Toward not reinventing the wheel in the innovation economy

Lauren Valle (in purple sweater) and Max Rome (in green sweater at back) of Nu Ecological talk with potential mentors for the CleanTech Open accelerator. 

Lauren Valle (in purple sweater) and Max Rome (in green sweater at back) of Nu Ecological talk with potential mentors for the CleanTech Open accelerator. 

by Max Rome 

"What if every social impact funder asked startup applicants this: “What five organizations working in the same sector, within the same geography, or with the same demographic have you spoken with, and how have you built on the lessons you learned from their successes and failures?”

 -Daniela Papi-Thornton, Tackling Heropreneurship, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2016

Reading Daniela Papi-Thornton’s piece on “Tackling Heropreneurship” crystallized a jumble of thoughts and conversations we have been having around the Nu lunch table. Papi-Thornton describes a bias within today’s business environment that steers young entrepreneurs toward a path of rapid innovation and disruption and away from a slower path that might include apprenticeship or deep immersion within a particular field, issue or challenge. The question of how to balance forward motion with an appropriate knowledge of, and respect for, the work that has been done in the last decades has been on our minds. We are not the first group of motivated people to pursue a vision of ecological wastewater treatment. How do we build a company that works toward this shared vision without reinventing the wheel?  

Last week we were accepted into the Northeast Cleantech Open (CTO), a “global accelerator for early stage clean technology startup companies.” This year CTO is focused on companies working in the water/wastewater sector. For us, this an opportunity to learn from people who have developed successful businesses and to get tied into a network of other organizations and individuals working on issues of sustainable water use. We hope to emerge from the Accelerator with a better understanding of the market for our services and with a business model that can sustain us as we grow and take on new challenges.

Since setting up shop in Boston we have been impressed by the incredible infrastructure around supporting new businesses and new ideas. CTO is one example of this but there are many others. Co-working spaces such as Greentown Labs and Impact Hub provide affordable and flexible work space for nascent companies while organizations like the New England Water Innovation Network (NEWIN) are committed to translating research and novel business models into successful technologies, products and companies. At times, all of this energy can seem skewed toward fostering virtual businesses leaving me to wonder what room there is for a company focused on creating enduring physical projects.

Wednesday evening Lauren Valle and I attended the Clean-Tech Open launch party. The event was hosted by LogMeIn, a software and service company founded in 2003 to provide cloud-based remote connectivity services. Their office is in a handsomely renovated brick warehouse in Boston’s Seaport District.  We heard 30 one-minute business pitches and then settled in for an evening of networking and meeting potential mentors. Standing around a series of small tables and eating Israeli couscous and avocado out of mini ball jars we chatted with a range of experienced entrepreneurs, technologists, and smart business people. Over the night one of the question we were heard more than a few times was, “What is your innovation? What is your new technology?”

The work we do at Nu Ecological is non-proprietary. It is not based on cutting edge research or a new technology. Rather, it is based on the judicious use of existing and natural technologies combined in a creative and appropriate way within an often complex regulatory network. There is a need for this kind of work. Sometimes it can save the client money, sometimes it is an investment in sustainability with a non-monetary return. Sharing this long-winded answer we saw a lot of heads nodding. As much as the ‘innovation economy’ may be geared toward new ideas I am confident there is room in it for us. There is room to do our work and keep chipping away at an old idea that is still a good idea.