Cleantech Venture Competitions

On March 1 in Chicago, I attended the Clean Energy Challenge, a business plan competition among energy tech ventures from the Midwest, convened by the Clean Energy Trust.

With $250,000 of prizes sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Challenge was the culmination of several weeks of screening and coaching of over 100 ventures from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio, organized in two flights of competition:  start-up companies and student-run spin-outs from universities. 

The winners from each of these two categories were Hyrax Energy (start-up company) and NuMat Technologies (spin-out from Northwestern University).  From my perspective, these were good choices by the judges — most of whom were from venture capital firms. 

Frankly, Hyrax was far and away the most compelling of the start-ups, whereas NuMat had much stronger competition from its student-led spin-out peers.  I’m still trying to decide whether the student team pitches were generally better because they were involved in more coaching, were more receptive to coaching, or were less encumbered by the still-to-be-discovered challenges of actually running as businesses.

Onwards and upwards:  the student portion of the Clean Energy Challenge is in essence a regional qualifier for a national tournament, the DOE’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, to be held this summer.

Also being held this summer, and not just limited to clean energy ventures, is the Cleantech Open, another business plan tournament that involves bigger prizes and leads even to a global competition in the fall.  (The Cleantech Open currently appears to be lacking a Midwest region — something I hope to be a part of remedying for future years.)  If you want to get into this contest, entry applications are due May 8.

While the cash prizes involved in these contests won’t make or break a new venture, the credibility associated with winning is very valuable.  Even those that don’t win benefit from the exposure to investors and, maybe more to the point, from the discipline of running the gauntlet.

Let the games begin!