Can Boston’s Energy Innovators Save the World? 

Every city is full of people who would like to save the planet and Boston has an tremendous number of people who actually can. But tick tock—time is slipping away.

Photo via Sean Pavone Photo/Getty Images; Remigiusz Gora/Irina Shilnikova/Getty Images

Several years ago, Carlos Araque heard an idea that he thought could save the world. He was working at the Engine, an MIT-affiliated venture capital investment firm and incubator, when he was asked to attend a pitch meeting. At the gathering was Paul Woskov—a bespectacled senior research engineer at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center whose office is littered with rocks featuring holes burned straight through their centers—and Aaron Mandell, a serial entrepreneur determined to get Woskov’s rock-drilling technique out of the lab and onto the open market.

Araque was asked to sit in on the meeting because he knew a thing or two about drilling. After getting his master’s in mechanical engineering from MIT, he moved to Houston, the country’s energy capital, to work for the oil field services giant Schlumberger. He’d assumed that legacy energy companies, with their vast resources and expertise, would be the ones to power the transition to renewable energy in the face of an impending climate crisis. He was wrong. The big boys, he says, were too wedded to business to think outside the box, and the breakthroughs the world desperately needed just weren’t coming. So Araque moved back to Boston, and just 10 days after starting his job at the Engine, found himself in a conference room, waiting to hear if this idea could rescue the planet from the brink of catastrophe—or was just a dud.

He introduced himself to Woskov and Mandell and took a seat. As he listened to their plan, his pulse began to quicken and his head began to reel from the enormity of what they were saying. Woskov explained that he had developed a technology that enables a gyrotron—a radio-frequency-wave generator—to melt or vaporize holes in rock. He believed he could use it to access a virtually limitless source of clean energy—intense heat—tucked away beneath the earth’s crust that, when converted to steam, could power civilization many times over.

Like many people in the drilling world, Araque had looked at geothermal energy a million times. The problem had always been accessing it. The energy lies 12 miles beneath the earth’s crust, and mechanical drilling bits break down after just a few miles. What Woskov was telling him, though, was that his technology could overcome this obstacle. “I knew that if this worked,” Araque said, “it would be massive. It would literally open up a new frontier.”

Over the next year, Araque did some homework: He studied the geothermal market. He ran a lot of simulations on his computer. He reached out to the top drilling experts in his network. No one could come up with a reason why it wouldn’t work. Then came another eureka moment: If the tech really did work, that meant holes could be drilled virtually anywhere—even right next to legacy coal power plants being mothballed due to their emissions. The fossil-fuel industry already had the buildings, the turbines, the transmission lines, the permitting, the rigs, the workforce, and the know-how—they just had to swap out drill bits for gyrotrons.

It was classic plug-and-play, meaning the new energy model could be up and running fast—which was exceptional news, because many experts say there’s little time to spare. A 2023 United Nations report—considered one of the most definitive studies ever conducted on climate change—concluded that without a significant reduction in carbon emissions, in a decade’s time, the earth will careen past the point of no return. Before the turn of the century, humans will be faced with a world in which increased temperatures spawn famine, disease, heatwaves, and natural disasters that will claim millions of lives. In sum, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres concluded, the world is facing “a climate time bomb.”

The good news—at least for Boston—is that many people believe the key to defusing that time bomb is being invented right here. And not just due to Woskov’s idea for how to access geothermal energy, but because of a virtual bounty of clean-energy breakthroughs that, thanks to a perfect storm of factors, have occurred here in recent years. “You don’t really think of Massachusetts and energy together,” admits Dennis Whyte, the director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, which has been a significant player in Boston’s rise as an energy powerhouse. But that’s because the energy sources of the past—coal, oil, and gas—were bulky resources that were found only in certain places, such as West Virginia and Texas, and the industry built up around the supply. That’s not the case for the energies of the future, which aren’t “driven by access to raw resources,” says Whyte, but “by talent and innovation.” Katie Rae, the CEO and managing partner of the Engine, agrees, saying, “IQ capital is what will develop the economies of the future. And Boston is ground zero for that. It’s all happening right here.”

