How the Cleantech UP Competition Benefits Aspiring Student Entrepreneurs

At American universities across the nation, our best and brightest young minds are discovering innovative new solutions to our energy challenges. However, turning a game-changing technology into a commercial product requires a lot more than time in a lab. Aspiring student entrepreneurs often lack the business development skills, market exposure, and investor feedback they need to launch viable new businesses.

Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) helps student entrepreneurs with promising clean energy solutions get their ideas out of the lab and into the market by providing the training, mentorship, and financial resources they need to become investor-ready businesses. We spoke with some of the 2017 regional winners about what they gained from the program.

Training

Left to right: Jonathan Bryan, an electrical engineering doctoral student and Peter Firth, CEO of Swift Coat hold a model of Swift Coat’s nanoparticle deposition system on the Rice University campus in Houston, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Slyworks Photography.)

Left to right: Jonathan Bryan, an electrical engineering doctoral student and Peter Firth, CEO of Swift Coat hold a model of Swift Coat’s nanoparticle deposition system on the Rice University campus in Houston, Texas. (Photo courtesy of Slyworks Photography.)

Swift Coat invented a nanoparticle coating to replace the expensive silver and indium tin oxide layers on solar panels.

2017 Rice Business Plan Competition first place winner

“As we explored the idea and the type of infrastructure we would need to execute our innovation, we realized that our business plan was not the most effective way to commercialize our technology,” said Peter Firth of Swift Coat. “We’ve since adopted a licensing model. Potential customers have responded very positively to the new model, which allows us to get to market much faster.”

Swift Coat is currently focused on serving their first two paying customers, a billion-dollar glass manufacturer and a solar manufacturing equipment supplier. “As we ship those samples off for evaluation in the next few months, we’ll be using the funding we’ve received over the last year to scale up our technology and seek more customers,” says Firth.

Mentorship

The Infinite Cooling team with VentureWell’s Brenna Breeding.

The Infinite Cooling team with VentureWell’s Brenna Breeding.

Infinite Cooling’s technology reduces power plant water consumption by capturing steam escaping from cooling towers.

2017 MIT Clean Energy Prize first place winner

“For the Clean Energy Prize, we received some valuable guidance,” said Karim Khalil of Infinite Cooling, whose company received legal, business, and technical coaching during the MIT Clean Energy Prize Competition. “Our pitch and business plan improved a great deal.”

After the Cleantech UP competition, the Infinite Cooling team will be participating in the summer accelerator at MIT delta v, while simultaneously running their first industrial pilot at the MIT Cogeneration Power Plant.

Networking

Austin Webb representing his team at the LaunchCMU event, hosted by Oracle. (Photo courtesy of Oracle Blogs.)

Austin Webb representing his team at the LaunchCMU event, hosted by Oracle. (Photo courtesy of Oracle Blogs.)

RoBotany developed vertical farming technology that improves labor efficiency and crop output.

2017 Carnegie Mellon Cleantech UP first place winner

“Networking with other entrepreneurs and industry leaders have generated many new ideas and potential partnerships,” said CEO Austin Webb.

RoBotany is looking to close its Series A financing in the near future and begin building its full-scale farm located near downtown Pittsburgh.

Financing

Solstice Energy Solutions co-founders Ugwem Eneyo (left) and Cole Stites-Clayton (center) stand with Kristian Bodek of National Grid.

Solstice Energy Solutions co-founders Ugwem Eneyo (left) and Cole Stites-Clayton (center) stand with Kristian Bodek of National Grid.

Solstice Energy Solutions monitors, meters, and controls power sources from a mobile application.

2017 Berkeley Cleantech UP first place winner

“Winning the competition definitely helped kick-start our fundraising process,” said Ugwem Eneyo, co-founder and CEO of Solstice Energy Solutions. “We were able to connect with investors and institutions that have proven to be valuable relationships.”

After the National Competition, the team will be participating in the Capital Factory Accelerator in Austin, Texas while launching their beta program in Lagos, Nigeria.

About Cleantech University Prize National Competition

Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) business plan competitions provide aspiring student entrepreneurs with the mentorship, business development skills and training, and investor feedback to transform their clean energy ideas into impactful businesses. Launched in 2015, Cleantech UP builds upon its precursor, the DOE National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition. Since the competition started, participants have formed more than 200 ventures, created more than 115 jobs, and raised more than $120 million in follow-on funding.

Winners of the eight regional competitions will compete in The Cleantech UP 2017 National Competition on June 26 and 27 in Austin, Texas. The National Competition is made possible through a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy, VentureWell, and the eight Universities and Organizations that host each regional competition.

