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Growth Forum Boosts Cleantech Startups

November 15, 2011

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Kiverdi CEO Lisa Dyson pitches her company, which upgrades waste carbon into oil using a syngas conversion process, at NREL's 24th Industry Growth Forum.
Credit: Pat Corkery

A disruptive DC to DC power conversion technology for semiconductor chips that power microprocessor cores and other mobile technology devices joined an elite group of technologies deemed "Best Ventures" at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's (NREL) 24th Industry Growth Forum.

For three days last week, cleantech startups, venture capitalists, banks and researchers from U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) NREL convened in Denver looking for market-ready innovations to speed the adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

"Creating clean energy options is about working with industry, and working on innovations that really cut through the market barriers, to help us make progress in a definitive way," NREL Director Dan Arvizu said in opening remarks. He also noted that he sees a vibrant global industry with "opportunity space" in the U.S. that companies attending the Growth Forum could capture.

Ready to seek out those opportunities were more than 250 companies applying for 30 presenter slots. Competition is stiff because simply being a presenter at the event can help a company "make it." Then, out of the 30 presenters, only three are bestowed with the Clean Energy Venture Awards — sponsored by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

And the Winners Are…

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From left, Randy Lewis with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati shares a stage with Industry Growth Forum winners — for LimeLite Technologies, COO Jason Foringer and CTO Samuel Kim; ICR Turbine Vice President of Finance Jim Bennett; and Arctic Sand CEO Nadia Shalaby — along with NREL Vice President for Commercialization and Technology Transfer Bill Farris.
Credit: Pat Corkery

The Best Venture award went to Arctic Sand Technologies of Cambridge, Mass. Arctic Sand is commercializing a groundbreaking power conversion technology that consolidates several broad-level power components into one chip.

"Eighty percent of the energy that is generated in the world gets lost in the form of heat," Arctic Sand founder and CEO Nadia Shalaby said after the awards ceremony. "The culprit is the $60 billion power conversion industry that converts one form of energy into another. Arctic Sand addresses this problem inside of devices. We make DC to DC conversion chips and our solutions are 10 times smaller and 75 percent more efficient at cost parity."

Arctic Sand receives $10,000 in cash and added services from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, NREL and the Cleantech Investors Summit; the total award value is $32,000. But, other benefits may be less tangible. "Winning the Growth Forum is a huge affirmation for us — and NREL brings a lot of name recognition," added Shalaby.

Two Outstanding Venture awards were also presented at the Growth Forum. The first company recognized was ICR Turbine Engine Corporation of Hampton, N.H. ICRTec is developing an innovative gas turbine engine that is a replacement for diesel engines. The ICR engine has both lower emissions and better fuel economy. It also is able to operate on any liquid or gaseous fuel and can switch between fuels while on the move — something not possible with other engines.

The second Outstanding Venture award went to LimeLite Technologies of Austin, Texas. LimeLite's energy efficient safety lighting technologies optimize the performance of electroluminescent lighting. Already a player in the consumer nightlight industry, LimeLite is looking to expand in to building safety lighting, specifically exit signs.

According to CTO Samuel Kim's presentation at the forum, there are nearly 1 billion exit signs in the world. LED exit signs have a yearly maintenance cost of approximately $34 and the LimeLight solution would bring that cost down to $6.82.

"Exit signs have a very high cost of ownership due to the fact they are on 24/7, 365 days a year," Kim said. "On average, our products are 10 to16 times more energy efficient, last two times longer and are two to six times more luminous and have great visibility in smoky conditions."

The award package for both ICR Turbine Engine Corporation and LimeLite Technologies includes $5,000 in cash and added services from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, NREL and the Cleantech Investors Summit; the total award value is $17,000 per company.

Winning Isn't Everything

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WindPole Ventures CEO Steve Kropper handles the judges' scrutiny as he answers questions about his company at the Industry Growth Forum. WindPole Ventures supplies hub-height wind resource data for wind farm developments and real-time operations.
Credit: Pat Corkery

Just because a company leaves the Growth Forum without a trophy, does not mean it leaves empty handed. Companies that have presented at the Growth Forum have raised almost $4 billion in investments since 2003. TerraLUX, based in Longmont, Colo., is one example.

