Sustainability leaders stand at the precipice of a pivotal moment for the future of our climate. While no single individual claims to have all of the answers, changemakers are increasingly turning to each other to chart the course forward for sustainable innovation and climate action — exchanging insights on how to implement unique initiatives, harness emerging technologies, institute best practices, and challenge conventional wisdom in order to effect transformative changes for our ecosystems, our societies, and our most vulnerable.

In 2024, Sustainability Next — a new editorial flagship series from NationSwell — will spotlight the standard-bearing corporate sustainability leaders, entrepreneurs, experts, philanthropists, and more whose catalytic work has the potential to shape the landscape of progress amid urgent need for environmental action. 

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Fred Tan, Head of Social Impact at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Deepa Lounsbury, the CEO of LabStart — a nonprofit venture studio that helps build accessible pathways for underrepresented entrepreneurs to bring climate technologies from lab-to-market and one of HPE’s grantees.

Jason Rissman, Chief Experience Officer, NationSwell: What brought you into climate and sustainability — was there a moment in your life that galvanized your commitment to this work?

Fred Tan, Head of Social Impact, Hewlett Packard Enterprise: I grew up in Singapore, and we are very climate sensitive by nature of our location and the economy that the country relies on. That was always at the front of my mind growing up, intersected with the fact that my family, before my generation, has historically never graduated from high school. When I look at my life and the opportunity I’ve had to journey through different socioeconomic circumstances, it’s a privilege to be able to work on systemic issues, cultural issues, and to combine the two to focus on how climate affects communities and how communities can be empowered to help tackle the climate crisis. 

Deepa Lounsbury, Managing Director, LabStart: 18 years ago, I sat next to a venture capitalist on a plane who told me that he invested in energy. I slipped one of my resumes into his pile as he was looking through them, and fast forward three months, I started my first job in climate at a small venture capital firm in Los Angeles where I was looking at a whole variety of technologies, including algae biofuels, recycling technologies, novel wind technologies, and solar. I’m still optimistic and going strong, and have taken a lot of notes along the way to figure out how to accelerate more solutions and bring talented human beings into climate work.

Rissman, NationSwell: How do you see this moment in sustainability — which trends are filling you with optimism and which ones are giving you pause or concern? 

Lounsbury, LabStart: The biggest source of my optimism is that there is so much energy and interest. I’m heartened by the number of people who are excited to dedicate their life to this big and complex problem, the existential crisis of our time. The thing that worries me is that it feels like starting a climate startup is a luxury that only very few people can ever even dream of. We can’t depend on every big climate solution being launched by the very few people that have a big enough bank account or the right friends; we have to make our umbrella much bigger. 

Tan, HPE: Similar to Deepa, I think one of our phrases that we commonly use is that every job is a climate job. I think the enthusiasm and momentum is incredible. We are seeing the structures put in place that will enable us to get to where we need to get to from a sustainability perspective, and we’ve got the best and brightest minds working on these issues — that give me lots of cause for optimism. 

Living a sustainable life is, in many ways, still seen as a privilege for folks; it’s part of a structural and cultural problem that we haven’t yet solved, and that’s one thing that keeps me up at night. We need to do a better job of enabling change to happen, both structurally and culturally, so that everyone is able to participate in the fight against the climate crisis — and also the benefits of a more sustainable life. 

Rissman, NationSwell: Tell us a bit about your sustainability strategies — what are the unique commitments and challenges that you’re embracing?

Tan, HPE: I think fundamentally we see that the world is becoming increasingly data-driven, and naturally we feel strongly that technology holds the key to unlocking solutions to some of the most pressing challenges that we’re going to face as a society — including the climate crisis. 

I think we also see it as our business imperative to reduce our emissions across our value chain, to build climate resilience throughout our business — so much so that in 2022, we accelerated our net zero target by 10 years. Today, we are one of only three global IT companies with a net zero target of 2040, and interim targets that have been approved by the net zero standard of the Science-Based Targets Initiative. 

Sustainability is built into the fabric of our business strategy, and as a tech company, the greatest opportunity for reduction for us comes from helping our customers minimize the environmental footprints of their IT estates. 

Importantly, the climate crisis is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social issue in which 5 million excess deaths are anticipated between 2030 and 2050, disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minority communities. Thus our strategy and commitment is to lead a collective effort to safeguard both the planet and its people.

Lounsbury, LabStart: LabStart is really all about unlocking potential for climate — there’s the human potential, and then there’s the technological potential. Our goal is to unlock both. BIPOC college graduates are only half as likely to have their name on a patent as white college graduates, so something that’s not talked about enough is having an idea that is “good enough” to launch a climate startup, or one that’s protected enough where you have a moat you can actually create a scalable solution around. 

We estimate there are about 25,000 climate-related patents inside our Department of Energy-funded national labs, but the vast majority of them don’t get commercialized because it’s hard for outsiders who aren’t familiar with the national labs to access the IP. We’re putting both of those opportunities together to seed climate startups with both diverse founders and climate IP that’s inside of our research institutions.

I’m proud to say that our current ten fellows are a really diverse bunch in terms of their ethnic makeup: 50% are Black or Latinx and 50% are women or non-binary.

Rissman, NationSwell: It’s a fantastic model — can you tell us a bit about how you find the renewable energy-related patents that you’re going to try to match with talents? 

