Blog Post

Clean Tech Open Names 6 Cali Finalists: Low Cost Is King

cleantechopen-logoThe party’s over, for now, when it comes to raising private capital for carbon-reducing technologies with a long onramp to profitability — and it shows in the array of regional finalists announced this morning for the Clean Tech Open, a business plan competition that has helped Aurora Biofuels, Lucid Design Group Systems and more than a hundred other startups raise nearly $125 million over the last three years (today’s six finalists are in the running for the national awards next month). Entrepreneurs at today’s event emphasized cost-cutting technologies and low capital needs for their next phase. Here are the six finalists and what their founders let slip about their strategy, cost-cutting efforts and technologies:

Category: Air, Water & Waste
Finalist: Micromidas

Founded by a group of chemical engineers (and a microbiologist) from the University of California at Davis, Micromidas is developing a biodegradable plastic made from the carbon in wastewater. “We’ll easily come in at a price parity with petroleum plastics right off the bat,” CEO John Bissell said today. The company says it needs $1 million for a pilot plant, and has already raised a third to one half of that. The major breakthrough? Applying chemical engineering principles and believing in the “ability to industrialize the process,” said Bissell.

Category: Efficiency
Finalist: Alphabet Energy

Alphabet Energy is working on thermoelectrics for waste heat recovery — materials that “generate electricity when you make one side hot and other side cold,” explained CEO Matt Scullin. The company is 2-3 years away from having its first product on the market, but it’s targeting heavy industries like aluminum and cement, which can use their waste heat to generate electricity, boost efficiency and ultimately cut costs.

“It’s a cost play rather than efficiency,” explained Scullin, claiming that Alphabet’s technology delivers thermal electric efficiency “on par with state of the art, which is 5-10 percent,” but they can make it “100 times cheaper.” The company is looking for seed or Series A investment in order to scale up (it’s in the “early stages” of that process now), but does not need to build a plant to start generating revenue. Scullin said Alphabet had a meeting with California utility PG&E (s PCG) today — we’ll see where that goes.

Category: Green Building
Finalist: tru2earth

“We’re pretty low tech,” says tru2earth executive Brian Peterson. President Mary White first got the idea to make roofing shingles from recycled PET plastic some 30 years ago. But it wasn’t until the “explosion” of plastic bottles for water and soda that an adequate supply of the material became available. Now tru2earth says it can make roofing tiles that last 50-100 years at a “price point equivalent to asphalt shingles.” Asphalt shingles hold 85 percent of the market and represent “an environmental catastrophe,” explains Peterson.

The company says its tiles, which “functionally assist the roof,” and make it weather and UV resistant, hold valuable intellectual property for “uncrystalizing” plastic bottles, and providing water harvesting and cooling on the roof. The company expects to have its tiles “ready for the 2010 roofing season,” with distribution initially through green builders and architects (ultimately the goal is to build a “critical mass” and make the tiles available through roofing suppliers), but it needs $100,000 for testing and prototyping.

Category: Renewable Energy
Finalist: Armageddon Energy

Go to a big-box store, buy a prefab solar kit, and start running your home with solar power within minutes. That’s the basic pitch for Armageddon. It gets a little more complicated than that — most people will need a trained professional or two, like a general contractor or electrician to get set up — but the idea is to make residential solar panels as close to a “plug and play” product as possible. The company uses standard silicon cells and “polymers by people like DuPont,” to make what they SolarClovers — hexagonal solar panels fitted to triangular racks that can be “carried up a ladder with one hand,” according to CEO Mark Goldman.

VP of Products Dmitry Dimov told me this afternoon that the “secret weapon” for the company, is a system for customers to photograph a device (it comes in the box kit) on their rooftop and then email that to Armageddon to see how much sun that location will get over the course of a year. The email serves as “lead gen” for the company, allowing direct connections with customers. Armageddon plans to launch commercially in less than a year, although it still has to undergo safety and certification tests. Goldman said the company is also using software to give consumers “bells and whistles” and enable system monitoring.

Category: Smart Power
Finalist: EcoFactor

EcoFactor is working on residential energy management — a “hands-free automation” tool for reducing heating and air condition costs by up to 20-30 percent. Consumers will need a “two-way communicating thermostat,” and then EcoFactor’s software will be able to “determine the appropriate strategy for that house” based on information from the thermostat and the web, said CEO John Steinberg. The company, which is working with a software-as-a-service model, says it has a utility deal and other major announcements coming up soon, so stay tuned.

Category: Transportation
Finalist: FuelSaver

FuelSaver is working on devices to cut fuel consumption for 18-wheeler trucks based on changing environmental factors, aerodynamics, road clearance and temperature. Founder and CEO Doron Neuburger said the company needs $2.5 million total, and $100,000 for prototyping and certification of its devices, which can be fixed to three different points along the big rig (the back of the trailer, the belly, and between the truck/trailer). The company is also taking a low-tech approach to development of the devices: “take a truck out for 10 days” to work out the real-world kinks for the same price that the company would pay for, say, a software simulation package from Autodesk, says Neuburger.