Student Entrepreneurs from the University of Houston Win 2017 First Look West Cleantech UP Competition

Vescence from the University of Houston took home the top Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) award at this year’s California Institute of Technology (Caltech) First Look West (FLoW) business plan competition. The startup’s founders have developed a patented water repellant coating that minimizes contaminant buildup on the glass surface of solar panels. Vescence is field testing its innovative technology on 40 solar panels at the University of Houston this summer. 

Taking second and third place at the Caltech FLoW competition were South 8 TechnologiesInterphase, and Membrion. South 8 Technologies has developed a novel chemistry for lithium batteries that could lead to the next generation of energy storage devices. The team from the University of California San Diego anticipates having a prototype line ready for testing with customers as early as 2019. Interphase Materials from the University of Southern California and Membrion from the University of Washington tied for third place. Interphase Materials has developed a surface treatment technology for water-based industrial cooling systems, which reduces utility spend by increasing heat transfer efficiency and protecting against bio-fouling and corrosion. The technology creates a nanolayer on cooling system hardware to improve interactions between cooling water and tubing. Membrion has developed high-performance, low-cost membranes that improve the performance of flow batteries. Flow batteries have been identified as the optimal choice for grid-scale energy storage but have never scaled rapidly due to the costly price of the membrane. 

These clean energy teams will join 21 others from across the country to compete in the National Cleantech UP competition June 26 – 27 in Austin, Texas. 

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) business plan competitions provide aspiring student entrepreneurs with the mentorship, business development skills and training, and investor feedback they need to turn their clean energy ideas into businesses offering real-world solutions. Cleantech UP is part of the Tech-to-Market Program within the Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Princeton University’s Revolution Outboards Wins Cleantech UP Prize at 2017 Rutgers LaunchR Competition

Princeton University students developing an emission-free, electric outboard boat motor took home the top Cleantech University Prize at the 2017 Rutgers LaunchR Competition. The team, Revolution Outboards, believes their technology will bring a light, efficient, reliable, and safe outboard boat motor to the marine industry.  
 
The two runners-up from the LaunchR competition were Xtream Energy Technologies and ElectroMetro, both from Rutgers University. Xtream Energy Technologies has developed a Cyclic Pitch Turbine, a vertical axis fluid turbines which harnesses energy from tides, ocean currents, and rivers. The blade design increases efficiency and enables stacking, thereby reducing the levelized cost of electricity compared to conventional designs. ElectroMetro is building a low-emission, self-refueling hydrogen hybrid vehicle. The vehicle uses a solar panel to drive a hydrogen fuel cell that is optimized for separated containment of hydrogen and oxygen gases to increase fuel efficiency.
 
Revolution Outboards, Xtream Energy Technologies, and ElectroMetro will join the top three teams from Cleantech UP’s seven other regional competitions in Austin, Texas June 26 – 27 to compete for the National Cleantech UP prize.  
 
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) business plan competitions provide aspiring student entrepreneurs with the mentorship, business development skills and training, and investor feedback they need to turn their clean energy ideas into businesses offering real-world solutions. Cleantech UP is part of the Tech-to-Market Program within the Office of Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

Infinite Cooling Wins Cleantech UP Award at the 10th Annual MIT Clean Energy Prize Competition

MIT’s Infinite Cooling won the top Cleantech University Prize at the 10th annual Massachusetts Institute of Technology Clean Energy Prize (MIT CEP), the nation’s largest student-run, clean energy-focused business plan competition. Infinite Cooling’s innovative, patent-pending technology can reduce power plant water consumption by capturing steam escaping from cooling towers and reintroducing the resulting water into to the cooling system. This novel technology can also save power companies potentially millions per year in water costs. 

Stanford University’s Solstice Energy Solutions, UC Berkeley’s Flux Technologies, and MIT’s Joro also took home awards at the MIT Clean Energy Prize event.

To learn more about the MIT CEP and this year’s competitors, please visit the program website.

 

ASU's Swift Coat Wins Cleantech UP Prize at Rice Business Plan Competition

Swift Coat from Arizona State University won the top Cleantech University Prize award at the 2017 Rice Business Plan Competition. The company's novel technology includes an aerosol can-inspired tool to deliver highly customizable nanoparticle coatings. The nanoparticles can be applied to a variety of surfaces--hard or soft, smooth or rough, flat or curved. Swift Coat is currently developing solutions to help lower the cost of solar photovoltaic panels. The team estimates their technology can decrease solar cell producers' capital expenses by 16% and lower manufacturing costs by 10%. 

