Ryan Letourneau ’11 and Jason Dodier ’09 are calling “all aboard” the Grain Train.
"That's kind of a fun phrase we've coined, but it's so true," says Dodier of the user experience through Grain Ecosystem, a tech-based sustainability startup that streamlines the carbon offset process for project developers. "We take people on this journey from feasibility, lifecycle analysis, profitability, fundraising, getting connected to more seasoned developers, if needed, all the way through to the execution and availability of offsets. That's all done in one seamless location."
The pair, who met as undergraduates at Bryant University and remained connected through careers at the French multinational energy management company Schneider Electric, have raised $500,000 in venture capital funding for Grain Ecosystem. Their idea, borne out of a Dare to Disrupt innovation challenge for Schneider staffers, came to Letourneau in the middle of the night.
“I was trying to think: Where am I going to have an impact? What are the biggest challenges that are facing us? I've always had a global citizen mindset,” says Letourneau, who studied International Business at Bryant and worked abroad for several years.
Sustainability felt like a natural fit but, with an already-crowded avoidance industry, Letourneau set his sights on creating a transparent, user-friendly digital platform that could help build, fund, certify, and verify carbon offset projects, which leverage the earth’s natural sinks to capture and trap carbon dioxide. The seeds for Grain Ecosystem were sown, and Letourneau tapped Dodier — “the best salesperson I’ve ever met,” Letourneau says, whom he met during his time on Bryant’s student senate — to go in on the Dare to Disrupt pitch.
“You've got a bunch of different buyers. You've got big, big enterprises that are looking to reduce their footprint, and they can leverage companies like Schneider to help drive down emissions and improve efficiency,” says Dodier, who studied Marketing at Bryant. “However, you'll need high-quality permanent removal options to get there. So that was our original thesis.”
Out of nearly 300 global Schneider Electric teams participating in the Dare to Disrupt challenge, Grain Ecosystem was one of three selected to advance to the incubation stage at Greentown Labs, a clean tech incubator in Somerville, Massachusetts. There, the team consulted more than 100 clients primed for carbon capture projects — for example, they own land with raw crop remnants that, if left to decompose, would contribute to carbon dioxide release but, if properly sequestered, could be manufactured into biochar, a potent fertilizer that draws and traps carbon from the atmosphere. Early on, the Grain Ecosystem team learned how convoluted the carbon capture marketplace was for budding project developers.
"We're trying to bring some transparency and visibility to what needs to happen to move the needle, because we are way behind our climate goals. I think everybody can agree on that."
“It was gut-wrenching to hear these stories about how they were inundated with different demands, paperwork, and processes. They felt like they were being taken advantage of,” says Dodier. “It’s the wild west, because everything is so scattered and sporadic and segmented. We're trying to bring some transparency and visibility to what needs to happen to move the needle, because we are way behind our climate goals. I think everybody can agree on that.”
Today, backed by $500,000 in funding from Schneider Electric (SE) Ventures, Grain Ecosystem is currently supporting five developers through the feasibility stages of new carbon offset projects. Moving forward, Grain Ecosystem will coalesce their data into a singular digital platform and will then introduce developers to potential finance partners. The co-founders are also examining ways to increase investments in carbon offset projects, and they’re tapping their Bryant network for ideas.
“I spent some time talking to Andres [Ramirez, an Associate Professor of Finance], picking his brain about the different types of investors that we may want to target in the next stage of our journey,” says Letourneau, adding that their vision for Grain Ecosystem is global in scope — another holdover from their time at Bryant, which introduced them to the international community on campus and abroad. Both men were raised in New England but were afforded world-class experiences in Smithfield, Dodier says, remembering roommates from Saudi Arabia and Latvia. This global mindset, a foundational element of their undergraduate careers, has had a lasting impact.
“You can remove carbon anywhere, and it helps everyone around the world,” says Letourneau. “It's the best way to do business: where everybody can do well and do good at the same time.”