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Five men sitting in yellow chairs on a stage during a discussion at an event panel session.

Panel discussion at the 2013 Industry Growth Forum. From left: Michael Knotek, Deputy Undersecretary for Science and Energy, DOE; Tom Morehouse, Principal Deputy Asst. Secretary of Defense, Operational Energy Plans and Programs, DOD; Dan Arvizu, NREL Director; Ilan Gur, Program Director and Technology to Market Senior Advisor, ARPA-E; and Rick Brenner, Director, Agricultural Technology Innovation Partnership (ATIP) Foundation.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Industry Growth Forum Cultivates Clean Energy Entrepreneurship

NREL's Industry Growth Forum brings together clean energy entrepreneurs and investors to facilitate the movement of innovation into the marketplace.

Most entrepreneurs with promising new clean-energy innovations are thinking big, but starting small. It's often a long, bumpy road from the initial hopes and dreams for a new technology to bringing that technology to market, and creating a successful business. The road is fraught with peril as clean-energy startups face volatile market conditions, economic setbacks, stiff competition, and energy policy uncertainty. That said, the greatest challenges involve bridging the gaps between innovation and investment, the so-called "valleys of death," as fledgling businesses seek the funding necessary to navigate toward successful commercialization.

For nearly two decades, NREL has provided crucial support to the clean-energy marketplace through its annual Industry Growth Forum. The forum brings together business startups, investors, policymakers, and thought-leaders for a two-day gathering each autumn. The event features presentations from the most innovative and promising emergent clean energy companies, chosen through a rigorous and competitive selection process. These presentations are supplemented by provocative education panels featuring industry leaders and experts, along with invaluable organized networking opportunities. The Forum has proved to be the perfect venue for growing cleantech companies to introduce their businesses to a wide range of investors.

"The union of R&D (research and development) successes with a receptive investment community will accelerate renewable energy and energy efficiency technology innovations into the marketplace," said Bill Farris, NREL associate laboratory director. "The relationships built and information shared at the Forum are vital to the advancement of these technologies. NREL is pleased to be able to leverage the convening power of the laboratory to facilitate this critical discourse."

The Forum Gets Results

Since 2003, more than 300 companies have presented their businesses at the forum to panels of investors and financial executives. These companies represent a wide range of clean energy technology innovation in solar and wind technologies, advanced engines and renewable fuels, building efficiency, energy storage, and others.

Two men in suits sitting at a table talking to each other.

Peter Vandermeulen, left, with 7AC Technologies presented his company's product to Mike Sherman from the Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital at the one-on-one networking session at the Industry Growth Forum in Denver, Colorado.
Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

An analysis of data for all of the presenting companies since 2003 shows that the Forum has had significant impact on access to capital for the participating entrepreneurs. These companies have collectively received more than $5 billion in funding since their initial presentations at the Forum.

"The Forum has a proven track record of success for both our entrepreneurial and investor communities," said NREL Project Manager Kate Cheesbrough. "We've got one of the longest running events in the cleantech sector and have built a solid reputation for putting together a very high-quality roster of startup companies, which makes it an event not to be missed by the top investors. Then the presence of those investors sustains the interest from entrepreneurs in being a part of the event the next year, which allows us to maintain and grow the quality of the program."

Renewable Alternatives from Good Chemistry

Few companies that have presented at the Forum better demonstrate the effectiveness of the event more than OPXBIO, a renewable biochemical and biofuel company based in Boulder, Colorado. OPXBIO uses its proprietary leading EDGE™ (Efficiency Directed Genome Engineering) technology to manufacture renewable bio-based chemicals and fuels that are lower cost, higher return, and more sustainable than existing petro-based products.

A 2010 presenting company, and winner of an Outstanding Venture Award at the event that year, OPXBIO has raised more than $50 million in equity investment and project funding since its participation in the Forum. Additionally, the company has entered into joint development agreements with significant industry partners and has positioned itself for the commercial launch of their first bio-based chemical products in 2016.

"Participating in the NREL Forum was a valuable experience for OPXBIO," said Charles Eggert, OPXBIO president and chief executive officer. "The NREL Forum supported the success of our equity financing round in 2011 and subsequent establishment of our strategic partnerships. We enhanced our visibility and credibility with potential investors and partners, broadened our network of contacts and relationships, and fine-tuned our company pitch based on feedback from the review panels."

A Revolutionary Heating and Cooling Solution Makes Waves

A recent Forum success story comes from 7AC Technologies. 7AC, a startup based in Beverly, Massachusetts, has developed a membrane-isolated plastic plate technology that enables the design of highly efficient liquid desiccant-based heating and cooling solutions. Systems using this technology can drastically cut heating and cooling energy costs while radically improving dehumidification performance.

Since presenting their business at the 2012 Forum and winning the Outstanding Venture Award for that year, 7AC has made significant progress in moving its technology toward commercialization. The company has since put demonstration projects in place, signed a number of agreements with large heating and cooling system manufacturers to further test the technology, and demonstrated that the technology can be scaled to high-volume manufacturing.

"The NREL Forum helped us gain critical visibility among investors and strategic partners, and also gave us great exposure within the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) community," said Peter Vandermeulen, 7AC chief technology officer. "We've made some great connections that can lead to partnership or investment opportunities. We continue to participate because of these connections and the opportunity to update them on our progress."

A Breeding Ground for Continued Partnership

Companies like OPXBIO and 7AC Technologies that present at the Forum might operate in very different technology areas, but one thing they have in common is a continued collaboration with NREL researchers.

OPXBIO partnered with NREL on a U.S. Department of Energy ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy)-funded bioenergy project. The collaborative effort, completed in 2013, sought to develop a bioprocess for the conversion of carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas feedstock to fatty acids and renewable fuels. Their partnership with NREL provided OPXBIO with critical access to NREL technology and research talent to support the success of the project.

7AC Technologies also has a cooperative research and development agreement to demonstrate and test its technology in NREL's Thermal Test Facility, where it has shown an energy efficiency ratio that is 50% to 80% higher than conventional dedicated outside air HVAC systems. The company also engaged with NREL to develop a simulation model that has proved useful in predicting how its technology will behave in various conditions and situations, as well as helping improve and optimize the system.

"The connection to the laboratory is what makes the Industry Growth Forum one-of-a-kind and an extremely effective program," Cheesbrough said. "There are many other business forums that network startup companies with potential investors. But, in addition to just doing that, we are also able to interface these companies with the capabilities of our world-class research staff. The nexus of the networking opportunities at the Forum with the R&D expertise in the labs is where NREL can really make an impact in moving these technologies to market."

Learn more about the NREL Industry Growth Forum.

Partnering: An Engine for Innovation

FALL 2014 / Issue 7

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