Meet Deb Hagen-Lukens, Environmental Innovation Practicum Instructor

Deb Hagen-Lukens, instructor for Environmental Innovation Practicum

Deb (on the right) with the Buerk Center’s environmental manager Lauren Brohawn (left)

Environmental Innovation Practicum instructor Deb Hagen-Lukens taught Entrepreneurial Marketing for 10 years at UW following two decades of consulting, investing, and mentoring clean tech, consumer product, and high-tech startups. Deb authored the following guest blog for the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. You can learn more about the ENTRE 443/543, ENGR 498A, ENVIR 495 course and other ways to prepare for the Environmental Innovation Challenge on the Buerk Center’s webpage, or by e-mailing Lauren Brohawn at brohal@uw.edu.

Inspiration struck at just the right moment. The year is 2013. Just one week remained in the quarter before Environmental Innovation Practicum student teams would present their concepts for their class projects. Jim Hannah, then director of sustainability at Starbucks, was telling the class about the company’s global warming emissions footprint. Having taken great pains to increase the energy efficiency of its stores, Starbucks had already wrung a fair amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution from its business. But one pollutant remained a challenge: nitrous oxide, the gas used to add whip cream to mochas (this instructor’s favorite), lattes and hot chocolates. “We’ve worked with a number of vendors and so far haven’t found a solution. If anyone has any ideas for dealing with this issue, I’d love to hear about them,” said Hannah.

MBA candidate Chris Metcalfe, already an experienced entrepreneur, sat listening—and thinking. How could he validate the problem and start exploring a newly hatched idea for a solution? Research was needed. So, he went home in a state of two minds. He would finish the project assignment that was now nothing more than points toward a grade in the course, while at the same time, beginning serious work on a concept. Chris believed he could create a new food-grade propellant technology that significantly reduced emissions for the companies that used it. Through the Alaska Airlines Environmental Innovation Challenge and the Business Plan Competition, Chris honed the concept and (during his second quarter) launched the company Korvata to bring the solution to market. The funded company is now three years old.

It’s stories like these that fuel my passion to teach the Practicum. I have been a lecturer in entrepreneurship at UW since 2007, a member of the high tech and later clean tech startup communities in the Pacific Northwest, and a former marketing communications and public relations agency executive. I now focus exclusively on finding solutions to our environmental challenges, as a coach, mentor, and instructor. I’ve taught the Practicum since 2011.

I believe entrepreneurs can have enormous impacts in shaping a future that looks markedly different from our present reliance on fossil fuels, building designs that overcome geography, mono crop agriculture, and so many other inefficiencies.

The whole idea of the Environmental Innovation Practicum is to give student engineers, scientists, and marketers experience working together with public policy wonks, financeers, and product designers to address both a problem for the Earth—while solving a problem for a set of paying customers. I believe these solutions can make a true difference in the environment. If we fail to address a real problem with a real solution, we will have no environmental impact. Fail to address a market need and you have no business.

For the Practicum, I define “cleantech” very broadly—encompassing clean energy solutions; approaches for purifying and preserving water; and new methods and technologies for agriculture, forestry, and construction. In class, we talk about concepts such as biomimicry and circular, even regenerative, economies.

Practicum teams have developed ideas to make jersey barriers for roadways from recycled tires, agricultural plastic to protect delicate crops from early frosts from a food waste, simplify vertical farming, and improve home energy efficiency.

Clean energy is making strong inroads all over the world as adoption of wind and solar accelerates faster than expectations and costs drop with increased production. On Sept. 10th, Bloomberg reported that China will set a deadline for automakers to end sales of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, joining the U.K. and France in plans to do so. On Aug. 7th, Chemistry World reported what I think is a very exciting story of a Swiss startup called Climeworks, which is working on proving the economics of direct air capture of carbon dioxide with its new plant near Zurich. Every week, we see great news of progress in many sectors.

Still, our pace of transition to a clean energy economy globally has to accelerate to address our shared global challenge. The need for urgent action couldn’t have been on greater display than it was this summer. The smoke of regional wildfires blotted out Seattle’s sun (during our most glorious months of summer) and images of hurricane damage and flooding filled our screens. But as is often the case, great problems create great opportunity for inventors and entrepreneurs, and we have that now. The possibilities for new product and service companies might leap quickest to mind, but there are also opportunities to develop entirely new business models for a wide variety of industry sectors.

Part speaker series, part project, this Fall’s Practicum will feature Chad Frischmann, VP and Director of Research for Project Drawdown; Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the Living Futures Institute; Dr. Dan Schwartz, Director of UW’s Clean Energy Institute; and Chris Meek, Director of the Integrated Design Lab. For the time, speaker sessions will be open only to enrolled students. Once teams are formed mid-quarter, each class period will also include coaching sessions with experienced entrepreneurs and mentors circulating through the teams to answer questions and help advance project concepts toward the final presentations at the end of the quarter. I can’t wait to get the quarter started!