In March of 2020, the streets of NYC were practically empty — as they were almost all around the world. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed radical changes in terms of climate change. As transportation ceased, so did the amount of air pollution, and long-time goals concerning carbon dioxide emissions were achieved over the span of merely a few weeks.
This effect, although taken to an extreme, shows just how important sustainable transportation can be in the fight against climate change. Jeff Prosserman and Luke Mairo, M.S. in Sustainability Management (SUMA) students and the founders of a company called Voltpost, aim to enable this green transition. Voltpost works to retrofit lamp posts into electric vehicle charging stations managed by a mobile application — a solution they hope will accelerate electric vehicle (EV) adoption by providing cities with scalable curbside charging for drivers.
Recently, Jeff and Luke, as well as Aditi Desai, a part-time SUMA student and a full-time Volpost employee, secured $1.3 million in funding for Voltpost’s mission. They will use the funds to develop the Voltpost lamppost charging system, secure pilot contracts, and expand the Voltpost team.
Jeff, Luke, and Aditi took the time to talk with us about their time in the SUMA program and how it has helped them forward their climate change goals.
What drew you to the SUMA program?
JP: Prior to starting the Columbia University Sustainability Management graduate program, I was the director of innovation at Samsung in New York City. Given the state of the climate crisis, I came to the realization that I could no longer stand on the sidelines. I saw the SUMA program as an opportunity to expand my understanding of climate science and business management skills. Being a father, my goal is to make a measurable positive impact and create a more sustainable future for the next generation.
LM: Prior to the program, I was an associate at Barclays Bank wearing a number of sustainability hats. I chaired an environmental network at the bank focused on climate activism and did an array of work in sustainable banking on the desk. Seeing the direness of the crisis at hand, I sought to amplify my impact by deepening my expertise through the SUMA program. The program has provided the tools and network to make meaningful change in the future of climate, and leave the world a better place.
AD: Prior to SUMA, I was involved with the environmental network at Barclays with Luke and also engaged in grassroots activism in my personal time. I wanted to deepen my understanding of the inextricable relationship between environmental justice and climate action, which led me to join the program. I was also attracted to SUMA because of its holistic approach to sustainability. I see the various disciplines and applications of sustainability not as mutually exclusive, but rather an interconnected web with the potential to create meaningful, collective change.
What inspired you to create (or join) Voltpost?
JP: In my first semester in the SUMA program, I extensively researched the vast spectrum of issues that face our warming planet. Recognizing that major climate problems could provide the foundation for technology innovation, I was determined to identify breakthrough business opportunities to reduce carbon.
After analyzing many climate problems and developing a few preliminary business cases, I wrote the research paper From Lamppost to Voltpost in New York: Powering Electric Vehicle Adoption in the Earth Institute Practicum. This research paper sparked conversation and was the foundation for Voltpost.
LM: I took the role as president of the program’s Environmental Entrepreneurs (ENVENT) student organization to search for and foster innovative climate solutions. When Jeff joined ENVENT, we discussed a number of ideas, and his paper for the Practicum immediately stood out as a critical innovation for urban decarbonization. With our complementing skills, I was thrilled to co-found Voltpost with him to use the experiences I gained in banking and the program to bring the sustainable and equitable infrastructure solution to life.
AD: After a year as a part-time student in the SUMA program, I felt more compelled than ever to translate my learnings and passion for impact to my day job. If you asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have expected to see myself working at a climate tech start up, but I was so inspired and motivated by the ingenuity and impact of an idea like Voltpost. I was also drawn to Voltpost because I quickly saw the potential for the company to advance equity and improve both air quality and mobility for communities burdened by environmental racism and injustice.
Did you all meet through the program? A particular class?
JP: In my first few days of the program, I joined the Environmental Entrepreneurs (ENVENT) student group as vice president. ENVENT President Luke Mairo and I discussed the need for students in the SUMA program to develop equitable climate solutions. This ignited a friendship to explore startup opportunities.
I first collaborated with Voltpost co-founder Jörn Vicari at Samsung where he led product design across all smart-enabled categories. With over 20 years of award-winning product direction and 50 patents, I knew Jörn could bring the Voltpost vision to the world.
With this team aligned, I knew we had the foundation to build something great.
AD: Luke and I met when we joined Barclays as summer interns in 2016. With a shared interest in environmentalism and sustainability, we were also a part of the Barclays Environment Network. Luke later introduced me to the SUMA program as he was starting his first semester in 2020.
How has your experience in the SUMA program been applied to Voltpost?
JP: The SUMA program provided an incredible opportunity to learn from the best minds working in sustainability today. SUMA classes strengthened my capacity as a business leader. Some key skills applied to Voltpost development include: financial modeling, sustainable operations, persuasive communication, business strategy, greenhouse gas accounting, and impact assessment. SUMA was the springboard for Voltpost. The diverse community of Columbia climate warriors is our inspiration. This is our origin story.
LM: SUMA provided the growth to make this leap into climate leadership possible. Student organizations like ENVENT showcased the opportunity to foster innovation, partnership, and networks across the climate tech space. Professors, all experts in their respective fields of sustainability, provided in-depth education and open-ended guidance and support in achieving personal goals. And they continue to do so! Voltpost has been an exciting lens to apply coursework across the physical dimensions of energy, finance, carbon and geospatial modeling, and community equity to a challenging real-world problem.
AD: Classes like GHG Accounting and Building Resilience in 21st Century Detroit have offered me tangible skills and ways to contextualize how I approach my work at Voltpost. Because the SUMA program is interdisciplinary, there are bits and pieces that I can take from my coursework and apply to my day-to-day.
What was the most beneficial part of the SUMA program?
JP: Beyond the incredible education, the SUMA program provides access to brilliant professors and students united by a shared mission to save our planet. The relationships that develop over your academic journey are simply amazing. Many people we meet across Voltpost business development conversations are alumni or professors in the SUMA program. This group of people is truly inspiring and I am so grateful to be part of the Columbia community.
LM: We’ve often referred to Columbia as the gift that keeps on giving. It’s hard not to point to the network of like-minded peers like Jeff, Aditi, and the many we’ve met across the community as the most beneficial part of the program. Beyond these relationships, the University has provided multiple pro bono programs to support Voltpost including SUMA Net Impact (SUMANI), the Columbia Law School Entrepreneurship Clinic, the Columbia Venture Community Impact Program, and the Business School’s Tamer Center Prize consulting team.
AD: Aside from coursework, joining and leading student organizations has been the most memorable part of SUMA. SUMA has a community of students and professors that are interested in helping each other out. Connecting with students from diverse backgrounds and perspectives allowed me to learn about the different areas of sustainability. Without student clubs and interconnected, supportive networks like Columbia’s, I wouldn’t have had exposure to all the different career opportunities out there, including Voltpost.
What is your hope for both the future of Voltpost and of climate change?
JP: We recently secured $1.3 million in private financing to develop the Voltpost lamppost charging system and confirm pilots. Our team has now grown to 10 people dedicated to transform lamp posts into Voltposts.
The professional and financial risk of developing a company from scratch is a tremendous burden.
Why did we take on this seemingly impossible feat? We are running out of time, and the level of necessity is greater than the level of difficulty. Our goal is for Voltpost to fuel zero-emission transportation globally. Whatever the future holds, our team is driven to leave this world a better place than where we started.