Geohealth Feature

Profits for the Planet

Entrepreneurs are addressing global challenges with science-based—and financially sustainable—solutions.

By

Green tech, cleantech, B certified.

As the climate changes, so do the words increasingly being used to describe start-ups and corporations that include “change the world” in their mission statements. This growing group of companies harnesses innovative technologies and scientific insight to perpetuate or pioneer cleaner agricultural practices, eco-friendly product design, optimized logistics, and other sustainable solutions. Challenging issues like soil health, food supply, and energy consumption are among those that are ripe for such reexamination.

Who better to join the effort than scientists-turned-entrepreneurs who can meet urgent environmental needs with enterprising efficiency, or small business purveyors whose values are expressed through their business practices?

“We would rather do things the right way, even if they’re harder,” said Janie Brooks Heuck, managing director of Brooks Winery, a certified B Corporation and member of the philanthropic alliance 1% for the Planet. “Especially in the agriculture business, we’re all stripping resources from the land, and we need to do our part to give [them] back.”

Putting the Gs in Geothermal

The word start-up once evoked the scrappy but capital-infused tech firms that brought the world intangible necessities like scrolling feeds and cloud-based instant messaging. However, the start-up model—in which big, disruptive ideas are applied to technology and consumer products—has proven particularly appropriate for firms whose cutting-edge (and marketable) concepts are designed to make a positive impact on the planet.

New York–based start-up Dandelion Energy began as an idea conjured up at X, the self-described Moonshot Factory at Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

The concept is a straightforward one: to bring cost-effective geothermal heating and cooling to homes that currently use high-emission fuel oil, propane, and natural gas. The challenge lies in quickly deploying the technology, which uses a heat pump and a system of underground pipes to circulate heat from the ground into the home and disperse heat back into the ground for cooling.

According to a report published in 2019 by the U.S. Department of Energy, there were approximately 2 million residential geothermal heat pumps in the United States in 2016. Analysis from the same report estimates that technology improvements and other factors could bring geothermal heating and cooling to 28 million homes.

Enter Dandelion. Using the technology it developed at X, the company has begun installing geothermal heat pumps in New York’s Hudson Valley and Westchester County. Why start there? New York, says Dandelion head of marketing Ilyas Frenkel, has a high concentration of homes heated with fuel oil or propane. The state’s aggressive climate goals also make it geothermal-friendly, with programs that offer incentives for homeowners to install heat pump systems.

“There’s a lot of demand for our technology and what we’re doing,” Frenkel said, citing a 6- to 8-month waiting list to have the system installed at an up-front cost of $18,000–$25,000.

Dandelion plans to expand elsewhere in the Northeast by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, the company stays connected with the communities it services, working with legislators and local outreach organizations like HeatSmart. In addition, although it’s at the forefront of an industry poised for economic growth, Dandelion maintains its environmental focus.

“Our chief mission is to take fossil fuels out of the equation in heating and cooling people’s homes,” Frenkel said. “Everyone [who] works here believes in that.”

Waste Not

Around the world, more than half a billion people are food insecure. Yet every year, a third of the food produced globally—about 1.3 billion metric tons—goes to waste. Some estimate the cost to be around $1.2 trillion, and the wasted food itself represents a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. All signs point to a problem that needs solving, and two California start-ups have taken up the challenge by introducing scalable solutions that are firmly rooted in science.

San Francisco, Calif.–based Treasure8 uses proprietary dehydration technologies to convert what would otherwise be wasted food into nutrient-dense products and ingredients for people and pets. Founder and co-CEO Timothy Childs, who previously used a systems-thinking approach for work with NASA, applied the same principles when considering food waste. He found that existing U.S. Department of Agriculture technologies could be used to sustainably produce food products at an accelerated commercial scale.

“The beauty of our business model is that wherever there is waste, be it food, hemp, or other organic material, we can be impactful,” Childs said. “We can deploy our technology at the source to convert waste into nutritious food, ingredients, fuel, and even biochar to enrich the soil for future crops and preserve water.”

