Last week, I served as a judge for the North Central regional contest of the Cleantech Open in Minneapolis.
The Cleantech Open is a annual contest to identify the most promising cleantech ventures from across the U.S. (along with some foreign entries). This year’s event will be held on November 8-9 in San Jose. Advancing there from the North Central region — which includes much of the Midwestern U.S. — will be the following three ventures:
- HEVT, a Chicago-based venture commercializing technology developed at the Illinois Institute of Technology to eliminate the need for volatile-priced and environmentally-damaging rare earth metals in high-efficiency motors.
- IrriGreen, a Minneapolis-based company offering an elegantly-simple solution for lawn sprinkling that is much lower cost and uses much less water for more thorough coverage.
- SiNode, a Chicago-based student-led spin-out from Northwestern University working on superior anodes for batteries that promise longer talk-times and shorter recharge times for smartphones.
These ventures were selected from 20 that made pitches to a team of judges (including myself). As you might expect, there was some variation in quality among the 20: the above-noted (and a couple more) were pretty darn interesting, whereas probably ten of the 20 would likely be of interest only to few potential investors.
In addition to the 20 ventures in this year’s regional contest, some winners from the North Central region in prior years of the Cleantech Open participated in an open-house. Three of these especially stood out to me:
- Atmosphere Recovery, from the Minneapolis area, which is selling a unique Raman laser gas analyzer to facilities with industrial gas processes, allowing for much more efficient operations.
- Earth Clean, also from the Minneapolis area, which offers a very promising fire extinguishing material called TetraKO that is far more effective than either water or foam while also being entirely biodegradable.
- Whole Trees, from Wisconsin, which sells components based on small diameter trees to provide cheaper, stronger and more aesthetic structural building systems than steel.
According to several judges who’ve been involved for several years, the progress made by alumni since their participation in the Cleantech Open suggests that they benefited from the rigor involved in participating in a venture competition. So, it will be interesting to see how this year’s winners — HEVT, IrriGreen and SiNode — evolve and appear in future years.
While perhaps not as widely-recognized as other geographic areas, promising cleantech innovation is occurring in the Midwestern U.S. Reflecting the no-nonsense pragmatic ethos of our region, this entrepreneurship is less of the “swing for the fences” variety associated with the bold cleantech gambits made in batteries, electric vehicles, biofuels or solar. But, as many investors have experienced all too painfully, some of the ventures pursuing big ideas in these spaces may have been “bridges too far”. Much better, in my humble opinion, to bite off opportunities that are easier to chew — and that’s what largely seems to be happening here in the Midwest.