Greentown Startups Work Around VCs, Find Niches in Cleantech

5/8/14Follow @gthuang

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have left the early-stage energy investing scene in droves. “Venture capitalists are pulling away from cleantech, but corporate partners are moving closer,” Rein says.

Ian Bowles, a co-founder and managing director of Boston-based WindSail Capital Group, would agree with that assessment. “I tend to see the center of gravity for cleantech having shifted from new technologies toward deployment and installation,” he says.

Bowles, who was Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs from 2007 to 2011, made the transition to startup investing just as many VCs were getting out of energy. WindSail has backed local companies such as Next Step Living, XL Hybrids, and FastCAP Systems. Their common thread? “For us as a lender, we need at least initial revenue and early commercial sales in order to invest. Generally we won’t lend if there is technology risk,” Bowles says.

Greentown startups would probably debate how much technology risk they entail—but they are also proving themselves in the field. While a few companies like Altaeros and Oscomp are well on their way, others are blazing their own trails.

Dynamo micro-turbine (image: Dynamo Micropower)Dynamo Micropower, led by CEO Jason Ethier, is developing a new kind of micro-turbine (pictured) that can produce electricity for oil and gas applications. Its technology is designed to be smaller, cheaper, and lower-maintenance than other portable power sources. Dynamo has gotten money from grants, angel investors, cleantech competitions, and startup accelerators MassChallenge and Surge (in Houston). The startup has been working with pilot customers—focusing initially on shale wells—and seems to be on its way to deploying its product more widely.

Grove Labs is a young startup founded by MIT alums Jamie Byron and Gabe Blanchet. They are building technologies for urban farming: think Web-connected sensors and control systems for monitoring water, light, and other environmental conditions. (They were motivated by their experience running an aquaponic vegetable garden in their fraternity house.)

Grove Labs (image: JP Ruth, Xconomy)Grove just graduated from the R/GA connected devices accelerator in New York in March (see photo). It’s a little early to talk about customers and product strategy, but what’s interesting is that the technology and markets may have finally caught up to the old concept of wireless sensor networks for monitoring agriculture and other applications. Indeed, ag-tech is an emerging focus of companies at Greentown, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a startup called Loci Controls recently moved from the Boston hardware accelerator Bolt to Greentown. Led by MIT grads Andrew Campanella and Melinda Hale, Loci is developing hardware and software to make harvesting energy from landfill gas (methane) more efficient and automated. This is another example of wireless sensors and control software being applied to optimization problems in energy and the environment. The company recently raised $765,000 in seed funding from CommonAngels, Launch Capital, and other angel investors, and has been doing field testing around New England.

Perhaps Rob Day, a cleantech investor and partner with Black Coral Capital, sums up the state of these startups best.

“What makes Greentown Labs great is that they’re working together to be able to find low-capital-need pathways to commercialization, which means they don’t need those VC checks, at least at the early stage,” Day says. “Completely throws out the old ‘cleantech is always capital intensive’ canard.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • Jerry Jeff

    Sounds like a cool place, and I wish I’d made it to their open house this week. The focus on deployment and addressing tractable problems is both good and bad. It’s great to see some companies getting traction and solving problems in the real world. On the other hand, the *really big* problems aren’t going to solve themselves…