The two runner-up teams also invited to compete for $100,000 in prizes at the Energy Department's National Cleantech UP Competition in June are MITO Material Solutions from Oklahoma State University and Lilac Solutions from Northwestern University.  MITO Material Solutions’ innovative nano-additive infused with epoxy or resin used in fiber reinforced composites enables lighter and tougher composite materials that can increase transportation sector fuel efficiency. Lilac Solutions’ lithium extraction process uses unique ion exchange materials to boost lithium production and bypass traditional evaporation pond methods, thereby reducing costs, decreasing environmental impacts, and increasing output of this critical resource for electric batteries.

Swift Coat, MITO Material Solutions, and Lilac Solutions were just three of 42 teams competing at the 2017 Rice Business Plan Competition. visit the competition's websiteTo see their quick pitches and learn about the other competitors, visit the competition's website

PROFILE: Winners of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Energy

Forbes recently rolled out its 30 under 30 in Energy list in January. This annual round up, conducted by Forbes and evaluated by three energy industry judges, highlights the country’s top young talent focused on solving our energy challenges. Included in the 2017 class are six innovators who have participated in or worked with a number of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) programs.

EERE programs support clean energy entrepreneurs and innovators at many different stages of their technologies' development. However, these opportunities are also important to giving younger energy innovators a seat at the table. When asked what advice those named to this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list have for other young innovators, here’s what they had to say.

ELIZABETH BARNO, 26, COMMUNITY DIRECTOR FOR GREENTOWN LABS
Greentown Labs is a member of the

“When it comes to starting a company, especially in energy where a lot of traditional systems already exist, it’s really important to validate the market you’re entering. Often we work with companies started by inventors who are looking to take their innovation to the next level. But what results is a technology looking for a customer. Instead, validate the potential market for your technology while you’re developing it and building the company. Putting that work in early makes the road a little bit easier when you’re going to market.”

ANTHONY DIAMOND, 29, AND AMRIT ROBBINS, 27, COFOUNDERS OF AXIOM EXERGY
Winners of the 2015 First Look West (FLoW) regional Cleantech University Prize competition

Anthony: “Successfully launching a new cleantech business is about finding a great team. Many technologists or scientists have the tendency to go at it alone, but the nature of working on hardware innovations requires a log of bandwidth and businesses have more facets than just product development or business model origination. You need to find people who can balance your perspectives on how to best build the organization.”

Amrit: “If you want to build a business, go out and get third party validation for your technology, team and product-market fit. Get it for your technology by working with outside researchers to test and validate the product. Validate your team by showing that you have the ability to recruit excellent people as employees and advisors. Prove your product market fit by getting a customer to sign a contract or letter of intent. This will enable you to provide third-party evidence for your key claims when talking to prospective employees, customers, or investors. You can connect with these invaluable 'validators' by participating in business plan competitions like FLoW and "the Cleantech Open.”

RICHARD WANG, 27, CEO OF CUBERG
Runner-up at University of California’s Berkeley regional Cleantech UP competition and Cyclotron Road entrepreneur at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

“Cleantech startups like mine evolve over time. But, if you have a good idea, then pursue it. There’s a lot of support available through business plan competitions and programs like Cyclotron Road. Competitions especially give you a lower pressure arena to test out your pitch and gain helpful and diverse feedback from the industry experts serving as judges.”

RAYMOND WEITEKAMP, 28, CEO OF POLYSPECTRA
Participant at 2013 Caltech FLoW competition and Cyclotron Road entrepreneur at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

“My advice to young cleantech innovators is to keep their projects in the lab for as long as possible. It is easy to underestimate how much work is required to take something from an academic paper to a minimum viable product. Find a program like Cyclotron Road to help you make the transition—it is a way smarter approach than trying to find investors right away.”

CHRISTOPHER HOPPER, 29, CO-FOUNDER OF AURORA SOLAR
Recipient of two U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative Incubator awards

"Working in clean energy is not always easy, and every one of us in this space has and will encounter headwinds—economically, structurally, and politically. Don't let yourself be swayed. The only sustainable future is one powered by clean energy, and initiative, hard work, and dedication will get us there."

Sustaining American competitiveness in a global energy economy means creating the space for the best and brightest, no matter their age, to test and validate their new solutions. EERE applauds these six young innovators for leading the way and inspiring others in their generation to take on America’s current and future energy challenges. 

