Being good to the earth used to be its own reward; but as more companies are seeing the wisdom in walking the environmentally responsible talk, more entrepreneurs are emerging who figure there's gold to be found in green.
Hardly cynical carpetbaggers glomming on to a new trend, a new breed of entrepreneurs passionate about making the world a better place are tinkering, designing, and brainstorming their way to careers that have the potential to make a big difference.
"A couple of dynamics that drive it from a macro perspective, is that the need is accelerating," says Richard Bunch, managing director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. "Climate change … and a whole range of issues, biodiversity, pollution, social issues … we know more about them now. At the same time, business is more transparent than it has ever been before."
That means that "sneaking off" to a developing nation and doing things like using child labor or polluting ground water supplies isn't a secret anymore, Bunch says. It gets discovered, and with a single click, can be transmitted around the world.
Bunch says large employers tap the Erb Institute, one of the top-ranked Institutes of its kind in the world, for fresh talent every year, and are looking for ever increasing numbers of well-educated business people with a big interest in global-friendly practices. Interest in energy programs has also spiked, he says.
Big companies like Wal-Mart and GE have also staked their models on massive
"green" initiatives, Bunch notes. And while large corporations anoint new "sustainability chiefs" a group of young talent is thinking if the big guys can do it, so can they.
The Erb Institute graduated 20 students this past spring; in two years that number will more than double to 45. But "the more we see big companies trying to hire for this, the more our students say they're going to do it on their own. … There's huge opportunity, and enormous interest in doing this themselves."
And while tech hot spots such as Silicon Valley have fostered their own socially minded entrepreneurs, Metro Detroit has assets that can make it a natural for a business-minded movement. As Bunch points out, "Michigan's got a lot of people that know how to make stuff. There is a huge capacity, both manufacturing and human." Much of it, he says, could be directed at finding and building sustainable energy sources.
With that in mind, Metromode has profiled three fledgling businesses – and one with established green cred – trying to help build a green-collar economy in Southeast Michigan and show the rest of the nation just how far doing a little good can go.
Green is the new gold
Jeff LeBrun sees gold where others might just see waste; and slimy waste at that. LeBrun, who has a background in biology and an MBA from the University of Michigan, joined with three other UM and Michigan State University students to develop a plan to use algae to treat wastewater and produce raw material for biofuels.
Team Algal Scientific won the $65,000 top prize in a DTE Energy Co. and University of Michigan sponsored Clean Energy Prize competition.
Now, LeBrun and the team are working to build financing to tap into an annual market that he estimates to be about $1 billion to $2 billion, while providing a good source of bio fuel. Besides LeBrun, the team includes Geoff Horst, an ecology doctoral student at MSU who developed the technology; Robert Levine, A UM PhD candidate; and John Rice, a UM MBA/MS student.
Algal Scientific is one of three teams to be summer entrepreneurs in residence with Highland Capital partners in Boston, and has received the promise of pre-seed funding from Ann Arbor Spark if it can find matching funds from other investors.
The timing may be perfect. Algae, the green slimy stuff floating on still water, is attracting attention from energy industry heavyweights such as Exxon Mobil and Dow Chemical, particularly as new fuel standards being developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will likely include algae as a usable advanced biofuel.
Algal's process would take up nutrients at wastewater treatment plants without the use of chemicals. The nutrient-packed algae could then be harvested and sent to a plant to be converted to biofuel.
LeBrun says Algal is focused on developing the wastewater treatment technology at the moment, but along with bioenergy, also sees potential applications for fertilizer and bioplastics down the road.
"I had been interested in algae for some time," LeBrun says. "I had some knowledge of the market and I had a biology background and worked at a wastewater engineering firm for a few years. … I knew algae could create [a new solution]."
The perfect little green dress
Chanell Scott had long had a passion for environmental and fair trade causes, but started down the path to being a "green-collar" entrepreneur on a hunch.
Scott, 26, was working as a program administrator at Mosaic Youth Theatre when she heard about Bizdom U, a free, one-year program created by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert that trains, mentors and finances fledgling entrepreneurs.
"I had a feeling that was how I was going to make my contribution," Scott says. "I wanted to create a business and a [working] culture that really mean something."
Scott met her business partner, Jordan Contreras, 28, in the program, and after evolving an original idea for an eco-friendly product Web site, produced Guffly.com.
