In Business, Healthy Foods, Sustainability

I had the opportunity to chat with Nate Laurell, CEO of Here.co, and veteran entrepreneur of multiple sustainable businesses. A lifelong Chicagoan, Nate grew up in Fox Lake and attended University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for both undergrad and graduate studies. While working on his masters in Electrical Engineering, he started his first company, TECHnacity. Having worked two summers at Motorola during undergrad, Nate says, “That was two summers enough to know I didn’t want to go into corporate America so I started a software company.”

Eventually, he met two guys working with the Chicago Board of Trade which pivoted his initial career path. His new acquaintances recognized that trading was at the cusp of a major technological shift. Nate’s software engineering background was exactly what they needed to transition their trading firm into the future. Over the next eight and a half years, Laurell worked as the Director of Market Making to integrate and engineer new trading technology for the energy firm. During his tenure, the firm grew from 7 employees to 235 and was also listed as a top 20 firm to work for in Chicago by Crain’s magazine. Speaking of Crain’s, Nate was also named in the magazine’s 40 Under 40 list in 2014!

No stranger to the role of founder, Nate’s ventures have grown in industry scope as well as funds invested. This local mogul is currently balancing not one, not two, but FOUR companies he founded during his illustrious business career. He seems to be single-handedly challenging anyone who has ever complained there weren’t enough hours in a day. Here’s a brief breakdown of each of Nate’s ventures at the moment.

Because Nate’s investment approach is first and foremost value-focused, he’s naturally (no pun intended) ventured into several unrelated industries over his financial career. From real estate to clean energy to local foods, his investment mantra sounds an awful lot like ours at Grow Forward!

In September 2011, he and Steve Josephs cofounded ampCNG LLC, a commercial fueling firm leading the transition to compressed natural gas (the basis of CNG from ampCNG for you acronym enthusiasts) in the trucking industry.

Clean energy is obviously the future, but how far into the future remains unclear due to established commercial transportation channels and relatively cheap gasoline in America. As I discussed in a Grow Forward interview and corresponding blog with MightyVine CEO Gary Lazarski, environmentally-friendly changes to our transportation and nationwide food system aren’t being appropriately implemented because it’s cheaper in the short term to continue shipping goods across the country than to produce higher quality ones locally. The good news is that small businesses, local venture capital firms, and ultimately consumers are making a dent in this system.

ampCNG LLC, for one, now owns and operates 19 compressed natural gas fueling stations across America and are rapidly expanding their operations. Nate’s firm is specifically focusing on heavily used commercial transportation corridors to make his sustainable fueling stations more easily accessible for businesses. They also own and operate the largest facility for sourcing renewable natural gas from waste product in America. I won’t get into the specifics of the anaerobic digestion process that generates this renewable energy in this post (or ever probably).

Onto the next of Nate’s quartet of entrepreneurial ventures, there’s New Frontier Holdings, established in January of 2011. Initially formed to manage Nate’s own investments, New Frontier Holdings is centered around investing in sustainable and community-focused enterprises.

Three years ago, in 2015, he jumped fully into real estate with R². The privately-held real estate investment firm was, you guessed it, also cofounded by Nate! Buying up unique Chicago properties utilizing a mixture of investment strategies is the company’s calling card. R²’s current holdings exceed 4,000,000 square feet of commercial real estate mainly in Chicago and the rest of the Midwest.

Most recently, Laurell started Here.co, a company that produces nutritional foods using ingredients from local farmers. They place a huge emphasis on building community through compassionate business and good food. Here.co has developed lasting relationships with Midwest farmers, purchasing locally sourced produce at fair prices. Their products are made right here in the Midwest, thus sustaining the local workforce and community. At the other end of operations, they partner with small local grocery stores to sell their finished, delicious products.

Why the sudden switch to local food production? While Nate has always had a proclivity toward investing in communities alongside investing in companies, America’s food system is in flux. That, Nate says, provides an excellent opportunity for local food startups to flourish. Consumers are voting with their wallets/dollars by purchasing more and more local food. According to Nate, we have entered a period of broken trust with the current industrialized food system. People have become more aware and now new businesses are developing that make these new sustainable local food options more affordable to the average consumer. People want to know exactly where their food comes from, that employees and animals are treated well, not coming from halfway across the country or even the world.

Ok, so obviously this guy is an incredibly talented businessman, but how has he worked the global community a better place? Outside of the for-profit sphere, Nate Laurell is on the Advisory Board of the Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture fund that aims to eliminate poverty through entrepreneurial empowerment. Think micro-loans and Half the Sky.

He explains the organization’s approach as, “a concept they call patient capital and patient capital is -- so all the money comes into Acumen in the form of donations but then it is invested in companies so invested in for profit companies trying to tackle poverty.” They invest in agriculture, energy, water, healthcare, and education in parts of Africa, Pakistan, and India. Recently, Acumen Fund has even expanded to our hemisphere, tackling poverty in South America.

Nate says it’s all about assisting and empowering people at the bottom of the pyramid. Succinctly, “most people at the bottom of the pyramid are subsistence farmers, so anything you can do to increase income, give them a higher price for their crop, more predictable revenue, those things basically enable people to get out of poverty.”

Throwing money at social issues without addressing the systemic problems creating them has been an unfortunate theme in the past century. Now, non-profits like Acumen Fund are changing their methods. We’re shipping hope and economic opportunity instead of “free stuff” that’s only a temporary bandage.

As if Nate Laurell wasn’t busy enough already, we closed the interview discussing his most recent real estate acquisition, a 70 acre farm near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The local farmers he’s partnered with at Here.co have clearly inspired him! Over the next three years, he plans to transition to an organic growing process for corn, beans, and wheat.

Nate and I got into the nitty gritty of investing and more importantly, community and value-focused investing. I’ll leave you with a few parting words from my guest himself, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” To hear the full interview with Nate Laurell, go to Grow Forward’s Youtube channel. For more insights from this experienced investor and entrepreneur, checkout his personal blog.

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