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Amidst hard times for greentech, digital green startups emerge

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Young, early-stage green-focused startups are a rare breed these days. The demo day on Wednesday in downtown San Francisco for the green digital-focused accelerator Greenstart (which I called the Y-Combinator for greentech a year ago when they launched) was one of the first times in a long time that I’ve seen a grouping of new young green-leaning startups looking for their first round of funding.

At the event at the Greenstart offices, five startups focused on using software to change energy and transportation, showed off their ideas to a packed house of hundreds of investors, potential partners and the media. The startups seemed as excited to present their ideas as the investors were to hear their pitches.

But just don’t call the crop of five companies greentech firms. There’s a lot investors that came to look at these five companies because they are just interested in technology and software, not necessarily in greentech, explained Greenstart partner Dave Graham to me. Greenstart shifted its strategy from incubating broad greentech companies last year to solely focusing on working with digital green companies this year.

And the move has paid off. Greentech or cleantech, as an investment class has a become a dirty word these days. There’s just been too many missteps and investors and entrepreneurs that have lost a lot of money. And, at the same time, there’s been a rush of web and mobile-focused folks that have started to make a real killing (Instagram). As I wrote in this article, I’m not even sure cleantech as an umbrella moniker will survive for too much longer.

However, the overarching trends of a growing population, constrained resources (energy, food and water), people moving to cities, and information technology as a way to manage these resources, won’t go away for decades. And the class of companies that presented at Greenstart’s Demo day all fit into this digital green description.

The digital green players

One of the most buzzy and fun ideas came from Scoot Networks, an electric scooter sharing network, which I covered last month, and which we’ll post a Green Overdrive show around this week. Scoot Networks is still in alpha phase, but is starting to roll out its e-scooter network to companies first (think big Internet companies and co-working spaces) as a way to test the concept and the market. Later on — and after they get the required insurance coverage — the company will eventually open up the network to everyone else, in the hopes of becoming the Zipcar (s ZIP) for electric scooters.

Scoot Networks is looking to continue to raise a seed round of $700,000 (it’s raised $300,000 of that) and eventually wants to raise $5 million in a Series A round. The low cost of the electric scooters (they come from China), and the fact that they use an iPhone app as the bulk of their scooter control system (your phone fits snugly into the dashboard) means that Scoot Networks will have high margins, said Scoot CEO and co-founder Michael Keating during his presentation.

Another company that stood out was GELI (Growing Energy Labs Incorporated), which is developing software that can control and monitor batteries for the power grid — think the Android for batteries. The system can help companies and utilities make money off of using batteries for various applications like buying and selling energy, demand response, and energy load shifting. GELI is looking to raise a seed round of $750,000 to ship product to its first customers.

The other three companies that Greenstart picked and which pitched to investors on Wednesday included Ridepal, a startup organizing Google-style commuter buses for companies, kWhours, which has developed an iPad app for building energy efficiency professionals, and finally Smart Grid Billing, which makes software to enable real time pricing for utilities. Looks like “digital green,” “cleanweb,” “collaborative consumption,” “green IT,” or whatever people want to call it these days, is going to be the leading way that investors and entrepreneurs will be able to lead to more sustainable changes — and even make a little money.