Five Ways to Deliver Your Best Cleantech Business Plan Pitch

by Alice Wang, Tech-to-Market Program Lead, Cleantech University Prize

As a Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) competition judge, I’ve seen some amazing business plans and given lots of feedback. These collegiate business plan competitions give aspiring university student entrepreneurs a real-world opportunity to test their business plans and elevator pitches in front of investors and industry leaders. In return, these young innovators receive industry mentoring and pitch feedback from high caliber judges. Ultimately, these resources can help university student entrepreneurs take their clean energy startup to the next level.

In 2016, 255 entrepreneurial university student teams applied for eight regional Cleantech UP competitions. Half of them were selected to compete, and only eight took home a first place prize. What helped these winners stand out in a crowded field, and how can other university student entrepreneur teams succeed next time?

Here are the five tips I give most often.

1. Understand who your customers are; emphasize their needs in your pitch

One of the biggest mistakes teams make when pitching their clean energy idea is not clearly stating who would potentially buy their product and why. Having a great technology and knowing who your key partners are is important. But ultimately, your pitch should clearly identify your potential customers and why your product is a good fit for them.

2. Determine your potential competitors and explain why your innovation is unique

Understanding your product’s market landscape is crucial to making your technology stand out. Remember, these competition judges have heard hundreds of pitches—and not just from student entrepreneurs. Demonstrate that you’ve researched other companies in the clean energy space you’re trying to enter and articulate your differentiation and competitive advantage. Not only will this strengthen your business plan, it will also help prove to the judges that you know your invention’s unique value and market opportunity.

3. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Just do it, early and often. You’ll be more comfortable with your pitch and more confident in front of the judges. If you can, try to practice either on location or in similar settings. Presenting as a group? Make sure to clearly define each team member’s role in the pitch early on, and practice smooth transitions between team members.

4. Balance visual appeal with useful information

We’ve all seen PowerPoint presentations filled with tiny text or overly technical diagrams or abstract images. When putting together your pitch slide deck, think through what information is most important to the judges. Hitting the high points in your speech is vital, but having these stand out in your visuals is important too. Make sure the problem you’re solving, your unique value proposition, your financial projections, and your strategy for scaling and getting to market are clear, concise, and relevant to the story you’re telling the judges. Ultimately, this is the information your audience won’t forget.

5. Be explicit about how your technology fits into the clean energy sector

While not all business plan competitions focus solely on clean energy technologies, the collegiate Cleantech UP prizes do. This is important to remember as you’re applying to the program and preparing to pitch your innovation. Strongly answering how your product fits within the Energy Department’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy portfolio and how it could impact the clean energy space will help you succeed in these cleantech competitions.

Cleantech UP competitions give participants so much more than a cash prize. These opportunities connect you to mentors and physical resources that can improve your business model and help you execute your business plan. Whether you’re competing this year or in the future, you can take these simple tips and start improving your business pitch now. 

Incubators and Accelerators: What Every Cleantech Startup Should Know

For more than two decades, clean energy incubators and accelerators have been popping up across the country to help more of their regions’ entrepreneurs bring new technologies to market. These organizations provide lab space, business expertise, industry mentors, introductions to investors, and opportunities to test and demonstrate technologies. Cleantech startups need this suite of resources to get their big ideas off the ground.

Recognizing the incredible impact incubators and accelerators have on getting more clean energy solutions to market, the Energy Department launched the National Incubator Initiative for Clean Energy. This Technology-to-Market program launched Incubatenergy, the first nationwide network connecting incubators and accelerators to each other across the country. By bringing these groups together, Incubatenergy builds stronger relationships to help drive new innovations from every region forward. Now, startups across the country can easily identify the incubator or accelerator that is right for their technologies, and network member organizations can better guide entrepreneurs toward resources best suited to their needs.

Playing a pivotal role in strengthening the American innovation and entrepreneurial communities, incubators and accelerators can help jumpstart an early stage company. With the help of these organizations, the path to success for startups and entrepreneurs becomes clearer. Members of Incubatenergy have already reported more than $1.6 billion in follow-on funding for supported companies, helped entrepreneurs issue more than 190 patents, and helped clean energy businesses add more than 3,000 new jobs. The collaboration and coordination among these organizations not only bolsters the incubator and accelerator network, but it broadens the ecosystem to help turn more big ideas into real-world products.

Want to learn if you can put these resources to work for your big clean energy idea? Then visit the Incubatenergy Network online: www.incubatenergy.org.

 

RVS Rubber Solutions Takes Top Prize at Clean Energy Trust Competition

Case Western Reserve University’s RVS Rubber Solutions took home the top $50,000 prize at Clean Energy Trust’s 2017 Cleantech University Prize (Cleantech UP) Midwest Showcase. The company, based in Cleveland, Ohio, has created a solution to recycle rejected tire components and turn them into a high-quality, low-cost, and environmentally-friendly rubber source ready for new applications.

