This event on Dec. 4 was the culmination of a decade’s effort to put the spotlight on investable clean tech companies in our region. Four outstanding companies delivered clear, compelling, and high-quality presentations on their companies to a packed crowd of investors and supporters at our first CONNEX event, in collaboration with New Energy Nexus (formerly the California Clean Energy Fund or CalCEF). It went so well, we are planning a second one in March, with three companies already wanting to participate.
The pace of investment in new clean tech companies is not so much determined by the amount of money available. We have often said that there is plenty of money available for good clean tech investments. Over $5 billion per year was invested at the peak and even now over $2 billion in investments are still being made each year. But there have been two missing ingredients for capitalizing a larger number of startups in this region. First, is having a number of companies that are “investable”, that have a well-formed idea of their customers, their product, their paths to market, their profitability, and their competitors to be able to make a convincing case to investors. Startups need a lot of coaching, training, cajoling, feedback, research, testing, and rethinking to get to an investable stage. There are many sources for this kind of help. CleanStart not only provides some of it but also serves as a portal to help offered by many other organizations.
Second, startups need a source of funding to cover the costs of proving their concepts and getting some hard data from early prototypes and demos. This has been the hardest money to find. It is usually more than one bank account can cover, even a few friends’ bank accounts. Clean tech startups in California are lucky to have a source for this funding available from a surcharge on electric bills and managed by the California Energy Commission. The CalSEED (California Sustainable Energy Entrepreneur Development) Fund provides initial $150,000 grants to applicants for proof of concept work and then another $450,000 to those proving their worth. Typically each year 25 small grants are made out of 100+ applicants, and 4-6 are advanced to the second stage from prior years’ awards. To date $15 million has been awarded to 70 startups. The program is managed by New Energy Nexus. Part of that program is to give awardees experience in making presentations through the CONNEX events. New Energy Nexus asked CleanStart to put on such a session in Sacramento for a crop of “investable” companies.
There was a broad view that these were some of the best presentations ever made by clean tech companies in the region and maybe even statewide. Here’s the best news: You can watch these presentations as though you were there. We recorded everything and have them available soon, so make sure you follow CleanStart. We will also have highlights from the event if you don’t have the 90 minutes to watch all the videos, and the slide decks from each are available here.
Here’s a quick take on each of them:
Eric Cummings of MaxOut Renewables has a way to lower the cost of the combined inverter and power management system for home solar systems by 50-65% and add a small amount of storage to get the maximum output. In addition, they indicated they could isolate the home system from the grid in time of outage in order to keep the home powered for a time. Almost all homes now just cutoff the power from the PV panels during an outage, leaving the home powerless even though a power source is right there. Ironic that homeowners have been buying small generators to keep their refrigerators running while the PV array is useless.
Sergey Vasylyev of Empow Lighting showed how to convert fluorescent fixtures in buildings to LED panels at a cost 80% below the other systems available. Their CoreGlo product is a thin, flexible acrylic plastic panel lit by LEDs on the side. Their patented IP is the way they print a pattern on the acrylic to make the light from the LEDs spread uniformly over the panel. They are working now on how to change the color electronically. They are looking for an established partner as their path to market and are getting a lot of interest. However, they expect to be setting up a small manufacturing plant in Sacramento to get the product out to customers and make a bigger impact.
Angelo Campus of BoxPower reported a similar phenomenon with interest in its “renewable-based microgrid in a box” booming given all the power outages in California. Inquiries are up 30-fold and search traffic is up 50%. Now the issue is how fast can they gear up to produce 3 times as many boxes per year and get them installed. Good problem to have. You can read our profile on them here.
Zach Denning of Hank reported installations of its virtual building engineer energy management system continues to grow rapidly. They are raising a small investment to be able to gear up to take advantage of all the interest, leading to a much larger investment round in 2020 to put the throttles to the firewall. Check them out from winning the Sustainablity Awards this year, our October Cleantech Meetup and our profile from when they first arrived.
None of these four is an overnight success. Each has put years into developing a product, testing it in the market, and perfecting a compelling value proposition. There’s a message in that for all trying to launch a cleantech startup. The key may be in reducing the learning time and in adapting faster to try to shorten this process. CleanStart will be offering some workshops in 2020 on how to do this in order to cut out some of the pain of growing a startup. Keep an eye out for the announcement of these workshops.
And don’t miss the next CONNEX event in March. It may be even better than the first.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStarts Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.