BRITE supports clean-energy innovation in the Mahoning Valley
BRITE has a big goal.
It wants to help save the planet.
BRITE is a clean energy incubator nestled in the heart of downtown Warren. The organization offers a variety of services for startups, from coaching to open lab space to specialized accelerator services. Since its founding more than a decade ago, it’s served about 600 such startups so far.
What is now known as BRITE got its start around 2010 as the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center, said president and CEO Rick Stockburger. The goal at the time was to tap into the importance of energy to the Mahoning Valley, connecting Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The center also aimed to support entrepreneurship in the region, as it’s a “huge job creator,” Stockburger said.
Stockburger joined the organization in 2017 as its first full-time executive. Since then, BRITE has grown its staff – from one employee to nearly 15 – and its budget – from about $400,000 to about $3 million.
When Stockburger got his start at BRITE, he made a point to visit other energy incubators across the country. He noticed that many of them were focused on the science and the research; he wanted to focus, instead, on commercialization.
“What I noticed, and maybe it’s just because I’m not a scientist, is that no one was turning that into a business well,” he said.
There’s an opportunity there, he continued. And not just because it’s good for business and jobs.
“First and foremost, climate change is very real,” Stockburger said. “And I don’t think people are going to change their habits to mitigate climate change. People are still going to want to use as much whatever they’re using as they are today. Technology’s the only answer, in my opinion. And so, if we’re not working to get technology to market at a price people can afford and utilize, then we’re going to lose.”
So that’s just what BRITE aims to do. The organization changed its name in 2019 – it’s not an acronym, but something Stockburger picked to represent how he sees the future – and narrowed its focus areas to vehicle electrification, energy storage and grid resiliency.
“We wanted to pick areas that there was market opportunity, that there was skillset in Ohio and that would help us save the world,” Stockburger said.
Vehicle electrification in particular was a natural area of focus for BRITE. The first Packard vehicle was built in Warren in 1899, so the history is there. But the foundation for the future is there, too. The region still has Aptiv, which grew out of Delphi, doing vehicle research there. Foxconn is making electric vehicles in nearby Lordstown, which is also home to an Ultium Cells plant, the General Motors-LG Energy Solution battery making joint venture.
Ohio has been an “automotive powerhouse” over the years, Stockburger said, but that market is going to get “disrupted” by electrification. That’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs to introduce new technology.
A full ‘ecosystem’ of experts, services
BRITE currently serves more than 100 entrepreneurs across the state, as many of its programs are virtual, and membership for startups is free. Members can get coaching on a variety of topics and connections to funding opportunities. And they can participate in the organization’s accelerator programs, which come in a variety of levels to help companies scale up.
Plus, BRITE has lab space companies can take advantage of at its headquarters for research and testing. There’s equipment to help startups test sensors and batteries, a grid simulator and 3D printers, in addition to traditional manufacturing machinery like CNCs and lathes. It also has dedicated classroom and coworking space in its building.
The organization “covers the full gamut,” said board member Courtney Gras. And Gras would know, as a former entrepreneur who had made use of the services BRITE offers when she was helping to run Design Flux Technologies.
The network of potential investors, customers and peers BRITE connects its entrepreneurs to is also critical, Gras said, giving founders the chance to learn from one another, as well.
That helps its startups succeed, but it also brings “all of the voices to the table that are going to be critical in advancing the clean energy economy in Ohio, in Appalachia, in the Midwest,” said Victoria Rusu, director of strategic partnerships for BRITE. Clean energy is for everyone, she said; it’s not something off in the future.
Rusu emphasized the importance of BRITE’s “innovation-first ecosystem.”
“So, we take a founder from ideation to commercialization,” Rusu said. “Any point that they are across that whole spectrum, we have services, experts, programs that can plug in and help them get to where they’re trying to go. We do it without taking equity in the companies, so we really are here, providing those services.”
BRITE recently launched its annual campaign, which gives the organization foundational funding to serve the entrepreneurs with which it works. Stockburger said BRITE gets some funding from the state’s Third Frontier initiative and does some consulting work, but the bulk of its budget comes from industry partnerships and philanthropy.
And he thinks Warren is a good place for all of this work, highlighting the strong pool of workers and graduates in the region.
“I really believe that anyone, anywhere, can have meaningful impact on the world. And there’s no better place to prove that than Warren, Ohio,” Stockburger said.