Source: John Martin, December 8, 2011.
In a world that can often seem to be falling apart, with little message bandwidth other than failed schools, failed industry, declining America, and “green boondoggles”, it is an inspiration and a restorative to encounter the Cleantech Open business competition and see the array of creativeness and serious, commercially focused innovation which gets displayed each November at their Global Forum in San Jose.
The finalists and past alumni from the various regions coast-to-coast continually amaze me. I not only learn about PROBLEMS I had never even considered or thought addressable, but learn that already folks have come up with workable, achievable answers to those problems. Last year, one of the leading finalists was a company from Minnesota that had developed a non-toxic fire quencher. Did anyone know that when you see films of those horrific forest fires in the west, and there is always a big jumbo jet dropping orange liquid on the fire, that it’s toxic, and that unless you’re officially fighting an official forest fire it’s about a dozen different ways illegal to spread that material on open soil? Who knew this was a problem and who knew someone ALREADY HAS an answer to that problem. Ref: EarthClean, St. Paul MN
Recent discussion in the cloud regarding cleantech investment has focused on an alleged shift from longer-range “game changer” “breakthroughs” to shorter-term tactical plays. Cleantech Open has always struck a good balance among those poles. It shows some technologies that are rather significant uplifts, but many are indeed incremental in the best sense — most civic and corporate progress has always been made incrementally through step-wise continuous improvement.
The ventures in the Cleantech Open succeed by having immediate tactical, and hence investable, applicability. Significantly, this also means they DON’T REQUIRE POLICY INITIATIVES to succeed. Many ‘green-oriented’ citizens agonize that the policy paralysis which afflicts not only the USA but most of the world (on the whole, broad brush) is keeping us stuck in bad habits. Daily, and often, it seems that way. Yet to see the parade of ventures at Cleantech Open’s Global Forum is to be inspired and encouraged that change can be wrought immediately and on our own. It’s these ventures that are the change we’ve been waiting for. We don’t need to wait for our dear leaders, who never do.
The rundown is impressive and it’s just a tragedy that it’s not an insert into the Sunday New York Times, or a special episode of 60-Minutes, on Fox Business or Thomas Friedman’s next column, which would give more exposure to a mainstream civic audience nationwide. I think it would make our citizens feel better about America’s innovation and business climate to know so many folks, across all corners of our nation, are grinding away at such surprising engineering and succeeding even under the constrained circumstances we face today.
So, this is going to be a long blog. It was a big Forum. Come back with a cuppa coffee and some off-duty time and listen to this amazing community of capitalists.
Combustion for power ——-
From Oregon, we saw technology for roasting scrap cellulosic material to turn forest waste into a direct 1:1 substitution for coal, so that power plants planned-for-shutdown can continue operating, cleaner and more sustainably. But if you need to use coal, we saw from Colorado advanced nanotechnology to remove nasty toxins from coal (it’s worse than just carbon) allowing coal to be ‘scrubbed’ far more efficiently than afterburn scrubbers do. That nano-coal company was the overall winner in the Rocky Mountain region. We also saw a laser-based gas analyzer from Minnesota that enables far more efficient combustion of feedstock in industrial processes as well as for raw energy generation. This is the company that won the top honors, Cleantech Open’s quarter-million-dollar championship for 2011!
We also saw two ventures, one from each coast, making oil for combustion yes, but making it from recycling of other waste streams in a clean and responsible manner: a venture from California with proprietary microbes to recycle waste biogas and captured CO2 into clean oil and a Boston venture with a sophisticated catalytic process to recycle plastic into clean and efficient liquid fuel – the latter was the New England overall winner and national category winner in the Air-Water-Waste segment.
None of these eliminate combustion, but each is a major advance towards far more efficient and thorough combustion with fewer by-products, often using a waste recycling component, and such ‘incremental’ improvements can put us miles ahead compared to the status quo. Combined and widely implemented, such ‘incrementals’ can add up to be a game changer.
Also, much as the Oregon company side-steps coal with cellulosics, a company from Arkansas can produce lignin film as a substitute for plastic, sidestepping the expanding “bans on grocery bags.” Grocery stores can now have it both ways — offering a light floppy bag that is actually paper-based and biodegradable. “Would you like paper or paper?” That Arkansas bag won top honors in Cleantech Open’s South Central region.