In the past few years, in fact, startups such as Form Energy, Ascend Elements, Factorial Energy, Sublime Systems, Quaise Energy, and Commonwealth Fusion Systems have leaped to the front of their fields, drawing billions of dollars in investment and allowing tiny Massachusetts to punch well above its weight. Even as capital has dried up in other industries amid an uncertain economy, climate tech has stayed a relative bright spot. And it isn’t just startups. In December, when General Electric announced that it would be relocating its $30 billion standalone energy business, GE Vernova, to Kendall Square, the company cited the area’s “dynamic environment, steeped in the education, talent, and innovation that will be the core components of our work…to decarbonize power generation and lead the energy transition.”

That kind of development sounds a lot like the early days of Boston’s biotech scene, when genetic engineering began and Cambridge startups such as Genzyme and Biogen took the lead, leveraging university talent and a friendly regulatory environment to develop game-changing drugs. Those successes attracted more investment, more startups, and more talent flooding into local universities, and soon all of the established pharma giants feared missing out if they didn’t pitch a tent in Kendall Square. The dense clustering triggered a critical mass of innovation that continues to pay enormous dividends to the city. Now, says Whyte, it looks like the same thing is happening for energy. “Massachusetts has a really good chance of being the hub of this thing,” he says. Even more so given the stance of our local leaders: Governor Maura Healey recently said she wants to invest in making Boston the “global epicenter” of green energy.

The combination of bright ideas, willing investors, and eager politicians—to say nothing of the innovative startup incubators—has created the perfect ecosystem here for the future of energy. Yet there is another ingredient, too, that contributes to this energy paradise: our culture. “You have enormous mission-based ambition here,” Rae says. Sure, every city is full of people who would like to save the planet. The difference is that Boston seems to produce an unusual number of people who believe they actually can.

When it comes to game-changing breakthroughs in energy, three letters keep surfacing again and again: MIT. And within the institute, the heavy hitter has been the Plasma Science and Fusion Center. That’s where Woskov’s idea was born, remarkably, as just a side project—the main attraction at the center is fusion energy, a zero-carbon energy source whose science is so daunting that it has long been considered the stuff of sci-fi rather than a near-term climate solution.

Put simply, fusion energy is the atomic reaction that powers the sun and all of the other stars in the sky. When hydrogen atoms are forced together, they fuse and release an immense burst of energy. Fusion, if it works, will be a clean and unlimited source of energy. Unfortunately, the kind of intense pressure and temperature required to trigger the reaction is normally found only in the centers of stars. Doing it on Earth requires an incredibly powerful magnetic field.

The conventional way to make that field is to wrap miles of copper wire into a giant coil and run massive surges of electricity through it. But building that kind of pilot plant requires a facility the size of a small village and could cost as much as $65 billion, meaning it can only be tackled by international consortiums funded by numerous countries—the kind of unwieldy collaboration that invariably runs decades behind schedule. No one expects productive fusion reactors before the year 2070.

That’s way too late to address the climate crisis, so a handful of scientists and students at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center hatched an audacious plan: to use the rare-earth compound yttrium barium copper oxide to build a new kind of superconducting magnet that would be incredibly efficient in its use of electricity. Instead of requiring 200 million watts to produce the necessary magnetic field, they thought the new magnets could do it using just 30 watts. The reactor could be the size of a cabin instead of a cathedral, could be built quickly by a small team, and instead of costing as much as $65 billion, would have a price tag of just $1 billion. So in 2018, the scientists and the university spun out the company Commonwealth Fusion Systems to make it happen.

The Plasma Science and Fusion Center isn’t the only MIT lab where exciting breakthroughs are occurring. Just around the corner, MIT’s legendary professor of materials science, Yet-Ming Chiang, has also made strides in lithium-ion battery science, designing one that is lighter and more efficient. More recently, he has developed a super-cheap long-duration energy-storage system that addresses the sticky issue of how to store renewable energy. Meanwhile, down the Pike, scientists from Worcester Polytechnic Institute have developed one of the most promising local innovations in energy: a new way to turn spent electric-vehicle batteries directly into feedstock for new EV batteries, at up to 50 percent less than the cost of newly mined metals.