"We were actually participants two years ago and got our first round of funding as a result of participating," TerraLUX President & CEO Mark Verheyen said. "We thought it would be a good idea to participate again in the search for a second round."

TerraLUX has created a patented technology that enables the simple integration of energy efficient LED light engines into existing lighting fixtures. According to Verheyen, a TerraLUX unit replaces a traditional light source, such as a 60-watt incandescent light bulb, with an eight-watt energy efficient LED unit.

"It's significantly less power consumption and it also lives 50 times as long," Verheyen said. "The customer doesn't notice the difference because the color and quality of the light source are the same."

TerraLUX hopes to build on the success it had garnering investors after its first appearance at the Growth Forum. "At that time we didn't have the products ready, but we presented the strategy," Verheyen said. "Now we are back showing finished products and are ready to go to market. We're hoping to find one or multiple investors who say that, 'I'm excited about what I've heard, I see the potential and I want to be part of that company,' either for strategic reasons or as a pure VC investor."

NREL Accelerates a Better Built Environment

This year, NREL added a new track to the last day of the Growth Forum. The "Partnership Accelerator" brought together businesses and researchers to discuss the challenges, and possible solutions, facing the commercial and residential buildings industry.

"The Partnership Accelerator is about putting together the leading research minds and practitioners in the building space together with companies to help solve technical challenges," NREL Manager for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Richard Adams said. "It's about driving outcomes."

NREL Center Director for Electricity Resources and Building Systems Integration David Money began with an overview of the challenges facing NREL, and industry, when it comes to energy systems integration. According to Mooney, 30 years of renewable energy R&D technology is entering the market and one of the challenges facing utilities is how to get that energy onto the grid in large quantities while maintaining the reliability and affordability of the nation's energy systems.

Mooney also gave the audience a preview of NREL's new laboratory specifically designed to address these energy integration challenges — the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF). "There are a few things about ESIF that make it really unique," he said. "We are going to be able to conduct systems integration experiments at megawatt scale. We are going to be able to bring utility and other partners into the building so they can see these systems operating at real power."

Conversations at the Partnership Accelerator moved from the utility scale to the virtual scale with Google SketchUp's Aidan Chopra discussing Google's easy-to-use 3-D modeling program for buildings. "If you don't have a good 3-D representation of what it is you plan to make, you are hobbled in a lot of ways," Chopra said.

In addition to simply creating a 3-D rendering of a house or commercial space, SketchUp can be a tool for placing solar panels on a building. "People from individual homeowners who are considering PV to PV installers are using SketchUp in conjunction with Google Earth to figure out this converging industry. Our level of ubiquitousness in this industry is actually sort of astounding."

SketchUp was a perfect segue into a discussion led by NREL Senior Engineer Nicholas Long about how NREL is leveraging SketchUp and DOE's EnergyPlus to do energy modeling via its Open Studio product. Together, residential and commercial buildings account for a staggering 40 percent of energy use in the United States. NREL is developing a suite of tools in Open Studio to help tame this energy use.

Once a building is constructed, occupant comfort is another area where energy use can hurt, rather than help the owner. NREL Senior Engineer Dane Christensen introduced an NREL innovation known as DEVap. The Desiccant-Enhanced eVaporative air conditioner (DEVap) is a new air conditioning process with the potential of using 50 percent to 90 percent less energy than today's top-of-the-line units. It removes heat from the air usingmembranes, evaporative cooling and liquid desiccants in a way that has never been done.

"In humid climate like Houston or Miami, you can't exactly use a swamp cooler, by using DEVap we've actually coupled the evaporative cooler with a desiccant, which is a dehumidifier," Christensen said. "It has allowed us to apply the efficiency of evaporative cooling in a much broader range of climates. In fact, it can be used in any building, in any climate across the country."

All told, 13 speakers presented a wide array of solutions for accelerating the built environment ranging from energy efficiency to advanced windows to whole building controls. The event demonstrated available opportunities that companies, researchers and investors can all work on to meet the DOE's goal of cutting building energy consumption by 50 percent.

Learn more about NREL's Industry Growth Forum, its sponsors, and see the full list of presenters.

— Heather Lammers