Detroit-based Guffly is set to launch in mid-August and will offer one green product a day; don't like what you see one day? Come back the next and discover something new. The idea is to not only tie Scott's eco-friendly and fair trade concerns together, but to provide a fun, habit-forming site for like minded people.
Scott said an important component of the site is the hundreds of relationships Guffly has formed with small vendors selling everything from solar-powered watches to earth-friendly leashes for Fido to organic, fair-trade clothes.
"We're dealing with real people, not big corporations," she says. "That's one of the best parts, really connecting these cool products with these suppliers, who may not have the size or marketing know-how to connect with different audiences."
Scott emphasizes that the products featured on Guffly will be hip and stylish, and not solely for the modern-day hippie. "I'm a person of style," Scott laughs.
While Scott and Contreras are hyper-focused on Guffly's debut, Scott says that they're already open to new opportunities; partnerships that might add review features or other functions to the site, as well as additional niche sites that might feature specific products.
"We keep a whiteboard in the office of all of our crazy ideas," Scott says. "The possibilities are endless."
Washing data green
Nathan Zach had a very good reason for making green practices a centerpiece of his electronics recycling business: his mother.
"She was a member of Greenpeace," he says. "She suggested it."
Zach, 28, started Warren-based Great Lakes Electronics 10 years ago with a pickup truck and a phone book, cold calling area businesses and breaking down electronics in his mother's garage. These days, Great Lakes Electronics is one of the largest electronics recyclers in the country, with two locations in Florida and another in Chicago.
"With time, it's just fallen together," Zach says.
Great Lakes Electronics claims area big boys amongst its clients, including the likes of DTE and Rock Financial. And even though hard economic times have slowed things down a bit, Zach says that Great Lakes is on track to recycle 54 million pounds of computers, servers, and other electronic gadgets this year.
Along with the metal and plastics saved from the landfill, toxic heavy metals found in batteries, circuit boards and cathode ray tubes such as lead, cadmium, and mercury are also properly handled and recycled. Another bonus? Proprietary data is destroyed in the process. All data-containing components meet one of the largest shredders in the Midwest during recycling, he says.
"It's a double benefit," Zach says, "the environment and data protection."
Zach says Great Lakes intends to keep growing, using the creativity and energy of its young management staff as a driver. Every person on his management team is under the age of 32.
For Zach, knowing that his business is helping the earth and other businesses is its own reward. "I love it," he says. "I know waking up I can look myself in the mirror and I'm doing something good for everybody."
Leftovers make good compost
Justin Pawloske doesn't blanch at red worms and black soldier flies; indeed, they're his bread and butter. Pawloske, an avid organic gardener, and recent grad from Eastern Michigan University conceived his business, Your Recycle Aid, based on one idea: helping people learn the basics of living more sustainable lives.
The Ypsilanti-based company is starting with composting food and selling it as high-nutrient organic soil additive for community gardens and organically minded individuals.
Last month he began collecting food from two area grocery stores that otherwise would have found its way into a landfill, and composting it with the use of worms, flies and other bugs. No chemicals are used in the process and Pawloske says YRA recycles the bugs and worms to area farmers to feed their animals. "The idea is that there should be no waste."
Pawloske says that one month into the operation, YRA is composting about a yard's worth of raw produce a day. But grocery stores are expressing keen interest in the program and he is building larger composters to accommodate the anticipated growth. He expects those to be completed by the end of August.
"We offer [grocery stores] an easier solution; a one-stop shop," he says. "We sort all plastics and other containers and recycle them, so they don't have to pick through it. They were already looking for this and now, we're offering it." Pawloske is working to develop more extensive recycling plans with grocery stores in the near future.
Startup money was cobbled together solely through funds he raised, and he says he isn't looking to sell the organic compost at a high price point for boutique suburban gardeners. Instead, he sees this as a chance to provide nutrient-rich product and education to community gardens and individuals.
"I decided I was going to pursue this business in a more community-driven and natural way," Pawloske says.
Michelle Martinez is a freelance writer and editor who has reported on Metro Detroit businesses and issues for five years. Her previous article was A Soft Landing For Foreign Born Entrepreneurs
Erb Institute located at U of M's Ross School of Business
Wintergarden, common area at U of M's Ross School of Business
Channel Scott poses with biodegradable umbrella
eco-friendly product sold by Guffly
Nathan ZacPhotographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D
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