According to co-CEO Derk Hendriksen, being a for-profit entity allows Treasure8 to ensure that its solutions are sustainable not only socially and environmentally but also financially. “The way we think about commerce is through the lens of the triple bottom line,” he said. “All stakeholders need to benefit from the business we create. This includes communities and the planet.”

Still, the merging of purpose and profit isn’t always effortless. “Responding to the needs of multiple stakeholders, including Mother Nature, is complicated and requires ingenuity, agility, and a willingness to challenge the status quo,” Childs said.

While Treasure8 is creating new food products through dehydration, down the coast, the Santa Barbara–based start-up Apeel Sciences is taking a different approach to food preservation. Founded in 2012 and backed by investors including the Bill & Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, the company has developed a plant-derived solution that prolongs the life span of fruits and vegetables by up to 3 times, tackling food waste where it occurs at farms, in the supply chain, and at the retail and consumer levels.

The safe, edible coating, applied to the outer layer of fruits and vegetables, postpones spoilage by keeping moisture in and oxygen out. Along the supply chain, this reduces the need for overpackaging, atmosphere-controlled storage, and other practices that contribute to food waste. The fruits and vegetables retain their freshness at the grocery store and in households, where wasted food, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), can cost the average American family of four $1,500 a year.

Its applications have other environmental benefits. According to Jessica Vieira, director of sustainability at Apeel, the coating can replace the plastic shrink-wrap often used on cucumbers and can help suppliers shift to less expensive logistical modes. For instance, asparagus from Peru is often airfreighted to U.S. and European markets, but Apeel-treated asparagus can last long enough for transport by ship—at about a tenth of the cost and an eighth of the carbon footprint.

Tomatoes and bell peppers sit on a tiered stand in a lab.
Teams at Apeel Sciences study samples of treated batches to assess and improve their products. Credit: Apeel Sciences

“B” the Difference

Beginning in 2007, companies striving to make a positive impact on their communities, their employees, and the environment have sought third-party certification through the nonprofit organization B Lab. There are currently more than 2,500 B Corporations worldwide, including well-known companies like Patagonia and Stonyfield and multinational corporations like Danone. They can be sole proprietorships, publicly traded companies, or nonprofits. Most are small businesses.

Brooks Winery is one of those businesses. Situated in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the company produces 20,000 cases of wine annually, and it does so using sustainable farming practices first championed by its late founder, Jimi Brooks, who began farming vineyards biodynamically in the early 2000s. Brooks Winery’s commitment to social responsibility has since led the company to seek out and obtain B certification, along with certification in biodynamics and membership in 1% for the Planet.

According to Heuck, B certification serves as an indicator of how hard the company works to maintain its principles. “Everybody is tossing around words like natural and sustainable, and I like having that accountability and that transparency,” Heuck said.

Companies hoping to attain B certification must, among other requirements, submit to assessments of their environmental and social impacts, as well as their performance in areas like supply chain and charitable contributions. Certification even affects legal structure, and companies are given an overall impact score that measures how they’re doing.

For Heuck, the challenges of certification are worth it, as are the company’s contributions to 1% for the Planet. “It definitely is motivating for our team,” she said. “People want to do more than just have a job anymore—they really want to believe in where they work.”

Getting It Right

Through their innovative business models, products, and technologies, today’s green companies are setting an example for other entrepreneurs entering the market for sustainable solutions.

“In today’s world, having a strong purpose is not only a strength but a requirement to navigate business and attract, retain, and guide qualified, motivated people,” Treasure8’s Hendriksen said. “When we get it right, our people…[are] motivated to give the best of themselves because of an alignment of their personal purpose with that of our company.”

—Korena Di Roma Howley ([email protected]), Science Writer

Citation: Howley, K. D. R. (2020), Profits for the planet, Eos, 101, https://doi.org/10.1029/2020EO139309. Published on 29 January 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.