The climatetech journey of a lifetime
8 min read

The climatetech journey of a lifetime

The climatetech journey of a lifetime

A human story, by Matthew Eshed. Originally published 19 Jan 2021.

This website is an experiment, a model, an instigator for others to come out of the woodwork, whether in the world we can see, or within their own internal world. Here is my story of the last eight years since graduating from university, told with the intent to demonstrate the human side of the climatetech journey. How do you fit in? Do you want to tell your story, too? You are most welcome. Please enjoy.

In 2012, I graduated from the University of Maryland with a bachelor's of science in mechanical engineering (Go Terps!). I set about applying my mechanical engineering degree to sustainability, designing systems that do not produce any waste. All waste gets designed out of the system, mimicking biology. Before I started college, we called it bio-inspired engineering. Now, we call it biomimicry.

In 2013, I got an entry-level project management job at MakerBot, just as 3d printing was approaching the peak of the hype curve. While sitting on the product team, I worked across hardware and software engineering, customer support, manufacturing, sales, and marketing. It was at MakerBot that I saw clearly how e-waste is the result of design decisions, or in other words, design decisions that were not made. Those missing decisions involve design for disassembly and for end of life of the product.  I began to form a sustainability team, and our first win was signing on the company that rolled the plastic filament onto spools to signal their oppenness to respool old spools. I also began a partnership with Terracycle to recycle old PLA and ABS filament. Shortly after, MakerBot started laying off swaths of its staff, and I left the company. I gained a new imperative, that quality is of the utmost importance, and saw first-hand why you must never ship a product without sufficient testing. Push the ship date back, but for goodness' sake, do not ship without full testing!

In 2015, I began product managing at a safety-tech company, using internet of things, locationing, and video gaming technology to give safety managers a comprehensive view of the risks on their job sites. The technology would be a "leading indicator," showing where injuries might happen, before they happen. The company was called Human Condition Safety, with a broader Labs function, and a global focus. AIG was the big funder of this technology. In early 2016, I was laid off, stating that there was no need for this product manager on the team. I suspect it was my recently-learned quality imperative that pushed me into the "set 'em free" category. I was the canary in the coal mine, because a few months later, almost the entire staff was also laid off. That company fell victim to the common startup trope: the vision for the technology far outpaced what the development team could build, and eventually, someone found out, and pulled the plug.

I decided to move to San Francisco, to either start a company, or work at a company building a product according to the zero-waste principles of Cradle to Cradle. I attended many Meetups and picked up a part-time job at an ewaste company in the Mission, eWaste SF, and worked to help them get new customers. Eventually, I was introduced to Tito Jankowski, who was at the time the manager of Runway, a coworking space, and he described me his dream of a global network of climate labs, patterened after the success of a previous open lab concept he had co-founded, BioCurious. I was ready and willing, and the next week, I entered the world of open science and innovation at Manylabs.

Manylabs was a deeply appreciated build on the open-source and maker/hacker culture that I encountered at MakerBot. This time, it was focused on education and science, without a focus on profit. It was at the 3-story industrial space on Folsom Street that Tito and I incubated our nascent firm, Impossible Labs, and hosted our Meetup group, Climate Change + Tech. We gave presentations to sustainability-oriented Fortune 500 corporations, and operated within the nascent climatetech ecosystem in the Bay Area. One day, we sent out two proposals: one to the Institute for the Future, to help them create their climate futures lab, and one to a leading entrepreneur who we knew was interested in the "imposition of human waste," and especially the trillion tons of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Both of those proposals were returned favorably, and out of that work came a project with the World Bank Climate Innovation Fund, and AirMiners.

The original goal of AirMiners was to connect innovators in carbon capture and sequestration all around the world, in a house not dominated by the incumbent players; the fossil fuel industry, academia, and government. This is the house of innovation, of entrepreneurship, of design thinking, and of the lean startup. We created it as a model that would ideally self-replicate and grow. Since 2017, when we launched airminers.org/explore, the community has grown and is now vibrant, with over a dozen events in 2020 and approaching 800 members on Slack. At the 2018 Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, we demonstrated months of work to create an end-to-end air-to-product technology demonstration.

At the same time, I decided that it was time to move back home to New York City, and to take a step away from AirMiners, to let it grow without me. I wanted to focus on today's technologies, bicycles, local agriculture, biodegradable packaging, renewable energy expansion, and education to expand climate literacy. And so, to create the space for AirMiners to grow, I left the company to work independently in New York. I took a 6-month break from working to mentally process all we had accomplished in the Bay Area, to return to my home territory, my home bioregion, and to see, who am I now? I left New York a humble Product Manager and I returned a Climate Innovator.

