How Intel’s employee-led pandemic relief initiative is sparking climate action

April 22, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic—with hospitals across the U.S. reaching capacity, businesses beginning to fold, and many children lacking access to technology—Intel employees came together to create the framework for the company’s Pandemic Response Technology Initiative (PRTI). Intel pledged $50 million toward accelerating technology access to combat the impact of the deadly virus.

Now, that initiative is sparking action on another front. Intel is announcing this week a partnership with a pioneering climate-tech incubator on a new project in Houston. It’s the company’s first major investment under the new Intel RISE Technology Initiative (IRTI) to support climate action—an initiative inspired by PRTI’s pandemic-relief efforts.

Intel, a multinational technology corporation with some 52,000 U.S. employees, is used to making big deals: Its capital spending between 2019 and 2021 in the U.S. has been estimated at $33.5 billionSo although $50 million going toward the PRTI initiative may sound like a lot of money, “we could have spent that in the first three deals, if we didn’t really step back and figure out: How do we partner with people? How do we make $1 scale to $10?” says Rick Echevarria, a vice president in the sales, marketing and communications group who spearheaded PRTI.

Following the company’s announcement of its pandemic initiative on April 7, 2020, time was of the essence. A virtual team of volunteer employees assembled in a matter of days, says Echevarria. Throughout the year, the cross-departmental group met at least twice a week to review partnership proposals in addition to working their day jobs. The group focused on three action areas: health and life sciences, education, and economic recovery.

PRTI has since engaged with over 170 organizations and created 230 projects globally, says Echevarria. For example, exploring telehealth led to a partnership with Houston-based Medical Informatics to expand that company’s Sickbay platform to hospitals across the country to aid in remote patient monitoring. In Germany, to perform compute-intensive RNA sequencing on a single-cell level to better understand the coronavirus, The Berlin Institute of Health leveraged Intel-based high-performance computing architecture.

On April 7, 2021, the one-year anniversary of PRTI, Intel announced the creation of IRTI with a new, additional $20 million commitment. IRTI is aligned with the company’s RISE 2030 goals to make its activities “responsible, inclusive, and sustainable,” through actions including reducing emissions at the industry level; achieving carbon-neutral computing; and advancing diversity and inclusion.

A new lab in Houston

In the first IRTI climate action investment, Intel will become one of Greentown Labs’ corporate partners in launching Houston’s first climate-tech startup incubator on Earth Day, April 22. The Houston incubator represents Massachusetts-based Greentown’s first out-of-state expansion, says Greentown CEO Emily Reichert, who calls her company “the largest climate-tech incubator in North America.”

Greentown Labs, founded in the Boston area in 2011, has startups working across greenhouse gas emitting sectors, including manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation, which “need to be transitioning, if we are going to address climate change,” says Reichert.

“Another big area startups are working in, and relevant to the Houston context, is the resilience of people and infrastructure,” Reichert says. Greentown Houston will provide “more than 40,000 square feet of prototyping lab, office, and community space for about 50 climate-tech startups, totaling 200-300 employees,” according to the company.

“This is a great opportunity to support our environment, but even more so, supporting the economy of Houston, the energy capital of the world,” says Elizabeth Haines McGee, director of innovation and engagement at Intel, who spearheaded the company’s outreach in the city. Houston has “the responsibility, capability and really the passion to be the driver of that energy transition,” says McGee. 

In addition to the sponsorship of Greentown Houston’s headquarters, Intel will also contribute to a grant program for startups that are Greentown partners. “The grant program funding will go directly to the startup as they build out a product or solution,” says McGee. 

But Intel’s outreach to Houston has been ongoing for several years, McGee says. The company has assisted in smart-city solutions and also showcased “the best of our technology to solve transportation safety issues,” she says.

“But when the pandemic hit and Intel created PRTI, it gave us this opportunity to think more broadly and think differently about the ways that we can help,” McGee explains. In regard to education, Intel supported rolling out laptops and connectivity to underserved K-12 students in Houston after the mayor’s office requested help, she says. 

“The funding was the least interesting part of the engagement,” says McGee. “We brought our partnerships to the table, introducing them to internet service providers, such as T-Mobile, [one of the providers] that stepped up really early and with some generosity.” Intel also introduced the city to its device manufacturing partners, worked on technical specs, broadband connectivity speeds required for basic education, and supply issues, says McGee.

Although they work for a large corporation, both Echevarria and McGee say being involved in Intel’s PRTI and IRTI programs has created a sense of community. 

For Echevarria, who has been with the company for more than 20 years and is also the general manager of Intel’s Olympics and Paralympics program, leading the virtual PRTI team showed him the “power of the people, their empathy and their commitment,” he says. 

“When you show up, willing to take ownership of a project from beginning to end, and understand all of the nuances, and are able contribute to that, it’s just amazing what you can do,” says McGee. 

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