Backstage at Energy Idol: A Glimpse Behind the Scenes of the 200K Energy Prize

5/12/08

Last Thursday, I met Chad Lovell, a first-year student at MIT, standing in a small lobby on the third floor of a State Street office building in downtown Boston. It was the day of the semifinals of MIT’s Clean Energy Entpreneurship Prize competition, which carries a $200,000 award for the best business plan.

Lovell, one of the organizers, was welcoming the teams that had made it so far. He seemed quite at ease, especially when one bears in mind he also was a member of one of the competing teams, MIT-based Hundred, aiming to produce a lightweight four-seat car capable of going 100 miles per gallon of gas.

Wearing two hats at the same time meant that Lovell had to wait outside in the walkway while his teammates made their pitch behind closed doors to one of the judging panels. Yes, he admitted, not being able to take part in the presentation after all the effort he and his teammates had put into the project felt a bit awkward.

“It’s been a lot of work, we’ve spent hours and hours and hours on our business plan’” Lovell said. “Ideally, during your first year I think you should just get involved with organizing the competition and learn how things work. But when I got such a great opportunity, no way that I wasn’t to going to participate with this team.”

The mechanics of the 200K energy competition are somewhat intricate; one indicator of this complexity is the sheer number of participants in the semi-finals, 20 teams in all. That’s just as many as there are soccer teams in the whole of Britain’s Premier League.

As things would turn out (more on this below), two teams would also be in the race for that other MIT business plan contest, the 100K Entrepreneurship Competition, something you can only enter with an MIT team member on board.

The semifinals were scheduled to continue the major part of the afternoon. I wasn’t allowed to sit in on the team presentations, so like Chad Lovell, I spent my time in the lobby and the hallways. Here, the atmosphere felt a bit like a theater audition, or maybe even back-stage at American Idol. The teams, mostly radiating confidence, were speaking among themselves, unwrapping signs and unrolling posters, talking over their pitches in hushed voices one last time, wishing each other luck before they went to meet the judge panels in private.

The suit factor seemed to be in reverse proportion to the entrants’ age—the young students generally dressed in dark business attire, while their older competitors often adhered to classic academic dress code and flaunted sports jackets and slightly crumpled shirts.

On Friday, after due deliberation, the judges announced the five finalists: Catalyzed Combustion Technologies, Covalent Solar, FloDesign Wind Turbine, NanoPur, and Sequesco (No, the Hundred didn’t make it this time, but who knows, they might grab the $10 Million Automotive X Prize instead). The winner will be named tomorrow.

The five remaining contenders are a mixed lot. They range from barely out of the idea stage to projects well on their way to market. On one end there is NanoPur, one of the MIT student teams that’s trying to develop and commercialize a new desalination technology using membranes of carbon nanotubes. “We think that we will lower the cost by 30 percent compared with the technology that is used today,” said team member Vanessa Green. “But yes, we are in an early stage, we’re hoping to start bench-scale production of the membranes this summer.”

By contrast, Stan Kowalski, CEO of FloDesign, of Wilbraham, MA, says he already has orders for his new wind turbine. If the normal three-bladed turbine looks like some kind of huge airplane propeller, then Kowalski’s variety is more akin to a turbojet fan. It is placed inside a shroud, has a smaller diameter, lots of blades, and runs at a much higher speed than the usual windmill. Instead of a contraption with 30-yard-long blades, you get a compact unit that can be transported in a container on a single truck.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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