Updated with additional information from MIT: The MIT students behind startup Levant Power have already won over some tough crowds, drawing interest in their energy-harvesting hydraulics from the U.S. military and several U.S. truck makers. Today the Levant team won the nod of the university from whence it came, beating out 39 teams to take home the $10,000 MIT Clean Energy award for transportation and earn a slot in tomorrow’s competition for a $100,000 entrepreneurship prize. Update: Winning the transportation award in the MIT contest also qualified Levant as a finalist for the grand prize of $200,000 in a sister contest hosted at the school but open to colleges across the country.
When we wrote about Levant earlier this year, the startup was testing out its GenShock shock absorbers — which harvest kinetic energy when a vehicle hits a bump — on a Humvee lent to them by military supplier and off-road vehicle maker AM General. They were talking about a nationwide commercial rollout sometime after 2010 — ambitious even for six guys from MIT.
According to Levant CEO Shakeel Avadhany, quoted in an announcement about the prize today from MIT, the bootstrapped company has built multiple prototypes, secured one purchase order, and lined up a pilot test with a major retailer in the last year and a half. At this point, the team says the technology bumps up fuel efficiency by 2 percent to 10 percent (depending on the vehicle and application), saving large fleet operators such as Wal-Mart upwards of $13 million per year at the pump.
As for the military applications, Levant is hardly alone in eying the Defense Department’s massive budget in a time when other big spenders have closed their wallets. Energy storage company Ener1 said in a call with shareholders earlier this year that while the “personal transportation sector, as everybody knows, is financially stressed,” the military has “huge untapped potential” for lithium-ion battery technology. Lead-acid battery startup Firefly Energy spun out of Caterpillar to develop technology for the military, as well as the commercial sector, and just raised a $15 million round of venture capital financing last week.
So far, the territory of kinetic energy-harvesting shock absorbers for heavy-duty off-road vehicles remains relatively uncharted. But that doesn’t make Levant a sure bet. It simply hasn’t had time to gather data about how the GenShock system functions long term, which automakers, thinking about warranty costs, and the military, worried about performance in combat zones, will want to have before committing to big supply deals.
Tomorrow, Levant’s technology and business plan will go up against plans from four other student teams for the $200,000 grand prize, which could help the team make strides towards its commercialization goal, even if 2010 remains out of reach for a large-scale launch. The other competitors, who each won $10,000 to $40,000 in the finalist round, include green building materials group Husk Insulation, oil-spill cleanup developer Process Water Absorbers, solid-state lighting startup Troy Research Corp., and low-cost solar tracking team SunPoint. Whoever emerges as the winner will be in good company. According to MIT, the school’s $100,000 competition has helped launch more than 85 companies and create more than 2,500 jobs.