BRITE has a big goal.
It wants to help save the planet.
BRITE is a clean energy incubator located in downtown Warren. The organization offers a variety of services to startups, from coaching to open lab space to specialized acceleration services. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has served about 600 startups so far.
What is now known as BRITE began in 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 power to the Mahoning Valley, connecting Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The center also aimed to support entrepreneurship in the region, as they are “great job creators,” Stockburger said.
Stockburger joined the organization in 2017 as its first full-time executive. Since then, BRITE has increased its staff — from one employee to nearly 15 — and its budget — from about $400,000 to about $3 million.
When Stockburger started BRITE, he set out to visit other powerhouses around the country. He found that most of them focused on science and research; he wanted to focus, instead, on business.
“What I found, and maybe it’s because I’m not a scientist, is that no one was turning that into a commercial well,” he said.
There is an opportunity there, he continued. And not only because it is good for business and work.
“First of all, climate change is real,” Stockburger said. “And I don’t think people are going to change their behavior to mitigate climate change. People are still going to want to use whatever they use today. Technology is the only answer, in my opinion. And so, if we don’t work to get technology to market at a price that people can afford and use, then we will lose.
So that’s what BRITE aims to do. The organization changed its name in 2019 – not an acronym, but something that Stockburger chose to represent how he sees the future – and narrowed its areas of focus to vehicle electrification, energy storage and grid resilience.
“We wanted to pick areas where there was a market opportunity, that there was skill in Ohio and that would help us save the world,” Stockburger said.
Automotive power supply in particular was a natural area of focus for BRITE. The first Packard car 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 car research there. Foxconn manufactures electric vehicles in nearby Lordstown, which is also home to a plant for Ultium Cells, a battery company of the General Motors-LG Energy Solution joint venture.
Ohio has been an “automotive powerhouse” for years, Stockburger said, but that market will be “disrupted” by electrification. That is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to introduce new technologies.
A complete ecosystem of experts, services
BRITE currently serves more than 100 entrepreneurs across the state, as most of its programs are online, and membership for startups is free. Members can receive training on a variety of topics and connections to funding opportunities. And they can participate in corporate accelerator programs, which come in various levels to help companies scale.
Also, BRITE has laboratory space companies can take advantage of at its headquarters for research and testing. There are facilities to help startups test sensors and batteries, a grid simulator and 3D printers, as well as traditional manufacturing machines such as CNCs and lathes. It also has classroom and co-working space in its building.
The agency is “covering the full game,” board member Courtney Gras said. And Gras would know, as a former entrepreneur who used BRITE’s services while helping run Design Flux Technologies.
The network of potential investors, customers and peers BRITE connects its entrepreneurs with is also important, Gras said, giving founders a chance to learn from one another, too.
That helps his startup succeed, but also brings “all the voices to the table that are going to be important in developing a clean energy economy in Ohio, in Appalachia, in the Midwest,” said Victoria Rusu, BRITE’s director of strategic partnerships. Clean energy is for everyone, he said; not something far in the future.
Rusu emphasized the importance of “BRITE’s first innovative system.”
“So, we take the startup from idea to business,” Rusu said. “Any step that’s in the whole spectrum, we have services, experts, programs that can be integrated and help them get to where they’re trying to go. We do it without taking equity in the company, so we’re here, to provide those services.
Recently, BRITE launched its annual campaign, which provides the organization with basic funding to serve the entrepreneurs it works with. Stockburger said BRITE receives funding from the government’s Third Front program and does some consulting work, but the bulk of its budget comes from industry partnerships and philanthropy.
And he thinks Warren is the perfect place for all this work, highlighting the large pool of workers and graduates in the area.
“I’m a firm believer that anyone, anywhere, can have a meaningful impact on the world. And there’s no better place to prove that than in Warren, Ohio,” Stockburger said.