· HM3 Energy(OR)
· Veritek Coal Processing(CO)
· PK Clean(MA)
Please note right here (and there’s more to come) the geographic diversity of the award winning cleantech innovations. Frankly, in the tech-geek world, you don’t see a lot of IDs from Oregon, Colorado, Minnesota and Arkansas. OK, one of the above is from San Francisco, and we love you, too. But such geo-diversity has become commonplace in Cleantech Open since the first year it expanded beyond the SF Bay Area. HQs of other recent alumni include Logan, UT; Missoula, MT; Plateville, WI and Grand Rapids, MI. The Cleantech Open’s results in finding, fostering and funding across such geographies should be highly encouraging to those who doubt that a “Green Economy” will “lift all boats” or at least many MORE boats than in just a few enclaves. Here is a story where America’s strength IS its breadth.
One speaker noted that when folks gush about how electric the 21st Century will become, it’s amazing to consider that, from a 19th Century perspective, our just past 20th Century was when society got utterly revolutionized by electricity, with the oft-maligned “power grid,” erected in just a few decades on every continent, one of the true all-time wonders of civilization. And yet, per The Carpenters, we’ve only just begun.
This year, we saw a company from Massachusetts with advanced measurement and simulation tools to make it far easier and more efficient for utilities to add in renewable sources to the grid, a company from Nevada that uses embedded signalization to provide better energy accounting for small businesses; and a company from Houston that provides real-time energy consumption detail to office tenants with human factors engineering that motivates users to compete to be “the biggest loser” of consumption. A company from Utah combines a number of electricity conditioning functions with far lower cost and greater efficiency to regulate voltage, mitigate harmonics, and filter surges and spikes, allowing all electrical equipment to run cooler and more efficiently. This company won the triple-bottom-line Sustainability Award for the Rocky Mountain Region. And we saw a company from Seattle that integrates telemetry and predictive tools to tell end-users when their flow of electricity is more renewably-sourced and less renewably-sourced so they can voluntarily shift their loads to suck up more renewables and demand less non-renewables. This idea, cleverly called “Color of the Electron,” was sought out by GM as a critical partner in their EV developments and was the National Category Winner in the “Smart Power” segment of Cleantech Open.
An alumni venture from Oregon is now successfully rolling out charging kiosks for Truck Stops across the country. Some of the dirtiest air between the coasts is in the middle of the prairie at truck stops hosting hundreds of long-idling diesel engines. Electrification of a trucks’ ‘rest mode’ is a huge answer to a little-known problem. And a venture from Los Angeles is providing tools to help calibrate electric car charging stations. EVs are a great achievement. Three ventures from Oregon, two National Finalist Alums, are all in the electric space — an electric car, an enclosed electric tricycle style vehicle and a folding electric bicycle. Yet, often the unsung hero in tech development are the measurement, development and simulation tools needed to implement the more visible end-product, so the LA EV kiosk calibration venture became a segment winner in the California region this year.
· Dragonfly Solutions (UT) • Arcimoto(OR)
But, wait, there’s more !
Heat and Light, First Heat ——-
Thermal engineering doesn’t get as much attention in the press, but it was on display at this Forum. A Silicon Valley company uses solar energy not for electricity, nor domestic hot water, but for concentrated heating of industrial processes including drying, cooling, and refrigeration. That made them the overall winner of the California Cleantech Open contest. And a Nevada company is developing a novel thermally-driven refrigeration/heat pump cycle — if you look around, that’s one of the core mechanical systems across all aspects of modern civilization — that can provide up to 80% energy cost savings for heating and cooling processes in industrial, commercial and residential applications. That and their integrated triple-bottom-line business operations won them the Sustainability Prize for the California region.
· B2U Solar(CA)
· May-Ruben Technologies(NV)
And Windows of Light ——-
Artificial and natural light is a constant struggle. The scope of Cleantech Open is demonstrated in that, in addition to coal, plastics and transport ventures, this year’s competition also included clever innovations in natural lighting and windows. From the heart of Silicon Valley was a venture that combines photovoltaics with ceiling skylights and defraction lenses to condition and diffuse natural illumination through the skylight while also using the sunlight to generate electricity for other lighting. Another venture from Colorado enables (my gross oversimplification) a controlled form of “Transitions” darkening sunglasses for building windows, and an earlier semifinalist from Oregon had a design to combine window awnings and carefully faceted foci for photovoltaic generation with LED luminaires on the inside wall.
And a Finalist from Oregon racked up a host of laurels with a product addressing windows as the enormous energy leaks that they are. With both patented sealants and clever use of cloud-based IT, they can custom shape window inserts (as most residential windows, surprise, are off-square!) that provide antique windows, especially in our large stock of pre-WW2 homes, with insulation as good as thermopane windows, and can farm out production to multiple small businesses close-to-site, to increase employment and reduce the footprint of trans-shipment. This venture, Indow Windows, was tapped as the National Champion for Sustainability business-planning (3BL), the
1st Runner-up for the overall National Champion, the National winner in the Efficiency category, and the overall winner and sustainability winner of the Pacific Northwest region.
