At the Cleantech Open 2014 National Webinar last April, a list of global challenges was presented: soaring energy demand, skyrocketing consumption, peaking oil supply, increasingly contaminated fresh water, and egregious pollution of our land and oceans. These are the pressing challenges being addressed by clean technology entrepreneurs around the world and driving the mission of the Cleantech Open, a nonprofit organization that operates one of the largest accelerators for cleantech startups in the country.
“As Thomas Friedman said, ‘A hundred thousand innovators in our garages will help us solve our biggest problems,’” says Rex Northen, executive director of the Cleantech Open. “We say, well yes, but you have to get them out of their garages. That’s the real secret, because in their garages they still think the best mousetrap is going to win. It’s not until they’ve gone through commercialization, or some kind of market program, that they really come to understand what’s required.”
Helping cleantech startups learn to successfully commercialize is at the heart of the Cleantech Open. Started in 2006 by a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and business leaders, the Cleantech Open merged in 2011 with Ignite Clean Energy, with whom they had been working closely from the beginning.
With 865 companies having so far passed through the program, the Cleantech Open sets itself apart from the average accelerator through its sole focus on clean technologies (it offers eight technology categories under which companies can apply) and its scope and scale (the organization is international). “There’s a lot of benefit to having a global network you can plug into for help and advice,” Northen says. “It’s quite common for startups to find their first customer in another country”—as well as a combination of mentoring, training, access to capital, and showcasing.
With approximately 150 companies attending the technology accelerator each year, the program begins with the National Cleantech Academy, followed by a specific 10-step curriculum. “It starts with customer discovery and goes all the way through to an executive summary and an investor pitch,” Northen says. “Rather than randomly throwing companies that come to the Cleantech Open a series of ways in which they can get help, we start at the beginning.” This includes establishing whether or not the product fits the particular market the company had in mind and if the company has at least started down the path toward obtaining the appropriate certifications for the new technology.
The curriculum is accompanied by training webinars, business clinics, stage time, and mentoring. Providing an opportunity to meet with investors, the culmination of it all is Investor Connect. “It’s like speed dating for investors,” Northen says of the event that takes place at the national Global Forum in November. “That combination of things in the right sequence means that of the active companies, about half will raise third-party capital, and, on average, they’ll raise about two million dollars each.”
Among the success stories is Lucid, the 2007 Cleantech Open Smart Power Winner. Lucid’s Building Dashboard allows building occupants to monitor and receive feedback on energy and water use in real time. Architectural Applications (a2), from the 2012 Cleantech Open Pacific Northwest regional accelerator, developed a passive, membrane-based heat and humidity exchanger, integrated into the building enclosure, which saves energy and improves air quality. EcoFactor, the 2009 overall winner of the national competition, is behind an automated, cloud-based energy service that looks at local weather data, a home’s thermostat, and the comfort preferences of a homeowner to automatically adjust for specific energy savings.
With initiatives including the Cleantech Open Global Ideas Competition, which sees 39 countries participate, and the recent launch of six accelerators outside of the US in conjunction with the United Nations, the ultimate goal of the Cleantech Open is to embrace its global network of entrepreneurs. “The challenge is that too many of them never see the light of day, so our concern is that technologies that could make a real difference to the planet don’t make it,” Northen says. “Not because their technology isn’t sound, but because they weren’t good at the commercialization. That’s our role.”