Where are the smartest minds in clean energy putting their development efforts? Instead of “pie in the sky” ideas, it appears energy technology developers are focusing on solving real problems with practical solutions.
Earlier this month, seventeen “early-stage” companies and student finalists competed for $300,000 in prizes at the 2013 Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago. The Challenge brought together some of the most promising clean energy businesses and university programs in the Midwest with the potential to bring game-changing innovations to the marketplace. These businesses and programs represented various aspects of clean energy, from biomass development and smart grid to improved wind turbines and advanced bearing technologies.
This year, all of the presenters and judges focused on very practical solutions to solve genuine business problems with the goal of increasing energy efficiency or reducing energy costs. The pitches by the finalists were very polished. Each finalist delivered their “elevator speech” flawlessly.
The presentations displayed impressive discipline and focused on creating strong business plans that could deliver real economic value. It is this economic value that is the foundation for a successful and sustainable business. This value was especially evident in the two clean tech sector winners, LuminAID Lab and Bearing Analytics, who each walked away with a $100,000 grand prize.
LuminAID Lab, a Chicago-based startup that developed a low-cost, solar-powered inflatable lighting device, won the top prize in the early-stage category. The product, which can deliver up to 8-hours of LED light was developed to assist those in need during natural disasters and in crisis situations where batteries are scarce and the electricity grid is disabled.
Bearing Analytics, a student team from Purdue University, developed an early warning system for companies that produce products with industrial bearings. A sensor placed directly on the bearing cage sends alerts of potential bearing failures before they happen. In addition to predicting bearing failure, the patent-protected temperature and vibration sensing solution helps to alleviate safety concerns, prevent costly gearbox failures in wind turbines, extend product lifetimes and increase energy efficiency.
In addition to the finalist presentations, the event was thoughtfully planned and executed. There was time for networking and engaging the finalists in a more informal setting between presentations. Dr. Danielson, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), spoke at lunch and provided his insights on the clean energy space. I thought Dr. Danielson’s comments about the EERE’s new focus on manufacturing matched well with this year’s finalists.
All of the Challenge finalists received coaching and business planning assistance from dozens of volunteer mentors coordinated by the Clean Energy Trust, a nonprofit technology accelerator that connects entrepreneurs, researchers and early-stage companies with the expertise and capital to become sustainable businesses.
This competition reinforces the notion that the Midwest has a unique opportunity in commercializing innovative clean energy businesses and technologies. Very few places in the US, or around the world, have the confluence of manufacturing and service businesses, world-class universities, and financial institutions to support the growth of these businesses.
Exelon was a sponsor of the 2013 Clean Energy Challenge.