· EnFocus Engineering(CA)
· US e-Chromic(CO)
· Innovative Invironments(OR)
· Indow Windows(OR)
Constructive Construction ——-
The building erected around the windows is not ignored by Cleantech Open either. This year, the locus of green construction was Wisconsin and Oregon, as befits the historic origins of America’s lumber industry. Two ventures adapt wood for more efficient construction and two other ventures have new materials.
One Semifinalist, with a factory opening soon in Oregon, uses advanced computer-aided manufacturing to prepare stick-built construction with significantly less wood-waste, dramatically faster erection time due to precision fit, and hence overall lower energy footprint. While a Wisconsin venture literally takes whole trees which are tall and strong and loaded with sequestered carbon, but not suited to commercial lumber harvesting and, again with sophisticated IT, turns parts or ALL of the tree into structural components for construction.
Another Oregon semifinalist and the Wisconsin-based North Central Champion both have ventures aimed at commercializing fast-assembly building construction using advanced materials that are lightweight, recycled or recyclable and improve building operations efficiency.
And start-ups aiming at energy management dashboards-in-a-thermostat are well represented on both coasts. Followers will recall that the 2009 Grand National Champion was EcoFactor of the Bay Area. This year an earlier winner, Energy Hub of Brooklyn was honored as co-Alumni of the Year, for their $14 million Series B funding, led by Acadia Woods and the New York City Investment Fund, as well as for adding nearly 50 new jobs.
· Whole Tree Structures(WI)
Water Everywhere ——-
Green technologies are often associated in the public mind with carbon emissions or consumption of energy, but another rapidly growing area of ‘clean’ concern and opportunity is WATER. From inception, Cleantech Open included a category termed Air-Water-Waste to cover a range of fascinating technologies. In 2009, a Rocky Mountain venture reached the Finals with green chemistry to convert plant sugars into, among other things, detergent-builder replacements for water-polluting phosphates. Last year, many top-ranking Cleantech Open Finalists were in the “water” category including a strong Finalist from Utah marketing patented electrobiochemical reactor technologies to mitigate arsenic, selenium, mercury, nitrate, and other inorganic contaminants; the National Sustainability (3BL) Award winner from Colorado which develops suites of microorganisms to biologically treat waste water pools, and the overall 2010 National Champion, a company from Oregon using sophisticated photonically activated nanotechnology to efficiently purify water, with both an electro-mechanical version and a low-cost passive version for 3rd world applications. This year, a finalist from Arizona applies bio-technology to efficiently purify water for food and beverage companies. And the winner of the Global Ideas Competition was a nifty venture from CHILE that uses red worms to clean up sewage water — the busy, gluttonous worms consume the organic material and their excreted ‘castings’ can be used as a complementary fertilizer which catalyzes nitrogen binding to sharply reduce surplus nitrogen run-off from farms.
Silicon in the Valley ——-
We often think that traditional mechanical systems are made slimmer, simpler, lighter footprint by “digitalization,” yet the lay consumer may not realize that the submicroscopic realm of silicon components and IT systems has its own low hanging fruit of wastefulness. People who stay at home and work or play “in the cloud” may not realize that “the cloud,” as actually instantiated in monumental data centers in the prairie, can be more of an energy hog than the Hummer you’re keeping on blocks while telecommuting. One of the niftiest answers is Bay Area-based software that allows all the miles of blade servers in a data center to be reflexively hibernated which can immediately lop off up to 1/3 of energy consumption at an all-always-on data center. That 2008 Category Winner was awarded co-Alumni of the Year at this Forum for its recent $13.5M Series B round led by ABB and Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Last year, a Cleantech Open Finalist from New Jersey showed highly efficient memory chips which significantly reduce energy consumption in large data farms. This year a company from Boston showed a dramatically sized-reduced and energy-reduced power converter for mobile devices. And another company from Arkansas showed sophisticated process chemistry that can generate panel-sized ultra-large-grain single polysilicon crystals, especially for photovoltaic applications.
· Power Assure(CA)
· Silicon Solar Solutions(ARK)
SO – if you have time, go back and scan all of these companies again, nearly 40 in all. Apart from the Global Ideas guys, these Cleantech Open competitors are all-American, from every time zone, and all have real prototypes (if not general shipment product) out in the public domain. And, by and large, these are not digital avatars, these are real physical products that involve metal-bending, chemistry and engineering and actual MANUFACTURING. They are aggressively courting customers, winning business and EARNING private un-subsidized investment. If anyone is discouraged that American industry has lost its mojo, go back yet again and review these eager young aspirants. The ventures showcased by Cleantech Open are a mojo-restorative for those who care about the American economy, who should be nearly all of us. Pass it along.