When I returned to New York, I based myself near Kingston, New York, in the Hudson Valley, where I'd heard there were regenerative agriculture projects. I found a part-time job with a renewable energy nonprofit, Citizens for Local Power, where I was the Coordinator for a 10-person female-led volunteer team, organizing community roundtable meetings, and supporting the application for a grant. We successfully received almost $100k in grant funding to grow the green jobs ecosystem in Kingston through collaboration with local building contractors, youth organizations, and the local New York State University, SUNY Ulster. I resigned from my position there to let someone from the area coordinate, which I thought would more authentically grow the organization and its mission.

Shortly after, I reached out to a regenerative hemp farm in Hudson, New York, and after some back-and-forth, I wrote a job description that ended up becoming my job. I was responsible for managing the inventory of thousands of pounds of regeneratively-grown hemp, where the name of the game is building soil carbon and working nature's flows. The nonprofit, Hudson Carbon, took care of the soil testing, and since we were making a medicinal cannabinoid product that people put in their bodies, testing for heavy metals, pesticides, and cannabinoids was  imperative at every stage - in raw plant form, in its distilled form, and in its oil-blended form. I created a methodology to manage the inventory that came from 10 farms in the area, growing 10 different varieties, in many different microclimates, causing each to have a slightly different cannabinoid profile due to variation in water, sun, and wind. Unfortunately, due to management and budgeting issues, my contract was terminated after just one harvest season. That was February 2020.

I moved back home to New York City, full of energy and motivation to grow climatetech, seeing that it had barely left the Bay Area, and I created my new firm, Climatetech Advisors, to bring climatetech to the world. I was going to attend and host events, have meetings with collaborators, report on their progress, promote their work, and rapidly iterate my business model at the same time. However, we all know what happened at the beginning of March 2020. It was the day after I returned home from attending the inaugural enTERPreneur conference at Maryland that everything shut down. No meetings, no events, no product showcases. I am a high-touch, in-person type of person. I don't have strong software skills, and though I am an engineer and extremely computer-literate, I am not comfortable spending all day on a computer. I am more of a farmer, I want to be outside, with the animals, with the soil, and with the plants. I am tangible: I want to touch, smell, hear, and feel. I once met with Jigar Shah and he told me, "it sounds like you are a Druid." You are one perceptive man, Jigar!  Climate change is a crisis of externalities, and you have to go outside to see and feel them. Permaculture has the principle of stacking functions, and going outside both gives us a sense for what is really happening, and also, outside is where great healing happens.

Throughout 2020, I engaged in a significant amount of pro-bono advising, working with the NYC Parks Department, startups participating in New York State-funded accelerators, and the AirMiners community. I have worked on refining my business model, and have received pro bono advising as well. My idea for the Climatetech Advisors brand is that it is by advisors, for advisors. These are the people who want to grow climatetech as I do, and because this is a brand-new industry, the jobs we might get aren't clear. In addition, we are working on the future of jobs, and we know that the traditional 40-hour work week is old news. The future is more about Universal Basic Assets - that is, community care, musical skills, languages spoken, farming ability, and mutual aid. These activities don't directly translate to dollars or profit, but they do translate to a life well lived. I encourage you to learn more about Universal Basic Assets at the Institute for the Future website, iftf.org.

And so, this brings us to 2021. As you can see, I have this Climatetech Media project (which is calling collaborators, did you know?). I still have pro bono advising clients. I am a mentor for two startups in the recently-renamed Scale For Climatetech program, and potentially a mentor for another stratup in a Maryland-based accelerator. I am stepping more into my role as an Advisor for AirMiners, and am working to improve my writing, applying for journalist fellowships at publications like Tablet Magazine, Grist, and NPR. I am noticing that permaculture is also a concept that the world will benefit from, and am considering trying my hand as a permaculture design consultant. My LinkedIn headline says that I am a "Sustainability Strategist and New Product Developer," but in reality, I am much more than that. Aren't we all?

I grew up in Manhattan, the child of a native New Yorker and an Israeli-Russian immigrant, the grandchild of native New Yorkers and holocaust survivors, and the great-grandchild of New Yorkers and Polish Ashkenazi Jews who lived through the pogroms of the 1800s. I grew up in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, and rode the subway as long as I can remember. When I build things, I build them to last. That is how I was raised, that is the model and example I was given.

Climatetech, defined as products and services that are climate solutions by design, is my gift to the world, imbued with intention to transition to a future free of physical waste, of human waste, and of ecosystem waste. There is no waste in nature, and the steps we take to mimic that are all good: education, community, and health. So let's take them, together.

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