It looks like a sleek box. But the story behind it is far more interesting.

I remember the first time I spoke with Aatish Patel (HES 2022), now cofounder and CEO of XCharge Energy. He had zeroed in on a problem with electric vehicle charging in the U.S.: EV chargers need electrical infrastructure closer to what’s found in Europe. In the US, it takes a lot of rewiring to make fast EV chargers work on the local grid. So he started fiddling.

Soon enough, Aatish came up with a prototype that allowed fast charging without changing over the grid: the idea for XCharge Energy was born.

Aatish had gotten just a little farther than that when he entered the Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle, a selective incubation program for high-potential ventures working to address climate change. Through the Climate Circle, Aatish accessed one-on-one expert chats, introductions to people he’d later hire, and sales advice. He changed the structure of his company and figured out the manufacturing challenges (all in the midst of the pandemic – no small feat).

Now Harvard is looking to install one of his chargers on the HBS campus. Here’s how it came about.

I’d been talking with Jessica Fixsen, Sustainability Manager at HBS, and Leah Ricci, Associate Director of Sustainability and Energy Management at HBS–who were members of Harvard’s Environmental and Sustainability Professionals Network, delightfully nicknamed ESPN. One day in pre-meeting banter, I was telling them about about a few of the climate ventures I was advising as the senior advisor for social entrepreneurship at the Harvard Innovation Labs. They said: “Hey, we’d like to learn more about that solution, and we think our colleagues might too.” So they set up a pitch day for Climate Circle teams to share their work with Harvard’s facilities and procurement managers. During the pitch meeting, Aatish connected with Rachel Huxhold, energy and commissioning manager at HBS, which paved the way for future conversations on procuring Aatish’s charger.

Something about this tickled my fancy: home-born ideas implemented at Harvard, using the campus as a “living lab,” to lower Harvard’s own environmental footprint.

Aatish is not alone. When CarbonRe started in the Climate Circle, they knew they could use AI to help decarbonize heavy industry and save energy, but they were not yet sure whether to focus on steel or cement. Fast forward, and they are now featured in Forbes as a go-to resource on decarbonizing concrete factories.

And I first spoke with Margaret Wang (HGSE 2020) before she even had an idea for a startup. Now she and David Jaffe (ALI 2021) have created Subject to Climate, which connects K-12 educators to credible and engaging materials on climate change. In 2022, they partnered with the State of New Jersey to launch a customized NJ hub to support their integration of climate change in various subjects. For this upcoming back-to-school, they will be launching 3 more state hubs in Oregon, Wisconsin, and Maine while their core platform continues to serve the nation and globally, with over 10,000 unique visitors a month.

What background do Climate Circle founders have?

As you can begin to see from the founders I’ve regaled you with, Climate Circle founders come from all industries and areas of study. Some are undergraduates, some are industry veterans. They come from retail, mining, teaching, oil and gas, coding, clinical medicine, and the military.

They represent countries around the world: We have founders from Indonesia, Uganda, Chile, Germany, India, Israel, and South Africa as well as Ghana, the UK, Egypt, Australia, Ireland, Ecuador, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Kenya among others. Within the U.S, the geographical spread is just as wide, with founders from Boston to Texas.

And about two-thirds of Climate Circle teams are led by women or people of color.

Climate change impacts all of us, including all industries and all countries, but in very different ways. It makes sense that the solutions come from people with such varied lived-experiences, each with a different perspective on potential solutions.

How did the Harvard Climate Circle come about?

From the beginning, it was a collaborative effort. During the pandemic I got a call from Sanjay Seth (HKS), the founder of Harvard Alumni for Climate and the Environment (HACE), Harvard’s official alumni group focused on climate. We’d never chatted before, but his suggestion of an offering on climate entrepreneurship took wings. He and I pulled together a group of alumni with experience in both climate and entrepreneurship and did a structured brainstorm with everyone typing into a GoogleDoc simultaneously, responding to structured prompts about unmet needs and ranking possible solutions. In those first conversations were already the seeds of our founding team– Ling Lin (College, 2012), now part of the Meta team focused on climate, and BEI leaders Lynn Schenk, Courtney Fairbrother, and Elise Clarkson.

Out of this, the Harvard i-lab, HBS BEI, and HACE co-launched the Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle. The mission is to help climate ventures, led by Harvard students and alumni, go further faster. All three groups jointly recruit teams, sit on the selection committee, and help support the Climate Circle offerings. We each do this out of a sense of joy.

You mentioned resources. What kinds of resources are offered?

Founders accepted into the Harvard Climate Circle have access to over 100 resources.

Most of the resources are concierge 1:1 offerings, like meeting with Oladeji Timayu, of the Harvard Law School Negotiation and Mediation Clinic, who advises start-ups on everything from negotiating with funders to rental leases. Or with Liz Purchia, who is advisor to former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and helped run public affairs at the EPA. Or Rob Shelton, who focuses on scale-up with a specialization in climate. We also work closely with Green Pro Bono, which matches founders with long-term pro bono legal help.

The reason we structure these resources as on-demand and 1:1 is because most of the Climate Circle founders are far enough along in their startup journeys that the challenges they’re facing are unique and contextual. We get questions such as “how do I figure out the dynamic with my supplier.” The help they need is probably not a panel discussion. Rather they need someone with a high degree of expertise and lived experience in the field to brainstorm individually around their challenge.

These resources sit on top of the foundational start-up offerings, like workshops on fundraising and sales, expert office hours, and networking opportunities. We also have sessions with big names in climate: Sophie Purdom walking through how to use her famous tool CTVC, Illai Gescheit speaking on climate corporate venture capital, and Christina Chang on how LowerCarbon Capital makes funding decisions in climate.

What are some of the coolest moments so far?

My favorite moments are when I see teams, many of whom I helped coach when they were pre-idea or pre-customer, help each other as now-established players. For example, Subject to Climate collates and vets high-quality climate curricula. Earth Warriors, who joined the Climate Circle one year later, teaches children ages 3-11 about climate in six countries. They were recognized as a UNESCO Green Citizens Initiative for their positive and empowering approach to teaching this complex topic to young children. Earth Warriors is now listed in the Subject to Climate database, and Earth Warriors offered a free teacher training to all Subject to Climate teachers on how to teach climate change to young children which was attended by over 100 teachers. Earth Warriors is now partnering with the government of India, and other founders in the network have offered lessons learned on government partnerships.

In another memorable moment, several Climate Circle teams were engaged in a conversation with the CEO of a European foundation who had come to the i-lab to hear about our climate startups. John Maslin of Vulcan Elements passed around a bag containing a small black nugget of rare earth minerals. He is focused on decarbonizing and on-shoring the production of minerals just like this. Part of that work uses waste from mines, called mine tailings. The woman sitting next to him said, ey, we work on mine tailings… we should talk more.”

About the Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle

The Harvard Climate Entrepreneur’s Circle is a selective incubation program for high-potential ventures working to address climate change. Climate Circle participants have access to world-class coaching, legal counsel, warm connections to industry leaders, and a peer group of founders who are all working on innovative solutions to tackle climate change. The Climate Circle is run by the Harvard Innovation Labs i-lab along with Harvard Alumni for Climate and the Environment and HBS’s Business and Environment Initiative. With more than 65 ventures incubated to date, the Climate Circle is cultivating the next generation of climate entrepreneurs who are actively uncovering new, unexpected ways to take on climate change.