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Meet this year's trailblazers in energy

The challenges of energy transition are driving a new kind of leadership. Here's how next generation start-ups are challenging conventions to create lasting change.

1. Alexia Cooper | Bell Solar & Electrical Systems

As CEO of Bell Solar & Electrical Systems, Nevada, Alexia Cooper wants to 'rewire the world'. At 25, Cooper may be a rarity – a woman in a male-dominated discipline – but she's determined she won't be the last.

In 2020 Cooper was part of an employee collective that bought out Bell, a small solar installation company in Nevada. They've gone on to create a cause-oriented business powered by sustainability. That means jobs are well paid and there's a commitment to creating highly skilled but diverse teams, including paid apprenticeships for women.

These measures don't just embrace renewable energy right now. They create the conditions that help energy transition and sustainability flourish into the future. Ultimately, that's where Cooper and the Bell team aim to make their mark.

As for breaking the glass ceiling – and making the Forbes 30 Under 30 list along the way – Cooper maintains a positive outlook. She acknowledges the difficulties women face but adds, "I've never seen them as barriers, but as stepping stones."

2. James Carnes & Kyle Gillis | Iconic Air

James Carnes (23) and Kyle Gillis (27) met while studying engineering at West Virginia University. It was there that they founded environmental intelligence company Iconic Air. Now, two years later, the tech start-up is soaring.

Their SaaS model leverages AI and machine learning to help the gas and oil sectors quantify and lower emissions. Its potential has seen Carnes and Gillis win a US Air Force contract to adapt the technology for the Department of Defense.

Gillis told The Intelligencer Iconic Air allows organizations to "improve sustainability by logging, tracking and reporting their emissions data ... It's no longer once a year, but day to day, week to week, month to month, making it continuous and transparent."

That tech disruption chimes with the growing momentum towards energy transition. And it means that, while gas and oil have experienced a downturn during the pandemic, demand for Iconic Air is on the rise.

3. Paris Smalls | Eden GeoTech

Eden GeoTech founders Paris Smalls (27) and Ammar Alai (29/30) intend to transform gas and oil fracking. But, like many next gen start-ups, Boston-based Eden prioritizes people as much as power.

Their Pulsed Electrical Reservoir Stimulation (PERS) technology is less expensive and offers higher extraction rates than drilling. A voltage passed through electrodes inserted into a reservoir causes the reservoir to heat, forming micro-fractures. The process uses less water, and causes less noise pollution and fewer emissions.

Despite the technology's success, Smalls notes opportunities are lacking for black and brown entrepreneurs and employees. Eden's diversity commitment also acknowledges the unequal burdens communities of color face as the world grapples with climate change. The company comments, "We believe that diversifying our practitioners is core to conceptualizing innovative solutions to solve our global climate challenges".

4. Dr. Christoph Gebald & Dr. Jan Wurzbacher | Climeworks

Zurich's Climeworks has the backing of some of the world's biggest brands. The company's approach to direct air capture has proven attractive to partners including Microsoft, Stripe and Coca-Cola.

Co-founders Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher met while studying at ETH Zurich, where a shared interest in Alpine sports gave them an up-close view of glacial retreat. They turned their insights into climate solutions technology.

Climeworks builds and operates carbon capture plants. Here, air filters draw in air and capture the CO2 content on a filter material. The CO2 is heated, mixed with water and pumped deep underground, where it mineralizes.

The model is funded in part by consumer subscriptions, as a kind of voluntary carbon offset program. But it also has commercial applications that has seen Climeworks turn captured carbon into methane fuel – and even the spark in sparkling water and other carbonated drinks.

5. Yusef Jacobs | Graviti

As the Buy Now, Pay Later market gains pace around the world, Yusef Jacobs (28) is already turning the concept on its head.

His Graviti start-up extends microfinancing to unbanked families in Mexico (where just 37 percent of adults have a bank account). But rather than profiting from unaffordability, Jacobs offers a gateway to financial inclusion and sustainable energy.

The company connects low-income households with solar-powered water heaters, refrigerators and washing machines. Graviti pays distributors for these up-front (whilst also charging them a commission to be included in the scheme).

Consumers then repay Graviti on affordable terms. Yes, there's interest, though at a lower rate than other credit products. Instead, if clients fall behind, Graviti gradually limits appliance functionality.

The model is disruptive in a remarkably simple way. Rather than enabling families to buy what they want but can't afford, Graviti helps them buy what they need on affordable terms.

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