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GE’s First 12 Challenge Winners, A Few Surprises

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On Tuesday morning, General Electric (s GE) and some high-flying venture capital partners named 12 winners who’ll be splitting the first $55 million of a $200 million “ecomagination challenge” they launched this summer. While the contest was marketed as a way to open the VC floodgates to greentech startups not already in the pipeline for corporate cash, the list is full of some already well-funded companies, including several GE is already investing in.

That doesn’t mean GE and its Ecomagination VC partners — including Kleiner Perkins, Foundation Capital, Emerald Technology Ventures and RockPort Capital — didn’t pick well. Winners included interesting startups in home energy management, data center efficiency startups, smart grid monitoring and security, solar power and energy storage. Some well-known winners include: OPower, Consert, SynapSense, and Soladigm.

While GE didn’t give specific figures on how much it was putting into each company, its $45 million — along with VC partners’ combined $10 million — is expected to be fairly evenly split between the twelve.

Besides the 12 winners, GE named five “innovation award winners” that each received $100,000: Winflex, maker of fabric windmill rotors; IceCode, which makes technology to pulse heat through metal wind turbine blades to de-ice them; GridON, which makes a power grid fault current limiter; ElectricRoute, maker of a low-latency communications system for grid substations; and Capstone Metering, which uses the water pressure inside water meters to power monitoring and communications hardware.

Five other companies — including solar-refrigeration startup Promethean Power and prefab solar rooftop designer Armageddon Energy — earned $10,000 each and an honorable mention for their work in bringing greentech to the developing world.

While the challenge did field thousands of public comments and questions on the 3,600 or so online investment pitches it received, all of Tuesday’s winners were chosen by the Ecomagination panel of judges. When the contest participants have had their say so far, they’ve chosen some risky investments. Solar Roadways, a startup that wants to install solar panels in roads, got a $50,000 cash prize when it won the contest’s first popular vote award last month.

While blue-sky greentech researchers may see Tuesday’s choices as safe bets, investors may well support the decision to go with some more tried and true companies — including existing GE partners like data center energy monitoring startup SynapSense and home energy networking startup Consert.

GE has poured some $175 million into 21 greentech companies, and $5 billion into its own energy R&D, so it has a lot of experience in the field. It’s working with all 12 investment winners in various ways, and it and its Ecomagination partners still have $145 million or so to hand out over the next 12 to 18 months.

Here’s a list of the 12 winners, divided into some broad categories:

Home Energy Management. Winners here were Arlington, Va.-based OPOWER and Raleigh, N.C.-based Consert. They represent two sides of the scale in home energy technology, in a way: While OPOWER now mainly uses paper reports and data crunching to spur homeowners to save energy, Consert envisions a real-time home energy control network running over cellular networks.

IT Efficiency. Winners here were Folsom, Calif.-based SynapSense (already a GE partner), which makes sensors to monitor energy use in data centers, and Atlanta-based JouleX, which makes a system to manage enterprise computing networks and promises to cut energy by 30 to 60 percent.

Smart Grid Systems. The winners here were Ireland’s FMC-Tech, which makes power line monitoring systems for utilities, and Burlingame, Calif.’s Sentient Energy, which makes modular intelligent monitoring devices and software for distribution grid automation.

Smart Grid Security. SecureRF of Westport, Conn., stood out as the pure software player among the 12 winners — and its specialty is its “Algebraic Eraser” public-key cryptography method designed for low-power devices like sensors and meters.

Solar Heating and Cooling. Winners here included Sweden’s ClimateWell, which uses solar hot water to heat and cool hospitals and other buildings, and Soladigm, which makes windows that darken and lighten to balance a building’s heating and cooling needs.

Building Energy Management. Berkeley, Calif.-based Scientific Conservation landed a winning spot with its software to optimize building management systems for energy efficiency.

Energy Storage. The winner here was SustainX, a New Hampshire-based startup with an isothermal compressed air energy storage technology that could cut the costs of traditional CAES in half.

Research. The final winner was the Fu Foundation School for Engineering and Applied Science, a newly launched collaboration with GE, Columbia Engineering, FedEx Express (s fdx), and Con Edison into electric vehicle charging research.

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Image courtesy of eschipul.