Sustaio is a climate tech startup in Telluride, Colorado.

Yes, you can launch a climate tech startup in rural Colorado

By Veda Gerasimek

Founder Olivia Pedersen builds climate tech startup Sustaio in Telluride

Olivia Pedersen, founder of the climate tech app Sustaio, calls Telluride a place worth living, and a place to make a living.

“I’ve put a lot of emphasis on being proactive and conscious about choosing where I live first and then figuring out how to make a living second,” Pedersen said. 

Sustaio is an app that rewards users for adopting more sustainable habits. It provides personalized, real-time tracking of users’ utility usage, and awards credits for reducing consumption levels. These credits can be redeemed in the app’s marketplace to unlock exclusive discounts with participating companies. 

Bucking the “rural brain drain” trend

Like many young people, Pedersen left her hometown of Telluride to attend college. She worked as a graphic designer for several years in Portland, Oregon, but found herself drawn back to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. She returned to Telluride in 2017 and began pursuing a Masters in Sustainable Design online through the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. 

“I figured I would be here [Telluride] for a season or two,” she said. “Then COVID happened and the world went remote, making it much easier to run a startup remotely.”

Pedersen dedicated her thesis to answering the question, “What is my footprint?” Carbon footprint is defined as “the total amount of greenhouse gasses that are generated by our actions” (The Nature Conservancy). Throughout her studies, she worked to identify practices that could reduce our collective impact on the environment. Pedersen was not the only one interested in living more sustainably. She found that 78% of US consumers say that a sustainable lifestyle is important to them – evidence that there was a market for an app that quantifies and incentivizes emissions-reducing behavior. 

Starting-up to solve a global problem

It was the year 2020 and Pedersen was faced with the decision that many idea-havers experience: Leave the problem-solving to someone else or do it herself. Pedersen chose the latter.

“I started with my personal network – finding mentors who I look up to that are or were business owners and/or founders to learn about their lived experiences.”

After going through the Techstars Energytech accelerator in 2021, she didn’t have to look far to find community and resources. She joined the Telluride Venture Network and participated in their investment bootcamp. Pedersen said that finding startup communities and fellow entrepreneurs has been fundamental to growing her business:

“I just recently was able to make it to Women’s Lean Coffee hosted by Startup Colorado and loved it! I just find it so valuable to learn from others’ experiences.”

Learn about Lean Coffee and other events.

Pedersen began working on Sustaio in 2020. The first version of the app focused on tracking and improving household energy efficiency. Like many first-time founders, her mission was focused, but the never-ending laundry list of to-dos pulled her in too many directions.

“It can be easy to feel like you need to do everything at once, and there are a lot of things that can send you in the wrong direction by putting time and resources into an area of the business that you don’t need to focus on at the moment,” she shared.

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20 and Pedersen takes a more methodical approach now, encouraging other founders to “start up” one step at a time.

“I have found that setting milestones, ONE AT A TIME, is helpful,” she said. “For example, market validation, building the right product, user acquisition, and revenue, those are all related but to achieve them all, it’s best to put full focus on one item at a time and make sure they are in the right order.”

This newfound focus helped Pedersen identify opportunities to improve the app and launch a 2.0 version.

Sustaio is a climate tech startup in Telluride, Colorado that helps users reduce their carbon footprint and save money.
Sustaio is a climate tech startup in Telluride, Colorado that helps users reduce their carbon footprint and save money.

“Sustaio had a lot of friction points that extensive customer discovery and user feedback provided insight on,” she said. 

Iterating Sustaio Version 2.0 to expand carbon management capabilities

Pedersen revamped the app to make onboarding easier, developed better UI/UX, automated data-tracking, and real-world rewards. Pedersen describes Sustaio 2.0 as “Rakuten meets Nerdwallet for sustainable living. It’s an app that gamifies real-time tracking of household utility use and rewards users for making sustainable choices. Her value proposition is simple: “Save money on your electricity bill. Save the planet. Get rewarded.” 

Pedersen is currently onboarding her first 100 users and continuing to learn from every iteration.

“Every time you make a massive pivot with the product roadmap and business strategy it feels like you are starting over,” Pedersen said. “But each pivot is an opportunity for greater success, more learnings, and better value delivered.”

Pedersen says they plan to expand carbon footprint tracking beyond energy, into other areas like food and transportation. She is also planning to expand their team throughout the year. Pedersen’s startup story proves that you can have your cake and eat it too: Live in the mountains without climbing over them to access best-in-class entrepreneurship support. The secret is out: Rural Colorado is a place worth living, and a place to make a living. 


About the Author

Veda Gerasimek, wordsmith by trade & “Inno-Veda” at heart, loves writing about big ideas and the people behind them. After sharpening her “branding iron” at startups, accelerators, and innovation centers, she learned that an idea is only as good as your ability to pitch its value. When she’s not slinging syllables and welding words, you’ll find this western wordsmith hiking, biking, and trying to be Annie Oakley.