Surprising Takeaways from the 2013 Cleantech Open Global Forum

The Cleantech Open runs the largest cleantech accelerator in the world, helping scientists and entrepreneurs hone their business skills and secure funding. The group sponsors an Accelerator and Business Competition, as well as a Global Ideas Competition. In 2013, companies from eight regions in the United States and 27 international countries competed in the Global Ideas Competition.

At the 2013 CleanTech Global Open in San Jose, California, keynote speaker Ira Ehrenpreis of Technology Partners used a graph of the tech boom-and-bust to show why investing now in Cleantech is a good idea. Back in 2001 many investors pulled out after the tech bubble burst. Following that downturn, the most successful Internet companies—such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn—were established and investors that jumped ship missed out. Ehrenpreis likened the slowdown in 2008 of cleantech investors to those who pulled out after the tech bubble and missed the truly profitable businesses. He cited his investment in Tesla as an example of how believing in cleantech pays off, and he raised the optimism bar in a room already committed to entrepreneurialism. “Don’t let pessimism paralyze or optimism blind. There is green in green,” he concluded.

The Cleantech Open’s goal is to facilitate cross-pollination between innovators and investors, as well as business mentoring for cleantech startups. This has paid off, based on a shift this year that was noted in solid business plans by inventors.

Investor Alison Wellsfry of angel investment group, KEIRETSU Forum, observed that presenters this year showed a stronger business savvy than in prior years. “This is my fourth year here, and while they have all been passionate about saving the planet, I’m impressed with the maturity shown in solid business plans,” she said. “Some have found innovative ways of turning expense streams into revenue.”

An example she gave of this was Polymer Green. The company patented a system to turn waste plastic into gasoline, diesel and fuel oils through catalytic depolymerization. It plans to operate in the U.S. and China. The company makes the claim that its business model is different due to low OpEx and CapEx costs. In its presentation company officials cited capital costs of $2.5 million and noted that the company was in first round fundraising for $8 million.

Another company spinning waste into profits is BioAdhesive Alliance, Inc. It creates a construction adhesive called PiGrid from hog-farm manure. In its pitch, the company says it is “creating a solution for livestock management and construction needs at the same time.” The company was among the runners-up for the Grand Prize “cleanie” award.

Cibus, a Costa Rican-based business, has created a bacterium that transforms whey, an industrial residue from dairy farming, into biodiesel. The company was one of five runners up in the Open Global Ideas category.

Scott Elrod, Vice President of PARC, a Xerox Company, noted that the businesses were more capital efficient. “This year we are seeing more clever integration systems and execution plays, and less capital-intensive incubator money [was] needed,” he said. While he declined to identify specific presentations that had caught his interest, he did say he was carefully watching some of the water businesses and connectors on data analytics.

Technology around water issues was prominent and varied this year. The winner of the Open Global Ideas was ECF Farmsystems of Germany for its aquaponic farm system that reduces water use as well as carbon emissions. The National Sustainability Award winner this year was Garden Fresh Farms, an indoor hydroponic farming system that uses a fraction of the amount of water used in traditional farming.

However, some investors believe there was a skew toward plans showing a fast-track to profitability, rather than those focused on solving global problems. One investor, who did not want to be named, said: “Judges had to work to balance fast plan-to-market with potential impact.”

The first-place winner of the National Accelerator was a company that addresses water issues: PowWow Energy. It created a smart leak detector for farmers and ranchers. According to the company’s data, leaks can cost farms thousands of dollars and wipe out crops entirely. The company installs smart meters and collects data from utility companies to identify leaks, then text messages results. They company’s test farm saved 12,000 gallons of water—the result of identifying a single leak.

One of the company’s founders, Olivier Jerphagnon, grew up on a farm in Brittany, France. “In California, 62% of all the fresh water is used for agriculture. This technology helps save water, but in a way that empowers farmers.”

Along with water-saving systems, technology for water testing, like OptiEnz Sensors, is developing processes for the continuous measuring of organic chemicals in water. The company cited the uptick in fracking for extracting oil and gas, and the increased need for remediation as the main drivers of the technology. The company predicts it can lower costs of sampling by 85%, increasing optimization and profitability.