In addition to RVS Rubber Solutions, runners up BluSolar (Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois) and Purpled (Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois) will compete in the Energy Department’s National Cleantech UP competition in June 2017.

Visit www.cleanenergytrust.org to learn more about the Clean Energy Trust 2017 Midwest Showcase and this year’s winners.

Solstice Wins Berkeley Cleantech UP Competition

Stanford University’s Solstice Energy Solutions won the top $50,000 prize at the University of Berkeley’s Cleantech University Prize (Berkeley CUP) collegiate competition. The company uses data-driven approaches and integrated technology to solve energy challenges for millions of homeowners and small businesses around the world who rely on both grid and distributed energy sources. Solstice’s first product allows seamless shifting between energy sources, enabling better efficiency and simple energy management.

UC Berkeley-based Noble Thermodynamics and Flux Technologies will join Solstice at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Cleantech UP competition in June 2017.

Visit www.beci.berkeley.edu/cup to learn more about the Berkeley CUP and this year’s competitors.

RoBotany Takes First Place at Cleantech UP Competition

Carnegie Mellon University’s RoBotany took home the top $50,000 prize at the 2017 Allegheny Cleantech University Prize Collegiate Competition. The company, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has created automated robotics and software analytics to make indoor agriculture more efficient and environmentally friendly. These smart farms use 95% less water and avoid harmful top soil degradation and runoff pollution.

The competition’s second place winner was another Carnegie Mellon University team, Teratonix. Finishing in third were RE-Empower and MPEL-EV, both from the University of Maryland.

RE-Empower and Teratonix will join RoBotany at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Cleantech UP competition in June 2017.

Visit cleantechprize.org to learn more about the Allegheny competition and this year’s competitors.

The State of Cleantech in NYC by AliAkbar Hassonjee

We [in New York] are joining together and committing ourselves to tackling climate change and showing the nation what is possible. Now it is up to world leaders to follow suit,” NY Governor Andrew Cuomo proclaimed on a chilly October morning at Columbia University last year, with former-Vice President Al Gore standing beside him. 

Governor Cuomo, for years, has built a steady suite of statements, policy actions, and state initiatives to make New York a model of clean energy investment and implementation. Last year, he signed the “Under-2-MOU” commitment to keep global temperatures below 2º C, along with Vice President Gore, preceding the global climate talks set to occur in Paris within a few months.  Meanwhile, down in lower-Manhattan and Brooklyn, clean technology companies and research organizations have been gloriously flourishing, with no sign of any market factors breaking them down. 

New York City is the cleantech epicenter of the East Coast- you don’t need to be a well-networked professional to see it. City and state financial initiatives are fueling waves of new companies that are finding nesting grounds at incubators like NYC ACRE, a growing cleantech hub operated by the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research & Development Authority), and NYC EDC (New York City Economic Development Corporation). These companies are challenging the status quo by providing new products, resources, and research in their respective industries: take EnerKnol, an energy policy data company that aggregates real time governmental action and data regarding renewables for the companies and institutions that need it, and that is also building a huge community in the NYC finance world around cleantech investment at the same time. There’s also BlocPower, an emerging startup led by a former Obama For America staffer that bridges the finance and engineering gaps between impact investors seeking financial returns and developing communities in inner cities that need clean energy retrofits, but lack the necessary resources to do so. These are just two disruptors on a long list of organizations and companies that are building a sustainable future for New York--and the world for that matter.

As an NYU student, and now as a 2015-16 Spark Clean Energy Fellow, I’ve gotten a chance to see all of this firsthand. The cleantech world in New York is an endearing one in that if you simply put in the effort and walk up to the doors of an incubator or public cleantech event, you’re immediately introduced to an interconnected world where job opportunities and community roles are aplenty. I was able to connect with students in the NYU sustainability community who provided connections to NYC ACRE, which then allowed me to meet a wealth of cleantech company founders, academic finance and engineering experts, fellow students, and it also gave me a chance to attend impactful and exciting events that brought in people from all aspects of this community. Leveraging these community connections helped me provide networking opportunities as a Spark Fellow, spreading our message to more students, which has had a profound impact on my goals and where I plan on trying to get a job after I graduate.

I’ve only been a student within this community for a few years, but I’ve learned a great deal. And the most important thing that any student seeking to make a difference in the fight against climate change should know, is that the first step is to show up, start talking, and start making connections. The rest will come into place as you begin your journey.