1:16pm

Mon July 18, 2011
Tech

Onondaga Nation finds opportunity in Brooklyn, Sweden

The Onondaga Nation is known for sticking to its principles.

It's among only a handful of Native American nations that refuse money from the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Onondaga have also refused to open a casino.

But now the small nation south of Syracuse is reaching outside its borders, with a new series of business partnerships with clean tech companies.

Unusual partners create "upside value"

Jake Edwards, a member of the Onondaga's Council of Chiefs, does not sound like a typical investor as he talks about Brooklyn startup EcoLogic Solutions. 

"We know we're helping contribute to someone getting their building or their house clean, and ... not contaminating the earth," he says of the firm's green cleaning supplies for hotels and cruises ships.

That "greenness" has led to the Onondaga buying close to a 10 percent stake in EcoLogic.

The Onondaga are unusual venture partners in another way. They've stuck with their traditional, methodical decision-making process. The tribal council has to reach consensus on all its decisions, meaning everyone has to agree.

And that can take a long time, according to Edwards.

"Yesterday we had a discussion on the summer youth program, and we started meeting at 11," he says. "And we got out of here at ten after six ... It was a good outcome but it had to be thoroughly looked at and understood by all."

It took eight hours to make a decisions about the summer program, but it took three years for the Nation to decide to support EcoLogic.

That's not exactly the normal pace of the tech industry.

"It doesn't matter if some young business entrepreneur is like, 'Hey, I need to know by tomorrow'," says EcoLogic's founder Anselm Doering. "They have their process in doing things."

Doering says pitching his company in the Onondaga's longhouse was completely different from presenting to venture capitalists in a corporate boardroom

"But the upside value for me supersedes any of those dime a dozen institutional funders," he explains. "If you get Onondaga nation - with their reputation - to become a strategic partner, and invest, it gives us a more genuine reputation in what we do."

Global reputation

The Onondaga have developed a sort of celebrity in environmental circles.

Their traditional belief system has led them to lobby hard for environmental causes.

[For a taste of their message, here's the nation's best known spokesman, Oren Lyons addressing a 2008 climate change symposium at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.]

Lyons has championed the Onondaga's other big investment venture: an 85 percent ownership stake in a Swedish company called Plantagon International. If EcoLogic is a more mainstream startup, Plantagon is a little more pie in the sky - figuratively and literally.

Plantagon has a design for vertical farms, to help feed cities. The farms are big and shaped like space-age domes. They're also expensive to build. The smallest model, which Lyons notes is bigger than a football field, will cost "anywhere up from $24 million."

Lyons says China, Singapore and the city of Stockholm have each signed up to build a trial dome. And he argues that the risk of investing in ventures like Plantagon for the Onondaga pales in comparison to inaction in the face of global climate change.

"We see far in the future," Lyons says. "We have a long memory and we know about things … we see you can't do what you're doing. Damage [is] coming."

A long way from cigarette sales

But for now, the Onondaga's economy is much simpler: it's comprised mainly of a Nation smoke shop, where cigarettes are sold without New York State sales tax.

Those cigarettes have paid for the entire network of social services the Onondaga have created in recent years, including addiction treatment and elder care programs. Cigarettes also paid to bring running water to every house on the Nation about five years ago.

Diversifying that economy, in part through outside investments, will help Indian Nations achieve economic sovereignty, says David Kimelberg, who runs the Seneca's investments.

"It needs to be done carefully, however," he says, "since the space can be tricky and open to exploitation of groups without solid experience in the area."