Ryan Jeffery of gener8tor: accelerating climate innovation

Ryan Jeffery of gener8tor: accelerating climate innovation

Understory Team
Understory Team

gener8tor is a 10-year old startup accelerator program and fund that gives founders access to capital, connections, and the resources that they need to succeed. One key to its success is uncovering significant opportunities that exist in spaces that are often overlooked – especially in the context of race, place, and gender. The program prioritizes engaging with underrepresented locations and marginalized founders that are passed over by mainstream VCs and accelerators.

In this episode, we learn about gener8tor’s newest accelerator program focused on climate tech and sustainability. Ryan Jeffery, the Managing Director of Sustainability, shares more about the intent behind the program. His thesis is that the most impactful startups will also be the most commercially successful. Program applications are now open – check out this episode to gain insight into what the selection committee is looking for and the value participants can expect to receive.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (host of The Understory Podcast): Hi everybody, welcome to another episode of The Understory Podcast. Understory is a global community and platform for innovators and companies that are trying to make our world more sustainable.

Today we are excited to have Ryan Jeffery, who is the Managing Director of Sustainability at gener8tor. Ryan, thank you so much for being here. gener8tor is really cool organization, and we can't wait to hear more about it.

Ryan Jeffery: Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be on board.

JJ: Tell us more about what you do at gener8tor, the program you're running. Let's start there.

Ryan: I am the Managing Director of Sustainability at gener8tor. I focus on our climate tech and sustainability cohort. gener8tor is a 10-year-old accelerator and fund that looks to invest in cutting edge technology startups in the U.S., EU, and now globally. We look to work with a diverse community, a broad swath of entrepreneurs and founders to give them access to capital, connections, and resources that they need to succeed.

I focus on our upcoming accelerator that is targeted towards startups at the forefront of our environmental and climate crisis. I’m looking to engage with those founders that are doing the most to help solve, reverse, mitigate and adapt to climate change.

JJ: Excellent. Is gener8tor a virtual program or an in-person program? How would you describe the overall program before we dive into the specific initiative and cohort you're running in sustainability?

Ryan: Historically, we've been focused on in-person cohorts bringing people together and allowing them to work together for three months during the program to give them access to a great group of mentors and advisors and investors that can help support their growth.

Obviously, over the last year and a half, we've moved everything virtual, so majority of the program will be held virtually, but we'll look to do some in-person programmatic elements in Chicago where we're located and potentially in other areas where the startups are as well.

JJ: Let’s talk about the program that you're running. Ryan, for companies and innovators, entrepreneurs looking for this kind of program - what are you looking for? What does the program look like? Anything that you can share with our audience.

Ryan: The first thesis overall that we're operating under for this accelerator program focused on sustainability and climate tech, is that every single industry, every sector, every business is going to be transformed by climate, and that's not far in the future. Our belief is that it only reasons that startups who are helping us reverse, mitigate, or adapt to climate change and this new reality that we live in will not only be the ones that are most impactful, but also the most commercially successful.

We're really looking to engage with startups for this accelerator across industries. We're looking at energy, mobility, built environment, food and agriculture, manufacturing, clothing, all industries in between. The common thread that will weave them all together is that they're taking a systemic approach to the problem and really advancing sustainability to try transform antiquated industries overall.

To back up quickly, just to give some broader understanding of gener8tor. Overall gener8tor differs from most other accelerator programs that are out there in two key ways. The first is that we really look to engage with underrepresented locations and more marginalized founders that have typically been overlooked by mainstream VCs and other accelerators. We talk a lot about this at gener8tor in the context of race, place, and gender, and we believe that that we can find a lot of significant opportunities that exist where those three things have been overlooked.

If you look at the data, and we genuinely believe this, that the most valuable startups really are those that reflect the diversity of the communities in which they serve. I think this is especially true in climate change, which disproportionately effects communities of color. To us, it really doesn't make that much sense that 80% of VC dollars go to three states or that 97% of venture dollars goes to men. The vast majority of which are white and probably live in the Bay Area. We think that in a lot of ways VC is broken, and so we look to change that by backing companies that have a better chance of succeeding because of the diversity they represent from a race, place, and gender perspective.

Our numbers, the stats that we publicly share, reflect this. 69% of the startups we invested in have underrepresented founder, 42% or founders of color. 41% are women, so that's kind of the first differentiator for gener8tor.

This second is that, and this gives a little bit more context for the accelerator program that I'm running as well, is we're much more selective an average overall, so we've run over 50 accelerator programs in over 30 cities over the last nine years. In each one we only select the top five startups that apply for the program, so this is our flagship accelerator program where we invest $100K in those five. We're really providing the coaching connections and then the additional fundraising support that those companies need in order to be successful. That selectivity allows us to be much more hands on and focused in terms of support that we're able to provide for each of those companies than if it was eight or 12 or 100 companies going through the program.

A little bit more context on the program that I'm running, we're now accepting applications for startups to apply up until December 19th, at which point we'll then select the top five that apply. Then February 10th of 2022, is when the program will get started and it'll be a three-month accelerator. We'll work hands on in depth with those five and provide them the connections, the resources, the support, and the additional fundraising resources that they need to be successful.

JJ: That's amazing. I think what you said about just selecting a handful of companies through a very rigorous process and really dedicating all your resources and community ecosystem to that is phenomenal. How long is the program running for these startups?

