerNorth applications Due Jan. 31, 2023

What inspires you about this work?

This work inspires me because I can see the immense potential for impact. I believe we have so much untapped potential for solving big energy and climate challenges that can be mobilized with small, intentional actions. We need to increase our collective efforts earlier in the technology development timeline and think of our region as a place that can not only deploy lots of clean energy, but invent, test, and manufacture the next generation of solutions. This creates opportunities for new business, new partnerships, and new ideas to emerge. This is why I often talk about the importance of an innovation ecosystem, because it strengthens connections between the folks with high potential and those who have experience and resources to make big things happen. And once that ecosystem is connected, you can see exponential growth in innovative projects and partnerships. 

It's also critical to think about representation in the energy field. With a wave of new opportunities coming, how do we best support underrepresented individuals and communities to benefit from the investments being made. Our programs are being designed to address the systemic issues facing diverse founders and making sure more women and people of color are given equitable access to these opportunities. We were lucky to work with the Center for Economic Inclusion to map these challenges and identify tangible solutions to shift the paradigm. Their report on these equity and access opportunities in energy innovation was released recently. I am particularly inspired by their team, as well as others in the Minnesota startup and entrepreneur ecosystem, who are making sure diverse founders are receiving development, support, and funding. 

Lastly, when considering the decarbonization needs of our region, obviously we have to consider the unique challenges of cold-climate. But I see this as our market advantage, with our academic and industry understanding and expertise of these conditions. Minnesotans take great pride in our cold-climate resilience and I think that can translate into amazing things in developing more robust products to serve the immense amount of people, communities, and businesses that live in these climate zones. 

Overall, I can just see the necessary elements of change coming together for Minnesota — public and private investment, excitement about emerging technology, broader understanding and support for a clean energy economy, momentum in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem, corporate commitments to decarbonization, and overall interest in partnership to make Minnesota a stronger leader in energy, climate, and cleantech innovation. That's what inspires me. 

What is next for Grid Catalyst and the PowerNorth Incubator?

We have a really exciting year ahead. The PowerNorth Incubator is competing in a multi-phase competition for EPIC. So we have just over three months to mobilize our plan for the program before the late-March submission to the next round.

PowerNorth Incubator Timeline

Within that time, we will be expanding our Innovators Network of partners, open to any Minnesota business, government, or nonprofit organizations that can support our startups.

We will be refining the PowerNorth cohort framework and eventually recruiting new startups to compete for a spot in the incubator.

Beyond the Incubator, we also have other programming in motion for next year, including our Equity and Access in Energy Innovation event on February 2, our EnergyTech University Prize pitch event on February 24, and plans for a March "demo day" event to hear from the startups in our 2022 cohort, who completed demonstration projects with Minnesota partners.

We are also working on some additional programming for high school and college students, to increase awareness of energy innovation career pathways, particularly for diverse students who are underrepresented in these fields.

We are fortunate to have received funding from the McKnight Foundation to develop more of this programming in 2023, as we work toward a stronger and more equitable Minnesota energy innovation ecosystem.

"We are fortunate to have received funding from the McKnight Foundation to develop more of this programming in 2023, as we work toward a stronger and more equitable Minnesota energy innovation ecosystem."

Grid Catalyst Founder & President Nina Axelson

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