The Activate Fellowship: A Gateway to Clean Energy Entrepreneurship in Houston

The downtown skyline of Houston, Texas, the city at the center of the clean energy transition.

(Photo: The downtown skyline and surrounding metropolitan area of Houston, Texas. Credit: Art Wager, Getty Images.)

by | Mar 30, 2023

The downtown skyline of Houston, Texas, the city at the center of the clean energy transition.

(Photo: The downtown skyline and surrounding metropolitan area of Houston, Texas. Credit: Art Wager, Getty Images.)

Known for its oil and gas giants, Houston, Texas is rapidly changing as the city invests in the clean energy transition. The talent pool is stocked with engineers and investors alike who have built their careers in energy, but who may now be looking for a carbon-free career path. Activate is expanding its fellowship for science entrepreneurs into the Houston metroplex, taking advantage of the city’s ecosystem that is well-positioned to incubate clean energy startups.

What is the Activate fellowship?

Founded in 2015, the Activate fellowship supports entrepreneurs with a full-time living stipend of up to $110,000, mentorship, business training, and funding for any facilities needed to develop a product. The programs focus on climate technology efforts that have the potential of scaling into a profitable business, and the organization emphasizes eight target industries: agriculture, chemicals, computing, electricity, manufacturing, transportation, buildings, and defense.

After a product launch, Activate does not accept any financial stake in the incubated companies or claim intellectual property rights. So far, past and present fellows have achieved 49 patents and developed 106 new companies, providing 1,250 jobs to the US economy.

Drilling engineer returns to Houston as co-founder of clean energy start-up

Houston native Tim Latimer is an exceptional example of the Activate fellowship at work. Part of the Activate cohort of 2018, Latimer began his career as a drilling engineer in the oil and gas business before eventually finding his way to geothermal energy. After several massive floods in Houston, he realized that these natural disasters were not on historic flood maps, but rather obvious examples of climate change.

“The first [realization] was that climate change was a serious issue that needed to be solved as rapidly as we could,” said Latimer. “And the second one was that if my hometown of Houston, and Texas as a whole, wanted to stay relevant and competitive and economically viable into the future, we needed to make sure that Texas was a leader in new forms of energy, too, and not just oil and gas.”

With the help of Activate, Tim founded Fervo Energy raising approximately $195 million in funding. Now, he is focused on hiring from the energy pool in Houston, recruiting new hires who want to shift their career into a path that reduces emissions.

In recent years, Houston has attracted the attention of many climate startup investors, including Greentown Labs. Originally begun by MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship in Boston, the lab is partnering with Texas universities to focus on energy innovation.

“Often when MIT startups need to scale up, they look towards Texas, where they can find talent, space, and industry know-how in spades,” said Ben Soltoff, an entrepreneur in residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

Houston develops hub for clean energy financing

In addition to Houston’s deep legacy with energy infrastructure, it is also a hotspot for energy transition capital with almost $15 billion in investments flowing into the city in 2021. According to a recent report by McKinsey, the region contains a successful record of traditional energy financing as well as a high concentration of capital allocation decision-makers in integrated energy companies. Ultimately, for the city to truly claim the prize of energy transition capital of the world, the investments would need to scale from $15 billion to $150 billion by 2040.

Recently, the city made a commitment to this path with the Houston Climate Action Plan launched in 2020. At the present, all municipal facilities are powered by 100% renewable energy with a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

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