No “nuclear winter” in cleantech (Winners of the National Business Plan Competition)

14 June 2013

by ECCI's Andrew Mitchell. 

Andrew Mitchell is blogging at http://energyinformatics.eu on his experiences as the only non US pitch judge of the US DoE National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition.

Venture Capital is broken – at least according to a report last year by the Kauffman Foundation. This was certainly a talking point in Washington DC at the US Department of Energy’s National Business Plan Competition on 12 June 2013. Indeed, someone even dared to mention a “cleantech nuclear winter”. The facts are that in all sectors since 1997 less cash has been returned to investors than they originally invested – which makes negative interest rates from the European Central Bank seem not so insane!

SiNode

SiNode Systems: winner of the 2013 US DoE National Business Plan Competition

But go figure. If I had a big enough bag of money I would invest in each one of the six finalists pitching at the US Department of Energy’s National Business Plan Competition. With absolute confidence that at least one of them would return all the money back, and more. Add to this the confidence from Andrew Chung at Khosla Ventures that corporate venturing is going to save cleantech, there is no nuclear winter and, as David Danielson said, the world has passed the 400ppm CO2 milestone, so we have to make this work.

Wanting to invest in all the finalists is testament either to my gullibility, or to the utterly professional and highly polished delivery of the pitches. I mention this because during a panel discussion a rather negative and ill-informed question from a “blundering jobsworth” (Sir Gregory Winter’s label, not mine) suggested there wasn’t enough support for entrepreneurs out there. The lively and insightful Matthew Nordan of Venrock Capital argued that the exact opposite was true; and the quality of pitches we witnessed at the event is a result of the great work of many government, university and private sector support initiatives in every part of the United States; not just the coastal hot spots.

Let’s get to the main thing though.

Winner of the 'People’s Choice' award at the US Department of Energy’s National Business Plan Competition was Bioadhesive Alliance Inc. (video pitch), which is a developer and manufacturer of a bio-based, green, low cost and durable construction adhesive. Co-founder Daniel Oldham delivered a perfect pitch; which was entertaining, professional and full of impact. Never before had ten minutes about pig manure been so engaging.

Overall winner of the competition was SiNode Systems (video pitch), which is developing silicon-graphene anodes for the next generation of lithium-ion batteries. The company has ambitious plans to never again let us see the empty battery sign on our iPhones; and even greater ambitions to fully recharge a Tesla car battery in 35 minutes instead of 7 hours. What a value proposition, and now that it has won this prestigious competition, the pressure (and the helpful attention) is on the team to move forward with technical and commercial milestones.

Two more nuggets of value and insight from the day’s proceedings. On a panel discussion before the winner was announced we were gifted some hot tips from two legends of the clean energy revolution, Dan Reicher and Mike Ahearn. Stanford University Professor Dan Reicher is the former Energy & Climate Director of Google Inc. and has served in the US Government under three Presidents. Mike Ahearn from True North Venture Partners is the founder of NASDAQ-listed First Solar, the first pure play renewable energy company to be listed on the S&P 500.

Hot Tips:

  • Dan Reicher’s hot tip for where young ambitious entrepreneurs and brave investors should get into is energy efficiency.
  • Mike Ahearn’s hot tip is to get into “massively distributed” energy generation. Bringing power and heat to communities off the grid and taking pressure off the grid.

There was a great deal of talk about data, cleanweb and the intersection of energy and IT over the course of both days. From David Danielson, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; from Nick Sinai, President Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer; and from Sungevity founder, Danny Kennedy. Open data and cleanweb was highlighted at the 2012 competition, too, by President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park.

All in all, the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation returns from Capitol Hill confident that we are driving a hot topic for our 'Energy Informatics' workshop in October 2013 (more information here: ‘Energy Informatics Workshop’).

Andrew Mitchell blogs at http://energyinformatics.eu.