Greenstart’s Second Batch of Startups Has “Digital Cleantech” Focus

5/8/12Follow @wroush

Startups with ideas for improving energy efficiency in the transportation, construction, and utility industries got their first big chance to promote their businesses at last week’s semi-annual demo day at Greenstart, San Francisco’s cleantech startup accelerator.

It was the second such event at Greenstart, which was established last summer and hatched its first batch of companies in December. For the most part, Greenstart’s 2011 graduates were working on big challenges ranging from construction materials to biofuels to smart electrical sockets; only one, an online game called Wa.tt, was a pure software play. But Greenstart founder Mitch Lowe kicked off last week’s proceedings by offering a redefined focus for the accelerator, one that hews much closer to the kind of software- and Internet-related problems that can be solved on startup time. “Our mission is to accelerate digital cleantech,” Lowe said.

It’s a change Lowe foreshadowed in a February interview, back when the current class of startups had just entered the program. Startups have a better chance of making a dent in the energy business if they focus on distribution and efficiency— areas where software innovation can make a difference—rather than energy generation, Lowe said. “There are some business models where you can iterate and learn more quickly,” he said.

Greenstart’s three-month program is all about that iteration, with guidance from a network of mentors experienced in the energy, investing, and product design. A new addition this time around: David Merkoski, the former executive creative director at Frog Design, who was brought onto advise companies about branding and user-interface questions. In remarks before Wednesday’s startup pitches, Merkoski said “design tools” and “design thinking” can help startups solve not just product problems, but business and strategy problems. “This is where Greenstart separates from other accelerators,” he said.

The five companies chosen for the spring term were drawn from a pool from 150 applicants, according to Lowe. “It is harder to get into Greenstart than it is to get into MIT,” he said. “This is the cream of the crop.”

Here are thumbnail introductions to the five companies, based both on their presentations and one-to-one interviews with founders (except in the case of Scoot Networks, whose CEO, Michael Keating, said he didn’t have time to speak with me).

GELI 

GELI founder and CEO Ryan Wartena. Photo courtesy of Greenstart.

GELI—the name is an acronym for Growing Energy Labs Incorporate—hopes to become the leading software provider in a market that doesn’t quite exist yet: software for grid-scale batteries. Founder and CEO Ryan Wartena, who earned a PhD in electrochemical engineering at Georgia Tech, points out that companies have invested $10 billion over the past eight years building new types of energy storage devices for the grid, and that they’re expected to spend another $30 billion over the next decade. Yet the renewable energy business is plagued by a daily imbalance between supply and demand. “Imagine you have solar on your house but you want to make a margarita at night,” Wartena says by way of explanation. If battery makers and utilities could manage energy storage devices using a common stack of open-source software for communications and power conversion, such imbalances could be smoothed out more efficiently and profitably.

GELI’s operating system can talk to various appliances and power conversion systems and lets utilities and facility owners monitor demand and sell energy back into the grid at optimal times. The main customers for the software, Wartena, thinks, will be battery manufacturers. “What we are delivering is software that will allow them to monetize multiple value streams for their batteries,” he says. “It’s great that everyone is trying to make a cheaper battery, but they’re missing a piece. If we do this open source project, we can get developers building applications so that [battery makers and owners] can participate in the market for load management.”

kWhOURS

KWhOURS founder and CEO Colin Davis says his passion is for “making it easier for people to do the right thing.” In the construction business, there are lots of ways today to do the right thing when it comes to making buildings more energy-efficient. But the first step is always an “energy audit,” and Davis noticed while working as a consultant for an energy operations company that the process is by no means easy. “You wander around a building with a notepad for two weeks writing a few hundred pages of notes, and then you transfer that manually into an Excel spreadsheet and run different scenarios, and then the data dies and the next person to come long has to start from scratch.”

kWhOURS founder and CEO Colin Davis. Photo courtesy of Greenstart.

The big idea at kWhOURS s is to supply engineering service companies with tablet-based software for conducting commercial building assessments. The software, called Field, is already being used to run audits of everything from 7-Elevens to military bases. “We guide people through the process,” Davis says. “We standardize it, and you get it in reusable, digital form.” He claims big engineering firms will be able to save millions of dollars a year using the software.

The Cambridge, MA-born startup is already two years old, and has been selling a Windows-based version of Field for more than a year. But with Merkoski’s help, Davis used his time in Greenstart to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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