Student Cleantech Entrepreneurship in the Buckeye State

On January 29, I spent a day inside a ballroom on The Ohio State University campus in Columbus serving as a judge for the Ohio Clean Energy Challenge, presented by the University Clean Energy Alliance of Ohio and NorTech.  This contest pitted student teams from universities and colleges across Ohio pitching their clean energy business plans, in the hopes of winning $10,000 and advancing to the next step in the National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition conducted by the DOE.

Twelve teams vied for the prize.  Perhaps not surprisingly, reflecting the strong agricultural heritage of the Buckeye state, several of the contestants had a strong biomass or agricultural bent to them.  Somewhat surprisingly, given the thin-film solar capabilities so strongly embedded in the Toledo area, no photovoltaics concepts were promoted.

The winner of the event was Amplified Wind Solutions (AWS), a start-up venture commercializing a technology born in the laboratories of Prof. Majid Rashidi at Cleveland State University (CSU).  As the name connotes, Prof. Rashidi’s technology is an innovative concept for wind energy generation:  using cylindrical towers as a means of channeling higher velocity and higher density wind flows to turbines mounted on the sides of the towers in the zones where the wind has been “amplified” by the tower.  The claim is that such amplification can yield 4-6 times as much energy capture from the wind as a comparable “unamplified” wind turbine.

A “Gen 1” version of Prof. Rashidi’s technology is visible on the CSU campus off of Chester Street, and a “Gen 2” version of the technology is even more visibly deployed atop the right field corner of the home park for the Cleveland Indians, Progressive Field.  AWS has a Gen 3 design up its sleeve that it aims to develop, offering greater simplicity and robustness at a lower manufactured cost.

A key reason underlying the victory of AWS was the strength of the presentation made by its CEO, Niki Zmij.  As is evidenced from this video, Ms. Zmij, an MBA student at CSU, was passionate, clear and confident in her pitch.  Certain other teams were touting very interesting technologies that could be winners in meaningful markets – although their chances for commercial success were far less well-articulated.

Those teams that didn’t win shouldn’t necessarily be discouraged.  It should be noted that AWS missed the cut in the prior year’s challenge, and has subsequently been polishing its story for a year.  With additional time and effort to refine their stories, success may come to the runners-up in future years.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, AWS goes to Chicago on April 4 to compete in the Midwest regional section, being convened by the Clean Energy Trust, aiming to win a $100,000 prize en route to the national finals in June 2013.

All told, I was extremely impressed and encouraged by the commitment to cleantech entrepreneurship being demonstrated by so many of today’s students and tomorrow’s future leaders in Ohio.  I sat humbled in the awareness that I, at a similar age 30 years ago, could not possibly have stood in front of a sizable audience baring my soul by promoting an uncertain business proposition – nor even to have such a risky aspiration as pursuing a professional path that didn’t involve someone paying me a safe salary.

It’s a far different world today, indeed.  And a good thing, too.

It’s NOT the Technologies, Stupid!

Cleantech junkies like myself get seduced by all sorts of neat-o new technological ideas.  But, we need to bear in mind that technology invention is only a part of commercial success — and in fact, arguably not even the most important part.

This perspective is brilliantly put forth in a brief essay called “A History Lesson for the Cleantech Revolution” by Andrew Hargadon, Senior Fellow of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Professor of Entrepreneurship and Technology Management at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California Davis.

It’s a short but great read, with three major points:

  1. Business models are more important than inventions.
  2. Innovation is about connecting, not inventing.
  3. Innovation is action:  learning-by-doing, learning by using. 

Important for those of us in the cleantech community to keep reminding ourselves:  it’s not just the technologies, stupid!