High-Energy Startups: A Report from the Sloan School Tech Trek
“You should visit us more often!” said one of our hosts during the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Massachusetts Tech Trek two weeks ago. The host’s enthusiasm was understandable—the company had just received news of a fresh round of funding in the midst of our visit. But such enthusiasm and energy (pun intended) was clearly evident at all of the firms that we visited as part of the Trek’s energy track on January 12-14, and was a welcome distraction from the economic malaise we keep reading about.
Co-sponsored by the Sloan Energy and Environment Club, the Energy track allowed our group to visit energy-related businesses in the Boston area to learn about firms in different stages and sub-sectors of the energy space. With the economic crisis in play and Barack Obama’s administration taking control, it was definitely an interesting and opportune time to be visiting these companies.
The energy firms we visited covered energy generation and transformation, efficiency and conservation, and consulting and research. In the generation space, we met with firms working on fossil-to-energy, storage, waste-to-energy and solar power. Interestingly, each is currently in different stages of development as a business entity.
Ze-gen, which started with SEED funding in 2005, utilizes a molten metal bath to vaporize construction and demolition and municipal waste to synthesis gas and electricity. Chief operating officer George McMillan said the company’s business model is based on the premise that they can produce energy cheaply even without taking into consideration any carbon offsets, tipping fees, or renewable energy credits. Ze-gen has plans to build its first commercial plant by 2012.
GreatPoint Energy is tackling the controversial problem of utilizing fossil fuels to “cleanly” produce energy. Dan Goldman, GPE’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, told our group that the advantages of GreatPoint’s process are low cost due to the lower temperature catalytic process, and an ability to capture CO2, which can be delivered for oil recovery or geological sequestration. GreatPoint is planning on starting operations on its $30 million feedstock testing facility in Somerset, MA, and signed an agreement with Datang Hyoin Electric Power Company in China to build and operate a plant that will process 1,000 tons per day of feedstock.
Innovative battery maker A123 Systems‘ technology went through multiple phases to reach its current level, said Andy Chu, director of the company’s automotive product line. Chu seemed confident that A123’s diversification into new areas including grid stabilization and airplane starter battery backups will ensure the company’s future success.
There is a small but loyal group of entrepreneurs and thought leaders in the U.S. who are advocating energy efficiency over energy generation. Advanced Electron Beams is one of these. AEB claims that its technology reduces energy usage by 40 to 90 percent in the surface sterilization, air treatment, and advanced curing industries, according to CEO Mitch Tyson. With a Fortune Global 1000 ranking behind them, AEB is seeking Series C funding to take their technology application to the next level.
Remember when Nanotechnology was the “it” word? You’ll be glad to know some of the nano materials have become commercial and are widely used now. Aspen Aerogels manufactures insulation materials that are two to eight times more thermally efficient than convention materials due to their nanoscale properties. Don Young, CEO of Aspen, told us that the firm is concentrating on reaching a reasonable earnings level for 2009 and diversifying into new segments.
The huge inflow of human and financial capital into the energy sector in recent years has necessitated the need for unambiguous information on the viability of technologies and business ideas. The Brattle Group has industry practice groups in most major traditional energy sectors and has developed expertise in pricing carbon and trading emissions. Dean Murphy, a principal at Brattle, felt the new administration should focus on controlling carbon emissions via a carbon tax rather than through the cap-and-trade program.
Lux Research, our last host on the trek, is a strategic advice firm that provides intelligence and consulting services in the nanotech, solar, power, water, and bio-sciences sectors. Lux Research analysts gather critical information by visiting and talking to firms in the specific sectors, according to president Matt Nordan. He emphasized a continuing need for critical analysis as we move to large-scale investing where the tolerance for market and technical risk is low.
Our interactions with so many energetic and exciting entrepreneurs, investors, and thought leaders rejuvenated our group. Leaving the classrooms to witness innovative technologies in person was a rejuvenating experience for me personally. We are looking forward to being part of a revolutionary energy innovation phase in our history.