Angel investor Byron McCann from Seattle noted: “Even with the bloom off the rose with economic downturn, it’s great to see entrepreneurs going forward. I have no doubt we are heading into another expansion. The scale of [global] problems that the [world] faces requires cleantech solutions.”

Here’s a list of all the 2013 Cleantech Open Global National Accelerator finalists, by category:

EV Charging

HEVO Power (NY) –

Funding Info: It received a $55,000 seed funding in June, a “green grant” from NYU in August and another $30,000 seed funding in September. The company is currently seeking $3 million in venture capital.

Pitch: HEVO has created a manhole-cover-size electric vehicle charging station that can be embedded in the street. The station uses the electromagnetic spectrum to wirelessly recharge the battery of a receiver-equipped electric vehicle parked above it.

Energy Efficiency

Sealed (NY)

Funding Info: Currently closing a small seed funding round, announced soon.

Pitch: Sealed is a new kind of energy company that guarantees savings from home energy efficiency improvements. Following the installation of efficiency improvements like insulation, air sealing and HVAC upgrades, Sealed replaces homeowners’ utility bills with a single Sealed Energy Bill guaranteed to be lower than normal. The size of the guarantee is based on Sealed’s proprietary analytics that determine an appropriate guarantee based on the home and project characteristics.

TylerCo (CA)

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: TylerCo’s BANFAlite utilizes our patent-pending replacement lamp that integrates LEDs, motion sensor, and a fluorescent tube. Each lamp instantly transforms existing fixtures into Bi-Level energy saving devices. All this is achieved with a simple lamp replacement. No change in wiring is required. While saving 95% of the existing consumed energy.

Picasolar (AR)

Funding Info: Winner of 2013 MIT Energy Prize ($150,000) and DOE EERE Clean Energy Prize ($100,000) and currently seeking external funding.

Pitch: Picasolar is an IP licensing company with a patent-pending surface treatment for silicon solar cells that increases efficiency by 15% and reduces silver requirements by 22%.

AKHAN Technologies

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: As electronic devices are beginning to fail after running exceptionally hot,  and landfills are beginning to fill with convection cooling fans (e-waste), it is readily understood that the current performance demand in electronics is at a point where silicon is unable to perform adequately. One promising solution is the integration of diamond thin-film technology, as diamond can conduct heat 22x more efficiently than silicon and 5x more efficiently than copper. Further, the semiconductor properties of diamond—in particular, the Miraj Diamond™ Platform—allow for faster devices, which are thinner (>1000x), cost competitive, and run cooler, allowing for the next generation of consumer electronics.

IT – Information

Ornicept (MI)

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: Ornicept solves key bottlenecks when collecting natural resource data that currently result in millions of dollars in lost data, additional costs, and organizational inefficiencies.


Funding Info: NA

Pitch: Fiveworx helps utilities increase participation in their energy efficiency programs while dramatically reducing their marketing costs, delivering deeper and broader savings for every marketing dollar spent. We leverage our Efficiency Segmentation Profiles – or Fiveworx ESP™ – to deliver a personalized list of energy efficiency actions each American should take to see a difference in her utility bills

Agriculture – Waste

Garden Fresh Farms (MN)

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: Garden Fresh Farms has designed and manufactures modular commercial indoor agriculture systems that can be configured for the size of the warehouse, consumer market size, variety of crops to be sold and the investors budget.

Prairie Aquatech (SD)

Funding Info: $500,000 from National Science Foundation, $2 million from Brookings Economic Development Corporation. Raised over $5M in funding to date.

Pitch: Prairie AquaTech is focused on replacing high value protein, such as fishmeal, and enhancing disease prevention in food and companion animals. Using its patent-pending system to convert agricultural processing by-products, such as soybean meal and dried distillers’ grain, into high quality protein concentrates, the company has tested its products in multiple species with enhanced performance.

Polymer Green

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: Cost-effective plastic-to-oil solution available to the mass market. We want to disrupt this market with our disruptive technology innovation.

Phytelligence (WA)

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: Phytelligence provides biotech products and services for the tree fruit industry. Most of the team are PhDs and PhD candidates from WSU with national expertise in plant genetics/genomics, and specifically in micro-propagation via tissue culture.

