Harvest Power CEO Talks Sustainable Startups & Lessons from Farming

In case you’re wondering why there aren’t more entrepreneurs tackling really big problems like alternative energy and sustainability, consider Paul Sellew. Here’s a guy who was never tempted by dot-com fame and fortune. Instead, he has built a successful career around cleantech and the environment—while also making a lot of money in his businesses.

Sellew (pronounced like “Saloon” without the n) is best known in these parts as the co-founder and CEO of Harvest Power, based in Waltham, MA. That’s the waste management and energy company that earlier this month topped off a $125 million financing round from big investors including True North Venture Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, DAG Ventures, Generation Investment Management (co-led by Al Gore), and Piper Jaffray.

Harvest represents one of New England’s biggest cleantech bets, with more than $300 million in debt, equity, and grants raised since it started in 2008. And so far, so good: The company has about 400 employees (50 around Boston) and, last I checked, it was raking in more than $100 million in annual revenues. And that’s before the “power” part of its name even kicks in. Harvest’s organic waste-to-energy plants near Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, are slated to be up and running this fall, and the firm has broken ground on a new plant in Florida; these facilities will add to Harvest’s existing composting business for use as garden soil and fertilizer. As the new facilities scale up, they are supposed to fulfill the company’s vision in which millions of tons of food scraps and yard waste can be turned into natural gas and soil products. That’s the plan, anyway.

Sellew’s background helped shape his career—and Harvest’s vision. He grew up on his family’s farm in Connecticut, called Prides Corner, where they grew (and still grow) ornamental plants. He learned a fundamental lesson there. “If you don’t take care of [plants], they die. They need constant care and feeding,” says Sellew (see photo, left). “It’s not like a warehouse, where you shut it down and go home. It’s 24 hours a day, it’s a commitment. There’s a dedication and passion you have to have, if you’re going to be successful in farming.”

After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in horticulture in 1980, Sellew, who is 6-foot-8, played professional basketball in Argentina, Italy, and Belgium for three years. His position was “small center,” he says. Living abroad got him off the beaten track, he says, in his typical understated style (no mention of wild parties on the road). “It was good,” is all he says.

When he returned to Connecticut in 1983, he started Earthgro, a composting and gardening products company. He bootstrapped the firm, grew it into the largest of its kind (with facilities from North Carolina to Maine), and sold it to Scotts for a reported $47 million in 1998. His main lesson from those 16 years? The key is “matching your motivation with what you actually like to do and believe in,” he says. “And surrounding yourself with great people, and being passionate about delivering passion for your customers.”

In parallel, Sellew worked on other projects such as a company called International Process Systems, which he spun out to build indoor composting systems. Siemens now owns that technology, he says.

From the late ‘90s through the mid-2000s, Sellew was working on other companies that you might call cleantech or green tech, such as Synagro, a biosolids treatment and fertilizer firm, where he was a senior executive, and Environmental Credit Corp., a carbon trading company, where he was chairman. He was also involved with Fingerlakes Aquaculture, a fish-farming company in upstate New York.

All told, Harvest Power is the seventh company he’s founded or helped lead. But before that, he had to learn to grow tomatoes. In 2006, he started Backyard Farms, a year-round grower of greenhouse tomatoes in Maine. “I believe strongly in local food,” Sellew says. “It was a great opportunity to go local and reduce carbon footprint.”

Now in his early 50s, Sellew’s philosophy around building cleantech businesses seems to have solidified. “I believe strongly that we do need a clean environment,” he says. And building good companies boils down to “matching the power of the free market with allowing you to do the right thing on behalf of the environment, allowing for a successful business model,” he says.

So when Kleiner Perkins began working with Harvest Power in 2008, it was time to go back to the corporate startup world. But you can bet that Sellew brought with him some deeper lessons from farming, as well as his expertise from organics and composting.

“Farmers embrace sustainability,” he says. “They don’t talk about it. They are dependent on the environment, on nature, to fulfill their business. Therefore that gave me lot of respect around these natural systems and how powerful they are. That attracted me to cleantech. That is where we need to go.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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