From building better EV batteries to designing fusion power reactors, climate tech is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy.
But with so much at stake — think killer storms, rising seas, wildfires — the industry needs top minds to tackle its biggest problems. So, who is going into this field and driving innovation locally?
Massachusetts is home to at least 115 privately held companies in climate tech, according to financial database PitchBook. They range from battery makers to carbon-capture firms to startups developing more sustainable materials. And they have collectively raised $1.4 billion in funding this year, which is roughly on pace to match last year’s $1.9 billion. Globally, the Boston area ranks in the top five climate-tech hubs, along with the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, London, and Paris, according to corporate-data firm Dealroom.
All of this activity means there is plenty of opportunity for a new generation of technology workers to make their mark.
“We’re seeing a massive trend of more students and grads exploring climate tech as an area of study as well as employment,” said Katie Rae, CEO of The Engine, a venture capital firm affiliated with MIT. “Boston, in particular, is leading the way for entrepreneurial and academic pursuit of climate tech.”
But who are these young workers and thinkers leading the way? Why did they choose this field? And what do they hope to accomplish?
The Globe spoke with over a dozen employees and interns at climate tech companies, all in their early-to-mid 20s, and chose six of them to highlight their experiences and career decisions. Some moved to Boston for college and stayed. Some landed jobs at local companies or switched fields. All grasp the magnitude of climate change and want to make an impact. Here are their stories.
‘I really feel like we cannot wait’
Imagine a three-year-old riding her tricycle around her neighborhood, picking up litter because she wanted a “pretty place to play.” That was Caitlyn McCloskey in her hometown of Pittsburgh.
“I have always been obsessed with nature,” McCloskey said. When she was 6, she wanted to be a chemist. By high school, she had founded an environmental group focused on sustainability education.
McCloskey, 24, is now a process engineer at Sublime Systems, a Boston startup that manufactures low-carbon cement. After graduating from University of Pennsylvania last year, McCloskey moved to Boston to work in climate tech. She studied chemical engineering in school and had been dismayed by her career options.
“Nobody told me that most of the jobs [for chemical engineers] are at oil and gas companies in Texas,” she said. “That was my awakening.”
McCloskey knew she didn’t want to work in oil and gas. Instead, she joined a Slack community for “air miners,” or people interested in carbon capture, and began networking with fellow climate tech enthusiasts.
The summer before her senior year, McCloskey did an internship at The Engine in Cambridge, where she ran into Leah Ellis, the CEO of Sublime. She reached out to Ellis a few months later, hoping to work at her company, and started a job there in August last year.
Many of McCloskey’s friends ended up working at consulting companies, like McKinsey, Deloitte, or Boston Consulting Group. Big consulting firms often pay starting associates over $110,000 a year. (McCloskey and others interviewed for this story declined to give their salaries.)
“It would be sick to make that much money and transition to climate later, but I really wanted to do this now,” she said. “I really feel like we cannot wait. In another five to six years, we may be screwed.”
‘Everyone is committed to the same cause’
He dabbled in biotech, then data science. But Aaron Gould always knew he wanted to explore cleantech. Especially after reading article after article about the climate crisis.
Gould, 24, graduated from Tufts University in 2022 with a degree in chemical engineering. Today, he’s a process engineer at Osmoses, a Boston-based climate tech startup, which he connected with through a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center internship program. The company works on separating gasses, a common process in factories, using special membranes instead of heat — an approach Osmoses claims could remove gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere.
“That was a reason why I wanted to work in cleantech,” he said. “There are ways to [use my skills] to make oil and gas cleaner.”
But there are pay differences between traditional companies and cleantech startups. According to job site ZipRecruiter, an entry-level chemical engineer in Massachusetts can make around $100,000 a year on average. (This includes all industries, such as pharmaceuticals, food science, and oil and gas.) Meanwhile, an entry-level job at a climate tech startup typically pays between $65,000 and $80,000, according to local workers — though it depends on the type of role and the size of the company.
Still, students are gravitating towards climate tech for reasons beyond the pay.
“There was a lot of momentum, when I was graduating, that climate is a serious problem,” Gould said, “that people should be committing themselves to.”
Gould wants to stay in Boston because he believes it is a hub for innovation. Osmoses works out of a lab in The Engine — a space that also houses other climate tech companies.
“Being in this community is great, just to learn about the different talent that’s here, and how everyone is committed to the same cause,” he said.
