“How early education in STEM helped shape my career”

 In WCS Blog

April 2021 Member of the Month: Joy Larson

How did you hear about WCS and what prompted you to join?

I was looking specifically for a meetup group for women in STEM. I wanted a space to interact with professional peers I could relate to more readily. Being in cleantech, it is always fun to read the WCS newsletter and attend events where there are great women in leadership.

New Energy Nexus is described as a catalytic nonprofit organization bringing together a global community of climate change accelerators and entrepreneurs. What is your role?

New Energy Nexus supports diverse clean energy entrepreneurs who are bringing new technologies and business models to market.

The program I run is the California Sustainable Energy Entrepreneur Development (CalSEED) initiative, which is undiluted grant funding for super early-stage clean energy technologies. We grant $4.2 million annually. New Energy Nexus also supports startups at critical stages of innovation with other things, like prototype testing, product-market fit, business plan development, demonstration and pilot projects, and connections within a network of investors, accelerators, and corporates.

It is impressive to visit the website of New Energy Nexus and see that it is part of a pollination of initiatives from all over the world. How does your team manage to make decisions and set priorities when the geographical reach is so broad? 

That is a really good point, clean energy entrepreneurs face different challenges in different places.

New Energy Nexus started in California in 2004 as the California Clean Energy Fund, which was a non-profit venture capital fund. Through the years this organization has worked with universities, angel investors, government agencies, and incubators. We started expanding internationally. Considering the kinds of support we provide to entrepreneurs, it was time for a re-brand. That’s when the California Clean Energy Fund became New Energy Nexus.

I think through our network and partnerships we have built out some expertise in these different forms of support to startups. So the general approach – or at least what I do and what I see my colleagues doing – is to expand the network and collaborate with our local partners.

Since the rebrand, we have quadrupled in size very quickly, it was a fast transition. But now we are in a place where we can reflect on what works in different places, the experience we have across the organization and share best practices. I think going forward, this kind of learning will help set priorities. 

Can you say anything about a particular start-up or initiative that you are especially excited about?

Last year we funded five start-ups that are creating grid resilience to wildfires. Wildfires are becoming such a normal part of living in California, so we definitely need technological innovations to help us protect the grid. CalSEED is such a great opportunity to fund some of the best and brightest ideas out there.

I see from your LinkedIn profile that your education and career focus has been all about working on climate change, as if you were hard-wired to work on climate change without any uncertainty from the get-go. Can you say how early in your life you felt this was the path for you, and give us some nuggets along the way?

My teenage angst was about the environment. I hated high school but loved my science teachers and the outdoors. I began my career out in the field, in the lab, and writing technical papers. But as I grew professionally, I found that I actually enjoy working with people more, so I started on this program management path.

While I was at Global Footprint Network, people started asking about adaptation, so I decided to go to grad school and update my climate knowledge. Looking so closely at the impacts of climate change really showed me the need for strong climate leadership. 

CalSEED has an upcoming grants competition for cleantech ventures. Can you say a bit more about that?

Yes, the application window should be open sometime in May. We are finalizing the technology areas we will be focusing on this year, and I encourage everyone to follow us on social media and sign up for mailing lists to hear about the dates and criteria. I will definitely share announcements with WCS! Here is the link for background info.  

On a personal level (if you can say) what has been one of your favorite programs or projects that CalSEED has funded, and how is that entity making an impact?

If I could say it would be really difficult to narrow it down. There are so many unique companies and they each have such interesting stories about the technology they are developing and their personal journeys in entrepreneurship. Learning more about the companies is really the best part of this work.

Given the challenge of getting more females in STEM career paths, is it your opinion that society/industry should create special treatments and opportunities for those post graduates with STEM degrees? Or try to address the challenge at the earliest levels of education?

This is such a good question. My first reaction is no, I don’t think special treatment is what is needed because I think everyone should be held to the same, high standards.

But the numbers are not great. We do strategic outreach for all of our opportunities (not just CalSEED) to try to spread the word to people who might not be connected to many opportunities. The diversity of applicants is pretty high, but we do not see many women applying.

Starting at early levels of education is great, and not just in STEM. Entrepreneurship involves a lot of risk taking, so building up skills and in business, finance, communications, and strategy are just as important. 

Interview conducted by Jeanne Trombly, an Oakland, CA-based Writer in Residence for Women in Cleantech & Sustainability.

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