Elequa (TX)

Funding Info: Elequa has been self funded to this point, and isn’t actively seeking investment at the moment, but open to inquiries by investors.

Pitch: Elequa is in the water purification business, leveraging a patented innovation to increase efficiency and reduce cost utilizing self-service potable water kiosks in under-served markets.

Green Building

Bio-Adhesive Alliance

Funding Info: Grand prize winner of the ACC Clean Energy Challenge ($100,000)

Pitch: Bio-Adhesive Alliance Inc. is a developer and producer of the bio-based adhesive that is green, low cost, and durable and can be utilized as a substitute to petroleum-based asphalt binder. It is a sustainable product obtained from a thermochemical process that converts swine manure into the liquid asphalt.

Chemicals, Biochemicals, Advanced Materials

Tethis (NC)

Funding Info: Has received $800,000 in private funding.

Pitch: Tethis makes polymers that are made from natural materials that can be waste products from other industries. Tethex, our first product acts like a salt-sucking sponge which absorbs salts, heavy metals, and even nuclear material out of water on contact. Applications include various water treatment and desalination applications and even diapers!

Nova Synthetix (NC)

Funding Info: Received a $50,000 Company Inception Loans (CIL) from the NC Biotechnology Center.

Pitch: Nova Synthetix has developed a proprietary non-GM strategy to eliminate ricin-related proteins. Our approach capitalizes upon a number of new developments in biotechnology.

NBD Nanotechnologies

Funding Info: Received $1M in seed funding in January, 2013 and $1.2M in August 2012.

Pitch: The inspiration for NBD came from the Namib Desert Beetle, a beetle that has the ability to harvest water every morning in the Namibian desert. Based on years of research coming from elite university laboratories, NBD focuses on thin film coatings that enhance heat transfer through condensation, de-misting and anti-scaling characteristics.

HJ3 Composite Technologies

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: As a leading manufacturer and installer of advanced composites within heavy industrial and civil/commercial markets, HJ3 was the first company to wrap a high-rise commercial building, an industrial steel tank, and the first to reinforce a railroad bridge with carbon fiber.


Funding Info:NA

Pitch: Grannus has developed a disruptive innovation in the production of nitrogen fertilizer (urea), a $60 billion market. The process has a 30% production cost advantage, a 40% construction cost advantage and a 3-fold sustainability advantage.

Energy Generation

Dragonfly Systems

Funding Info:NA

Pitch: Dragonfly Systems is developing a unique power electronics solution for large-scale solar installations.  Our patent-pending technology decreases day-one installation costs by increasing the length of strings, and provides recurring benefits in the form of increased reliability and module-level monitoring. The Dragonfly device costs an order of magnitude less than conventional products, making us ideal for commercial and utility-scale solar installations.

Trash 2 Cash-Energy

Funding Info: Won $100,000 at the  MegaWatt Ventures competition in Oct. 2012.

Pitch: Trash 2 Cash-Energy (T2C-E) has developed and patented a novel catalytic process to convert landfill gas to drop-in diesel fuel. We provide one of the most sought-after commodities while satisfying EPA landfill gas mitigation requirements. Our process closes the process loop from feedstock to end-point user by providing a single site for unloading and refueling of garbage trucks. T2C-E is a pioneer in revolutionizing the ways in which landfills do business.


Lucent Optics

Funding Info: NA

Pitch: Lucent Optics has developed a new solar module configuration that makes module manufacturing more profitable and sustainable. Our patented light harvesting technology generates more power using much less semiconductor materials. We also help eliminate raw materials waste and dramatically reduce the use of energy and hazardous chemicals in module production.

Water-Waste Water

OptiEnz Sensors

Funding Info: Spun out of Colorado State Univeristy in March, 2013 with the help of CSU Ventures.

Pitch: OptiEnz Sensors has developed an in-place monitoring system that continuously measures the concentration of toxic organic chemicals in water. The sensing system enables oil and gas companies to more efficiently and sustainably treat and recycle water from fracking. The product consists of a sensing unit connected via a fiber-optic cable to a patented enzymatic sensor tip.

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