Lounsbury, LabStart: There are, for example, 6,000 energy efficiency related patents and 6,000 energy storage related patents in our DOE National Labs and even more at our universities.  We simply start with those who know their IP portfolios best (the technology transfer officers) as well as keyword searches to look for technologies that offer solutions to decarbonization problems that we have not yet solved.  The next step in our evolution is to build upon today’s method and accelerate the IP filtering process utilizing AI and advanced technology solutions. 

We start our technology funnel that way, and then we utilize a mix of both internal and external reviewers at different stages of narrowing it down. We have scientists, industry/corporates and investors, all weighing in on which ones have potential, and then we compile a shortlist of patents that entrepreneurs can select from when they fill out our application. We do also give them an option to look outside the shortlist.  We select LabStart Fellows based on relevant experience, hustle, and their thoughtfulness and rationale for starting a business based on their selected IP. 

Rissman, NationSwell: Fred, I’m curious about how you see LabStart, the role that they’re playing today, and how you’re supporting them.

Tan, HPE: We believe in innovation at HPE; we believe that innovation starts small, and we believe in supporting American innovation, so the national labs are great partners of HPE. I think when we look to tackle the climate crisis, our belief is that we need to support both the individual solutions and also ensure that the ecosystem more broadly is able to thrive.

When we look at the ecosystem of incubators and accelerators, we see that only 2% of them are focused on helping climatic entrepreneurs. So our strategy at HPE is to support the intermediary organizations that enable climate entrepreneurs to start their ventures, to thrive, and to succeed. LabStart hits on all these parts. 

Rissman, NationSwell: Tell us about the progress that you’ve seen to date, and what you’re hoping to accomplish in the next couple of years.

Lounsbury, LabStart: We just finished the first three months of our program, and it is kind of breathtaking to see how far a single person can take a great idea in 12 weeks. They have talked to dozens of customers, the licensing offices, developed stunning pitch decks, calculated the environmental impact at scale, and generally have launched.

When we’re talking about deep climate tech, it’s a long journey and different organizations support it in different ways. I think what’s really important for us as the first leg of the relay race is to make sure we pass the baton and collaborate with all the other downstream accelerators that are primed to help entrepreneurs at a later stage, at step two, step three, step four. I’m so excited to see where everybody lands next. 

Rissman, NationSwell: Fred, curious to hear a bit just about how HPE is supporting — tell us a bit more about what you’re able to do.

Tan, HPE: It’s a mix of everything. Our funding for LabStart goes toward supporting them organizationally in a way that is unrestricted and gives them the flexibility to grow in a way that best meets their needs.

I think what we’re trying to work toward is how we can help become a convener by bringing others to the table, in terms of leveraging our network of customers and technical experts within the company, and to be able to support LabStart and the fellows that go through the programs. But then also to give a signal to others that we interact with, other organizations, companies, and foundations, to catalyze more funding and resources for LabStart as an organization. 

Rissman, NationSwell: If we look further out — let’s say seven, ten years into the future — what do you hope you’ll have built together?

Lounsbury, LabStart: What we’re doing is paving new paths to wealth in a somewhat nascent industry, new paths for intellectual property to actually get in the hands of the people who need it and will benefit from it. Instead of bushwhacking like we’re doing right now, I hope to pave a smooth, well-lit road with proper signage and street lights for all the maybe-entrepreneurs who are on the fence. I would love to be part of that inspiration and for them to know that there is a path for them that many people have gone down before.

Tan, HPE: From one side of the picture, what we hope for is that there’s more innovation that hits market scale. Throughout history there have been promises, and sometimes unkept promises, to communities that the evolution or revolution will bring jobs and economic opportunity and security. 

I think what LabStart is doing is crucial in ensuring that we keep our promise with the tech revolution that we see happening, and crucial in opening up doors and opportunities for people and communities to participate in what will be the economy of the future. 

Rissman, NationSwell: As you’ve been experimenting and learning together through this partnership, what have you learned about intersectional approaches like this that might be of help to our other members or other funders who are curious and motivated about trying to advance equity while pursuing the energy and climate transition?

Lounsbury, LabStart: The first thing I learned is that if you put an opportunity out there, the people will come — the talent and the hustlers and the people who just need a little bit of help to take that first step. We were just astounded by the quality of applications we got in our very first full application cycle. 

The second thing I learned is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. I think every accelerator might have learned this, but this journey is hard and there are lots of times when you feel really alone and down. To start with why you’re doing this as a way to center and to figure out where your light is coming from is a really important piece of it.

The last thing I’ll say is that we have a really big vision, and it’s inspiring to be surrounded by super optimistic people. I don’t think you’ll find anyone more optimistic than entrepreneurs.

Tan, HPE: What I’m learning is humility, honesty, and trust. If we’re not intentional, power can become imbalanced whenever funding is involved, and working with Deepa and LabStart has required honesty about what HPE can bring to the table and what we cannot bring to the table — and also the humility to step back and recognize that what we bring to the table might not be the end-all, be-all of what the sector needs. 

To make space for others to come along and to provide their expertise — even if it means putting ourselves in the backseat — also requires that honesty and humility, but then also trust in these other partners. I think we’ll continue to learn as we support LabStart, and as we continue to bring others to this table in support of Deepa’s vision.