Marked by a variety of characteristics, innovation can be found in multiple disciplines. But all innovators set out in front of the pack, bushwhacking a trail where none exists. Innovative organizations and projects bring outside-the-box thinking to problems or present a refreshing take on the status quo.
Xpress sought to find those clearing the path for our community’s future and put out a call for the public to nominate innovators. We received a total of 41 nominations and, through a process of several in-house jury deliberations, arrived at the eight we profile in this special issue. It wasn’t easy. And the runners-up made us deliberate if we should even feature more.
Xpress is proud to present Asheville’s Innovators. We hope their actions inspire you to innovate in your corner of Western North Carolina.
— Xpress Asheville Innovator jury: Edwin Arnaudin, Jeff Fobes, Dan Hesse, Max Hunt, Carolyn Morrisroe, Tracy Rose and Gina Smith
Website: — TheCollider.org
Mack B. Pearsall, founding philanthropist and current board chairman, Thomas “Tom” R. Karl, Climate and Weather, LLC (retired director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, headquartered in Asheville), Claire Callen, president of Oceanside Resorts Hotels Inc. and subsidiary Oceans-Asheville, and owner of the building that houses The Collider
Describe your organization/project.
The Collider is a nonprofit center of innovation in a changing climate. As a nonadvocacy, nonpartisan organization, The Collider plays a leading role in the development of jobs and business within the climate solutions industry. We support the growth of enterprises as they develop pragmatic, innovative and transformative tools, products and services to help businesses, communities and governments better navigate a changing climate.
Why is this needed in the Asheville area, and how does it make a difference?
Since the 1950s, Asheville has been a hub of climate and data science. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, located downtown and previously known as the National Climatic Data Center, is the world’s largest repository of weather and climate data. It is the home to internationally renowned climate scientists, some of whom have shared in the Nobel Peace Prize.
With the presence of NCEI here in Asheville for more than half a century, other climate-related entities have formed over time to include N.C. State’s Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites and UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center. Dozens of innovators looking to start or grow their climate solutions organizations have also sprung up.
About a decade ago, a group of individuals professionally involved in climate science, along with business and civic leaders, including Mack Pearsall, came to see that climate change is the most significant, clear and present danger to the entire Earth and its inhabitants as measured in economic, social, environmental, agricultural, energy, political and national security terms.
We realized that doing something about adaptation to climate change, which we embraced as a noble cause, could also bring about financial and local job opportunities. With NCEI, CICS and NEMAC here, with the climate data, the intellectual capital — all of these combined could create a new industry: the climate solutions industry. Asheville could become known as more than “Beer City”; we could also be “Climate City.”
What was your epiphany/eureka moment for this organization/project?
This informal “climate cluster” concluded that what was needed was to create a place where public, private, academic and nonprofit entities focused on some aspect of climate solutions could work side-by-side; where scientists and businesspeople and students could strategically “collide” to develop innovative solutions for problems — and opportunities — created by a changing climate.
What was the inspiration that made you take the leap from cool, cutting-edge idea to implementing it?
While Mack recognized the potential for this idea — and was willing to contribute his own personal financial resources, which he continues to do — there were other key players that were instrumental in taking The Collider from dream to reality: Tom Karl and Claire Callen.
As director of NCEI at the time, Tom served as strategic adviser on revealing the need and opportunity that The Collider could offer to the climate change community locally and worldwide. Without his insight and commitment to enhancing growth of the climate science community and close collaboration in the physical and programmatic design of The Collider, there would never have been a Collider.
Likewise, the project would have never been possible without the shared vision and financial and evangelical commitment of Claire Callen, whose company, Ocean-Asheville, owns the building The Collider is housed in. Claire and Ocean-Asheville shared the climate cluster’s vision and commitment to do something big for the world by serving as a supportive landlord for The Collider.
Claire and Ocean-Asheville generously gave the cluster 18 months to build an ecosystem of climate scientists and entrepreneurs that could be housed at The Collider and the adjacent Callen Center office suites — making the entire, 24,000-square-foot, top-floor space a climate solution innovation center. It is widely recognized that Asheville owes Claire and Ocean-Asheville a debt of gratitude for the major investment in the growth of the innovation sector of Asheville’s economy.
What do you think makes it innovative?
The Collider is a one-of-a-kind combination of public, private, academic and nonprofit entities all focused on using climate data to create innovative climate solutions. One of the businesses with their North American office at The Collider is London-based Acclimatise, a specialist advisory and analytics company providing expertise in climate change adaptation and risk management. They’ve been doing important work with more than 180 private, public-sector and civil society organizations worldwide for well over a decade. The CEO of Acclimatise tells us he has seen no other place in the world like The Collider.
How is it working now?
Like any startup, we began with a simple science- and data-focused hypothesis. As the startup became reality over the past several years, we’ve learned a lot about what the climate community needs.
And, like any startup, the market has changed while we were serving it. In 2017 alone, more than $14 trillion of investment capital has asked for a better understanding of the climate risks that businesses face. Entrepreneurs and established firms alike are racing to respond to that need, and new ventures are being created across the United States, including in Asheville. The Collider is uniquely positioned to catalyze the growth of this rapidly emerging sector and expects to heighten its focus on supporting innovators with proven acceleration techniques. We will be launching a fundraising campaign in 2018 to help us develop these new programs and services.
Currently, we have about 65 member organizations, most which are located at The Collider here in Asheville. These range from startups to multinational organizations with a North American presence at The Collider. The emerging industry of climate services has such exciting possibilities for Asheville that the Economic Development Coalition of Asheville-Buncombe County included it in its Economic Development Strategic Plan.
Our event venues allow us to collaborate with many partners to produce professional talks, forums, workshops and programs — such as a recent symposium for architects called “Where Building Science Meets Climate Science,” providing building professionals with information on how to design for a changing climate.
We also have been fully embraced by the general community, who attend our public engagement events, such as our climate and environmental film series, science lectures and the newly forming science book club.
What are your goals for the project in the future?
Our No. 1 goal is to become the go-to place for innovators in the climate change sector.
We’re also excited about North Carolina’s first-ever conference on the business of climate, which we are spearheading in March 2018, called ClimateCon. This event will feature three components: The Business of Climate Forum, the Symposium for Emerging Climate Leaders and 10 days of related community events we are calling “Welcome to Climate City.”
The Business of Climate Forum will be a collaborative experience with a wide variety of business and science professionals who come together to advance the development of data-driven products and services. Speakers include Katharine Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona; Greg Lowe, global head of resilience and sustainability with Aon; Erin Meezon, chief sustainability officer with Interface Inc.; Duane Peterson, co-president and founder of Suncommon; Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. and board chair of Protect Our Winters; and Katharine Wilkson, senior writer with Project Drawdown.
How is what you’re doing different from what others (people, organizations) are doing to solve this problem?
There’s no place in the world quite like The Collider. It uniquely brings together public, private, nonprofit and academic experts who are all focused on a single — if daunting — problem: creating market-driven solutions to climate change.
What advice do you have for people trying to use innovation to foster change in the community?
Find an area where you have a unique competitive advantage like we identified in developing The Collider: the intellectual capital and the climate data at NCEI, CICS and NEMAC; the pool of private-sector climate talent; the synergy that can develop when like-minded, yet multidisciplinary, people share a connected space.
Then, take the plunge of entrepreneurial faith. Just remember that it will take longer than you think to make it work and multiples of whatever you budgeted to make it happen.