With top research institutions like these in our backyard, there is no shortage of bright ideas. That has never been in doubt. What has always been a problem is the lack of venture capital needed to get these innovations out of the lab and into the real world. Yet that, too, is changing in Boston.

MIT research scientist Paul Woskov developed a way to vaporize or melt holes in hard rocks, pictured above. This led to the founding of Quaise Energy, a Cambridge company working to harness Woskov’s technology to access an infinite source of geothermal energy 12 miles beneath the Earth’s surface. / Photo via MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center

It’s one thing to have a dream; it’s quite another to find someone to pay for it. When Araque, Woskov, and Mandell joined forces to get a geothermal energy company, Quaise Energy, off the ground, MIT’s Engine provided the initial liftoff by leading a first round of funding that netted $6 million. At presstime, the company had raised a total of $75 million and will soon start smoking some big holes in the ground.

Sounds easy, right? After all, that’s what venture capital is for: Some academic genius has a eureka moment, and then private investors fund the early stages of development in exchange for a piece of the company. Yet hard as it may be to believe, investment in world-changing innovations isn’t exactly flowing like milk and honey. Much of that is because the kind of venture capital made famous by Silicon Valley has not been attracted to the climate solutions coming out of Boston.

For one thing, West Coast investors have grown accustomed to looking for fast returns: Launch a company, write some software, disrupt whatever industry—food delivery, anyone?—and cash out in five years. That model works great when your final product is software, but tackling the energy crisis requires breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, and material science, and there’s no consumer-facing app for that. Whether it’s wind power, fusion, or better batteries, reinventing energy takes a whole lot of time, money, and materials. There’s no shortcutting the process of proto-typing, proving, deploying, and scaling.

An earlier generation learned that the hard way, as numerous green-energy startups overpromised, underdelivered, and failed. The high-profile meltdown of solar darling Solyndra in 2011, among other failures in the renewable energy sector, gave green energy a reputation as “a noble way to lose money,” as one of the industry’s top investors put it. Even one of Yet-Ming Chiang’s early startups, Waltham battery maker A123 Systems, went bankrupt in 2012, crippled by consumers’ slow adoption of electric vehicles.

Several years later, though, something began to shift. Climate change was, at last, being taken deadly seriously, wind and solar power were booming, and investors could see that huge amounts of public and private money were finally going to flow toward the energy transition. The risks were still present, but the rewards had grown substantially. Oh, and the fate of civilization was also at stake. That was the moment when MIT’s Engine launched its fund for climate-focused startups and its associated incubator. From the start, says Katie Rae, who has helmed the Engine since its inception, all of the investors involved understood that patience would be a necessary virtue. “Sure, it will take a while to scale,” she says. “But if you don’t start these impactful companies now, we’ll never get there.”

It was a huge gamble—but it worked. “A lot of very good ideas and very special founders came forward,” Araque says. “I had a front-row seat for many of those meetings.” And the lingering doubts were answered one by one. “Can we raise money for these? Check. Can we find the right people, the right founders, with the right skill sets? Check. Can we build these companies and entice other capital to pile on? Check.”

The Engine now has $672 million in assets under management and has invested in 44 companies, many of them based in Greater Boston. The skepticism is fading fast. “I used to think that capital was the bottleneck,” Araque says. “It’s not. It just needs to be enticed. Which means creating something very compelling.”

The Engine helped to make that happen. By putting its money where its mouth was and investing in nascent companies in the Boston ecosystem that might someday change the world, it served as a beacon to like-minded investors, giving them confidence that the days of climate tech being a noble loser were over. The sector also got a boost from the faltering economy: With the market flagging and interest rates near zero, suddenly, a long-term bet on climate tech didn’t look much worse than the other options. It’d be nice to believe that virtue played a role, too—that perhaps the billionaires realized it was time to finally take a chance for the good of humanity.

