News from the Columbia Climate School

Alumni Spotlight: Gabe Cowles, Creatively Adapting During the COVID-19 Crisis

The Alumni Spotlight series includes interviews with Earth Institute alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Earth Institute programs, and any advice that would be useful to current and future students.

Environmental Science and Policy alumn Gabe Cowles works for a small company that normally makes batteries to support renewable energy. During the pandemic, however, the company has pivoted to making and selling hand sanitizer. (Photo courtesy Gabe Cowles)

Gabe Cowles, an alumnus of the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy Program (MPA-ESP; ‘09), is currently the vice president of finance and business development for Urban Electric Power, an energy storage startup in New York. They manufacture a rechargeable alkaline battery that serves a number of energy storage applications, including power resiliency and renewable energy support. However, COVID-19 forced the company to modify their operations. To keep their small business afloat, they pivoted to producing and selling hand sanitizer nationwide along with donating to first responders and community groups. In the interview below, Gabe describes his current role, how the MPA-ESP program prepared him for this position, and the outstanding adaptations his company made during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue operations.

How did you find your current position? What resources/methods did you find most useful?

I found my current position through my professional network. The opportunity came to me after several months of meeting with colleagues in the industry. This has always been the best way to find employment in my experience.

How has your company been affected by COVID-19?

Our company was forced to cease operations temporarily when businesses in New York State were shut down. During that time, we transformed a part of our manufacturing line to make hand sanitizer for distribution to local first responders. We have since expanded operations and have begun selling our sanitizer products nationwide under the Ohm Products brand. This has helped keep our business running and has enhanced our commercial operations.

What do you enjoy the most and what do you find the most challenging in your current position?

I really enjoy the diverse set of responsibilities I have in my current role. Being involved with all aspects of our business operations provides an exciting and dynamic day-to-day experience.

Are you able to utilize any skills/knowledge from the MPA-ESP program in your day-to-day activities?

The ESP program promotes the application of scientific and technical information in making business and policy decisions. This approach has proven valuable in my current role, as understanding the technical advantages and challenges of energy storage technologies is necessary for effective decision-making.

What aspects of the ESP program do you feel best prepared you for the workforce?

The client workshop was very useful in providing “real world” customer experience while managing a team to deliver a project. This was comparable to many subsequent experiences I’ve had in jobs across various organizations.

Have you recently received any recognitions, awards or been part of any special project(s)?

In 2019, our technology and its founder received a Green Chemistry Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This was a notable achievement for the company and a reminder of the impact of our work.

Chandler Precht is a program manager at the Earth Institute and a current graduate student in Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Science Program.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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