Midwest startups awarded nearly $1 million at clean-tech competition

A Chicago-based clean-tech accelerator awarded nearly $1 million in early-stage funding to Midwestern startups this week while also offering young entrepreneurs a survival guide of sorts for an energy industry in the throes of a “revolution.”

A healthy skepticism toward entrenched practices, an embrace of simplicity over needless complexity and a prioritization of shared success over personal success are all key to prospering in the 21st-century power industry, Mary Powell, CEO of Vermont utility Green Mountain Power, said at this year’s annual Clean Energy Trust Challenge in downtown Chicago.

Powell emphasized “love and compassion,” two traits not typically heard in buzzword-heavy conversations about distributed generation, peak-shaving and advanced metering infrastructure.

“At the end of the day … this is like a life-support business,” Powell said in a keynote conversation with Stephen Lacey, editor-in-chief of Greentech Media. “This is one of the most important core businesses in the context of people’s lives and their businesses.”

Utilities must be “customer-obsessed,” Powell said, as they undertake a transformation of the power grid that promises cleaner, more reliable and more efficient power delivery.

Powell, who took the helm of Green Mountain Power in 2008 and has since made Vermont a regional leader in solar energy, visibly recoiled when Lacey mentioned the commonly used term “demand-side management” when discussing the potential of smart-grid technologies to find new efficiencies in the way customers use energy. The terminology, Powell explained, is representative of an “un-customer-obsessed industry” that too often views people as “ratepayers” or “meters.”

“It’s this view that the way to achieve greatness is to shame customers, make customers manage energy more,” Powell said. “I believe in [the principle of demand-side management], but I actually believe it is our role to innovate past that, and to do it in a way where we are the conductor of this symphony of resources, so that actually what we do is give you as a customer – whether you’re a business or a residential customer – freedom, and you feel great, and you just have systems and you have energy.”

The winners are …

This year’s eight finalists for the Clean Energy Trust Challenge pitched technological solutions to a range of problems at the nexus of energy, food, water and other environmental and human factors. In brief, TED Talk-style presentations, representatives for each budding company pitched their ideas for smarter power-grid switching mechanisms, more efficient surface cleaners, more comprehensive air-filtration systems and other clean-tech innovations.

Chicago-based Aker took home the largest award: $400,000 to help develop the company’s crop monitoring and analytics platform for large farms. The platform uses drones to capture high-resolution aerial images that monitor plant health, crop loss, drainage and other aspects of farm productivity.  

Champaign, Illinois-based Sun Buckets was awarded $100,000 for their portable, stored solar-energy cookstoves, which “allow users to cook without fire, fuel or emissions,” according to the company. Sun Buckets work essentially like a thermal energy battery, storing the sun’s power with a parabolic solar concentrator or other device during the day and then releasing the heat for cooking when needed up to six hours later.

“Our users in Haiti have all the energy they need for all of their favorite meals,” Sun Buckets COO Samantha Lindgren said in her pitch. “They sacrifice no heat capabilities or strange cooking configurations that might come with other solar options.”

The remaining winners are:

• PowerTech Water of Lexington, Kentucky won $200,000 for its water purification platform.
IdleSmart of Kansas City, Kansas won $150,000 for its efficient fleet-vehicle management system.
Lotic Labs of Chicago won $100,000 for its financial products that help water utilities manage the uncertainties of droughts, extended wet periods and unplanned maintenance.

The final selections were made by an investment committee of 13 industry experts chaired by Keith Crandell, a Clean Energy Trust board member and co-founder of ARCH Venture Partners, which invests in early-stage advanced technology companies. The prize money originates from a variety of sources, including Clean Energy Trust sponsors Wells Fargo, United Airlines, ComEd and others.

“Today, again, after seeing everyone pitch — the pitches were top-shelf — it was a tough, tough, tough process,” Clean Energy Trust CEO Erik Birkerts said while announcing the winners.

Finding simplicity

Since launching the competition in 2010, Clean Energy Trust has awarded $3.7 million to startups that have gone on to receive $112 million in follow-on funding. As a result, more than 300 new jobs have been created in the Midwest’s clean-energy sector, according to Clean Energy Trust.

Past winners include LuminAID, a Chicago-based company that builds inflatable solar lights, and NETenergy, also in Chicago, which is developing a thermal energy storage system.

In her remarks, Powell encouraged the young attendees to pursue careers in the power sector. The industry suffers not just from a glass ceiling but also from a “gray ceiling,” Powell said, referencing the utility industry’s aging workforce. Her advice for the young startups? “Simplification.”

“One of the mistakes I see with entrepreneurs is they get lost in that jargon and complexity,” Powell said. “I really believe the beauty in innovation and creativity is simplicity.”

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