Today, some of the biggest names in venture capital have bet on Boston, including Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a multibillion-dollar venture-capital fund focusing specifically on high-risk, high-impact, green-energy companies that might not show a return on investment for 20 years. So far, Breakthrough Energy Ventures has backed half a dozen area startups, including Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Form Energy, a next-generation battery producer. And Breakthrough Energy Ventures isn’t alone. Local venture funds pouring money into climate solutions include MassVentures, Clean Energy Ventures, MassMutual Ventures, and Material Impact.

Some of the numbers are eye-popping. Factorial Energy—which pioneered ultra-efficient solid-state lithium-ion batteries—has raised $240 million. Ascend Elements has raised $300 million in private capital and garnered another $480 million in grants from the Department of Energy. Form Energy has secured $800 million in investments from the Engine, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and others.

The most eye-popping numbers of all belong to Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which had raised $200 million by 2020, more than enough to design and build its superconducting magnets. When those magnets passed their tests with flying colors in September 2021 and produced the strongest magnetic field ever created, Commonwealth was able to raise a whopping $1.8 billion in additional funding from the Engine, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and a host of other VCs. It was the largest funding round in Massachusetts history and one of the largest of all time in the U.S. “There’s an aspect of serendipity to it,” says Dennis Whyte, who directs MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center, from which Commonwealth was spun out. “We had the great team. We had the great idea. We got great help. We set up a structure that looked extremely attractive. But part of it was that we just happened to hit it at the right time.”

The company is using the dough to build its pilot plant in Devens and is on schedule to fire up its prototype fusion reactor in 2025—years ahead of the competition. It’s one of the most encouraging stories in the world of clean energy, one that makes it possible to believe we might actually get out of this climate mess.

It’s also the perfect case study of how Boston’s ecosystem can accelerate Tough Tech—a term used to describe tech that aims to solve society’s greatest problems—though it’s not a typical one. Say you don’t have a technology that can cleanly power the globe for the next million years, or a famous fusion center to incubate your startup, or Bill Gates’s venture fund begging to take you to lunch. Say you are just a regular old genius with a terrific idea yet no clue how to commercialize it. That’s where the other key ingredient in Boston’s burgeoning energy ecosystem comes into play.

Somewhere within the sprawling 100,000 square feet of desks, shops, labs, and cozy coworking spaces at Somerville’s Greentown Labs, the largest climate tech incubator in the country, the next great energy innovation is waiting to break out of the pack. It’s just hard to know which of Greentown’s 134 Boston-based horses to bet on. Is it Aeromine, the maker of bladeless rooftop wind machines? Or Moment Energy, which repurposes old EV batteries into energy storage systems? Greentown doesn’t play favorites. For a monthly rent of $580 per desk and $4.80 per square foot of lab space, its startup members get access to the full Greentown ecosystem: offices, machine shops, prototyping labs, electronics labs, convening spaces, and, of course, a kitchen.

The most valuable amenity of all, though, is the human ecosystem. “The magic of Greentown is that we’re all working on a similar challenge, but on our own slice of the pie,” says Greentown’s senior VP of marketing Julia Travaglini. “It’s a community of peers who can learn from one another, take guidance from one another, and mentor one another. Who can say, ‘Hey, I’m negotiating this term sheet. It’s my first time raising money. Can you walk me through this?’” (That model has been duplicated by the Engine, which recently opened a 155,000-square-foot facility in the old Polaroid building in Cambridge to incubate the startups it funds.)

Greentown was founded in 2011 by four entrepreneurs and MIT alums who faced the same problem: Lab space in Boston was too expensive. So they teamed up to pinch their pennies, sharing a shoddy warehouse in Cambridge, and soon discovered the benefits of swapping tools and advice. “It was serendipity,” Travaglini says. “This group of like-minded folks all working on clean energy. And then just through word of mouth, that group of four grew to 10, and they realized there was this blossoming community that really needed its own nurturing.”

An essential part of that nurturing came from the local government. “There are so many other pieces of the ecosystem that are critical,” Travaglini says, “like progressive policy and public elected officials.” Greentown received support from Mayor Thomas Menino to launch a standalone incubator, and then–Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone was more than happy to lure Greentown Labs to Union Square in 2013.