Ryan: It lasts for three months. During those three months, we provide fairly hands on coaching to each of those startups. We meet with them twice per week to uncover the challenges, hurdles, roadblocks that they have and become partners. We’re co-drivers with them on that bus that they're on. We look to get involved in that way over the course of the three months. We also provide over 75 to 100 introductions to mentors and corporate partners. Additional resources that we believe are impactful, strategic, and and really helpful to the startups that we're working with over the course of that three months.

I will say that our involvement doesn't end when the three months is over. We continue to be supportive in terms of helping with additional fundraising and future rounds, making connections, helping them hire - those sorts of things. We're building out that network, a gener8tor, to help with our alumni as they grow and build their companies long after the program is over.

JJ: I know you have a lot of experience in entrepreneurship and building companies and so forth. What do you say are some of the most important traits that you're looking for in companies applying to your program? It's hard to get to 5 with the myriad of kind of potential solutions across sustainability and climate.

Ryan: I think probably one of the hardest parts of the job is whittling it down to five It ends up being less than 1% of those that apply that are selected. That's certainly challenging.

I think what we look for, first, is their core product or service. Is what they're doing helping to solve, reverse, or mitigate climate change. Are they attacking that space? I think the second thing that we really look for when we're evaluating companies - is it a scalable company? Can it be something that has sizable returns? Our belief is that if you're making an impact in this space, in driving sustainability and helping to drive climate solutions overall and you're providing a lot of value in doing that, you're also going to be commercially successful. Those things are tied to us, hand in hand. We obviously look for that right off the bat. Beyond that, typical to other VC's and accelerators, we're looking at the team. Is the team coachable. Are they at a position where we believe that we can help? There's lots of the startups that that I talked to where I'll never know or understand the technical or product specs of a company more than the founder or the team.

We can be an outside perspective that can help guide the direction of the company and provide supportive people that have been there and have done that to overcome a lot of the pitfalls of what it's like to build and grow a company in those earliest stages.

We really help with sales. We get involved in understanding channel support from a marketing perspective, go to market, and then fundraising and strategy overall, which are really some of the most important aspects of a company at the earliest stages. It's getting to their first or their third or their 10th customer is really where we're going to take a hands-on approach and help them succeed. We're looking for companies that are primed for growth that we believe we can help at that those earliest stages and have a big market opportunity as well. Are the founders uniquely situated in that space to take advantage of a of a big opportunity and really transform industries overall.

JJ: That's well said and exciting. I hope lots of startups apply to your program.

Switching gears a little bit. Given your work in the sustainability and climate space. Obviously, this week is COP26. Especially this year, there’s lots of lots of news, activities, and investments going to sustainability and climate. What's your overall take on that? Anything that makes you excited or makes you concerned? You’ve been in the space for a while, so you have seen the ups and downs?

Ryan: I think it's important to recognize and understand the immense scope of this challenge, that climate change poses. I think we recognize the importance of a multifaceted approach overall, and I think that considers policy, considers governments at all levels coming together to help solve this. Corporations and corporate policy driving this obviously from a consumer perspective, but also from a legislative perspective and helping to drive people towards more sustainable solutions.

We’re in the space of early-stage startups and innovation and technology that we think can make a major dent in this space. I've been personally passionate and excited and interested in this space for my whole life. In terms of the environmental and nature-based perspective, I think a lot of people in this space are new.

I recently transitioned my career from software and early-stage companies to focus the rest of my life on climate tech and climate change. I think a lot of the people that I've talked to recently as we build this broad coalition of support around our program are new in this space too. A lot of that is driven by the fact that the urgency of the problem is clearer than ever. People recognize that this is something that's going to transform and change our lives, whether we like it or not.

If we don't find solutions to the problem from a government, a corporate, a startup, and new technology perspective then we're in for a significant amount of change and a world of hurt if we don't make some of those changes. We're obviously focused on that early innovation and startup side of things, but we're really excited by what we see overall. I'm optimistic. It's very easy to get pessimistic in this space and to get down about our lack of commitment from a policy perspective or a government perspective - not doing enough.

But I'm optimistic because I'm having dozens of conversations every week with people at the forefront of this who are really passionate, who are doing everything that they can to help solve this. I think finally, the market conditions exist now where the technology exists, and it just makes financial sense.

JJ: I think that's well said. I think there’s enormous opportunities that we see as well. Every part of the world. A lot of times the issues can be very global but can also be very local. The approach that your organization and your team is taking, really finding these top innovators and companies is really encouraging.

Last question for you, Ryan. You talk about the deadline for applying for this program. I think it's December 19th. For our audience, don't forget that date. How do they apply? Where can they find more information or contact people on your team?

Ryan: I think the best way is certainly if you're looking to get involved and this is again as an investor as a mentor or as a startup who are on the front lines of this. Feel free to reach out to me directly. My email is ryan@gener8tor.com.  You can find more information on our website as well under the sustainability focus. Always happy to connect with people that are looking to have an impact in this space or get into this space or may not be in this space but want to learn more about it overall or want to help the startups that we’re working with. Happy to connect.

I think the last thing that I'll say is this is our first step on what we want to be - a much bigger footprint in this climate tech and sustainability space. We believe that there's a lot of opportunity and a urgent need, and we are going to be connecting founders to investors to partners and mentors over the years to come in this space. I would love to connect with anybody that wants to get involved.

JJ: Ryan, thank you so much for coming on and talking to us about gener8tor and the program that you're running. It's fantastic and we welcome you back alongside the companies that you are supporting to tell us more about their solutions. Thank you again.

Ryan: Thank you, I'm excited to do that. Thanks for having me.

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