‘I want to be able to come out with a solution’
When Andrea Aude, 21, told her friends she would be interning at ExxonMobil, one of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, they balked.
“They stopped and looked at me and were like, ‘What? Why would you do that?’” she recalled.
Aude felt having experience in an established energy sector would be valuable. But she said she doesn’t wear her Exxon backpack around MIT, where she’s currently a senior.
Instead, she has been exploring the startup world, specifically in sustainability. Her most recent internship was at Mantel, a Boston-based climate tech company. There, she did research on molten salts used for carbon capture.
Aude discovered that she really liked the climate-focused startup community. She was also able to take on more responsibilities and claim more ownership over her work. Now, she hopes to pursue a PhD after graduating.
“I want to do research and learn how to think about these problems that are so big,” she said. “I want to be able to come out with a solution.”
‘It always felt like a justice issue’
Jocelyn Ting’s climate story began in high school.
“I read this article about how if you only ate beans and cut out all the meat from your diet, you could reduce your carbon footprint by some crazy amount,” Ting said. “That’s when I was like, wow, OK.”
Ting wanted to do high-impact work. Growing up, they knew people making change through political processes, working on campaigns, or joining protests. But Ting wanted to use technology to solve problems. So they went to MIT and studied materials science, with the hope of using their education for climate good.
Ting, 23, now works remotely from Boston at Electric Power Engineers, a Texas-based energy consulting firm, helping connect renewable energy projects such as wind farms and storage systems to the electric grid.
While recognizing their privilege to be able to choose what to work on, Ting also grasped the gravity of the climate crisis, particularly for their generation.
“People who caused climate change are not the ones who are suffering from it,” they said. “It always felt like a justice issue.”
The summer after their freshman year, Ting secured an internship with Form Energy, a Boston-area company that develops energy storage for the grid. They later interned at Sublime Systems, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Nexamp. After graduating in 2022, Ting wanted to stay in Boston: “There were so many opportunities that I didn’t need to go anywhere else to do what I wanted to do.”
Today, Ting isn’t on a beans-only diet, but they are a vegetarian to reduce their carbon footprint.
‘You have to be creative’
For Jason Pircio, it was a 2018 YouTube video that helped him find his calling.
“Is there a way we could build a sun on Earth?” the voiceover asked as brightly colored graphics swarmed across the screen.
Pircio came across the idea of fusion power in high school when he was perusing videos made by his favorite YouTuber, Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”). And it changed the way he thought about energy and climate. He began reading more about it, going down a rabbit hole of nuclear physics theory. That year, Pircio participated in a nationwide business competition called DECA, where he proposed a nuclear fusion energy startup as his project.
Inspired by his mother, who worked in biopharmaceuticals, Pircio always wanted a high-impact job. “It’s really not for everyone. You have to innovate, you have to be creative,” he said. “If I’m capable of those ideas that can make a change in people’s lives, I have to at least try to make as big of an impact as I can,” he said.
Pircio, 21, is now a senior at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. This summer, Pircio interned with Boston-area nuclear fusion company Commonwealth Fusion Systems. After graduation, he plans to find a job in climate tech or biopharma, or go to grad school.
As a chemical engineer, Pircio is adamant about never working for the oil and gas industry. “Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s exactly what I’m against.”
‘You have to be optimistic enough’
When she was 19, Rebecca McCabe was an intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on Perseverance, the rover that landed on Mars.
“I always wanted to have an impact on the world through engineering,” she said. “So initially, my plan for that was through robotics.”
JPL “had been the dream job,” she recalled. “But after that, I had that feeling of, OK, I guess, dream achieved. And it didn’t feel all that impactful as I thought it would.”
That’s when she knew she wanted to explore a different industry. And she chose climate.
McCabe, 23, has since interned at Tesla, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and most recently at Malden-based cleantech firm Infinite Cooling, where she worked on cooling towers, devices that discharge heat from buildings. She graduated from MIT in 2021 and is pursuing a PhD in ocean wave energy at Cornell.
“I wouldn’t say I’m doing it because I’m a tree-hugger who is obsessed with the environment,” she said. “This is a calculated decision.”
McCabe’s story also highlights how Boston’s universities, along with ventures like The Engine and Greentown Labs that nourish young startups, have helped draw and retain talent in climate tech.
As for what the climate future may hold, McCabe, like most of her peers, is hopeful but cautious: “You have to be optimistic enough to think that we have a chance.”