When it comes to seeding Boston’s energy ecosystem, Travaglini singles out the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), a state agency funded to accelerate climate innovations in both the building and transportation sectors. “There are very few organizations like MassCEC,” she says. “They’ve helped buoy so many startups and so much clean-energy and climate action across the state. They’re a huge part of the ecosystem.” Travaglini estimates that 85 to 90 percent of Greentown’s Massachusetts-based startups have received grants through MassCEC.

Greentown’s star pupil is Form Energy, founded in 2017 by Yet-Ming Chiang, some of his students, and several battery industry veterans. Their goal was to solve one of the great challenges of renewable energy: The sun don’t always shine, and the wind don’t always blow. Humans need a way to capture the excess energy renewables produce when conditions are right, so it can be used 24/7—and they need to capture a lot of it.

To break free from fossil fuels, the United States will need to store about 6 terawatt-hours of energy. The problem is the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and laptops are too expensive to be used at the scale required to store energy on the grid. So Form’s small team spent several years at Greentown quietly experimenting with new types of batteries that might do the job, and in 2021, it came out of stealth mode with the winner: iron-air batteries, which are based on the electric charge that iron gives off as it rusts. Form’s batteries can discharge power exponentially longer than lithium-ion batteries at one-tenth the price. They are far too large and heavy for use in cars, but because they can store energy for multiple days, they can solve the immense problem of how to affordably store the energy produced by wind and solar.

The technology is already ready to roll. Form is currently converting a Minnesota coal plant into a giant battery bank, and is also constructing its first full-scale bank-manufacturing plant in West Virginia. And though it now has hundreds of employees around the country, Form still has a large presence in Greentown Labs’s main building, plus its own HQ just next door.

The company is also representative of another trend among Boston’s energy startups: While they may get off the ground in Massachusetts, the heavy lifting happens elsewhere. Ascend Elements—the Westborough battery-recycling startup that spun out of Worcester Polytechnic Institute—is building its plants in Georgia and Kentucky, the heart of the “Battery Belt.” Form Energy is building in the Mountain State, where there is easy access to rail and freight lines. And Quaise is testing its rigs in Texas.

That’s as it should be, argues Araque, Quaise’s CEO. “Boston is very strong in the world of knowledge and ideas. It’s a giant incubator,” he says. “But things incubate, and then they have to grow, and they may not need to grow here. I think some will, but others won’t, just by the nature of their business.”

So is Boston doomed to sow the seeds of the energy revolution, only to watch it bear fruit elsewhere? Not exactly, Araque says. “Over the long-term, these companies will have serious competition. So how do you stay ahead? You have to go back to the world of incubation and ideas and continuous R & D.”

In fact, the beauty of this particular ecosystem is that it comes full circle. As the city’s research universities and startups become the leading lights in the climate tech movement, they draw to Boston the next generation of students and entrepreneurs who have expressed a strong preference for working in green industries. “You’re pulling in some of the brightest students around,” says MIT’s Whyte, “and they’re starting to work on this. And guess what? They’re going to be incredibly effective leaders.” And ultimately, that is what will keep the future of energy right here.

High Energy

How Massachusetts residents power their homes, businesses,
and cars today.

42.3% Natural Gas

25.8% Motor Gas (excluding ethanol)

15% Distillate Fuel Oil

5.4% Biomass

3.8% Other Renewables

3.4% Jet Fuel

2.1% Other Petroleum

1.4% Hydrocarbon Gas Liquids

0.8% Hydroelectric

Massachusetts’ Energy Revolution, by the Numbers


The state’s total greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020, in million
metric tons.

1.6 million

Tons of carbon emissions that will be eliminated every year thanks to Vineyard Wind.

1.8 billion

Amount, in dollars, raised in a series B round by Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which is pursuing fusion, the “holy grail” of clean energy.


Depth, in miles, to which Quaise Energy needs to drill to access geothermal energy that could power civilization for millions
of years.


Net amount of greenhouse-gas emissions that the state aims to achieve by 2050.

First published in the print edition of the June 2023 issue with the headline “The Future of Energy Starts Here.”