Cleantechies Schmooze With the Gov, Compete for Cash as Three Regional Finalists Go National

10/30/09Follow @xconomy

Money may be tight for aspiring cleantech entrepreneurs in a downturn, but they got a little cash and some precious attention for their ideas last night. Gov. Chris Gregoire showed up to mingle at the ACT Theatre in Seattle with about a dozen entrepreneurial semi-finalists who were gathered to compete at the first Clean Tech Open business plan competition in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of these people clearly had practiced to get this busy woman’s attention.

Burt Hamner, founder of Seattle-based Hydrovolts, told the Governor a story about how he’s gotten orders from a dozen countries for his floating turbine system that generates hydropower in waterways like canals and rivers. He told his story with gusto, and he told one memorable anecdote about how he won’t quite go to all ends of the Earth to make it succeed.

“One of the orders was from Somalia,” Hamner told the Governor. “I said ‘I’ll mail you one, but I’m not getting off a plane in Somalia.’ ” Gregoire laughed and nodded. (The U.S. State Department recommends Americans avoid the place because of terrorist activity).

It was fun to watch these entrepreneurs compete for the attention of VIPs, one of the fundamental skills of any entrepreneur. This was something they worked hard on during the past seven months of competition, as they were drilled on their business plans during weekly meetings. Last night’s event narrowed down the field to three finalists, who received $25,000 prizes composed of cash and in-kind services, and a chance to compete in the national finals in San Francisco on Nov. 17.

Since March, the entrepreneurs have been getting regular feedback from the judges on how to sharpen their business plans—and the group as a whole has made major strides in this department , according to one of the judges, Gregg Semler, a managing director with Portland, OR-based Pivotal Investments. He says that Pivotal, a $17 million fund that focuses entirely on cleantech investing in the Northwest, now considers three or four of the companies worthy of its “watch list” as potential investments.

“They generally started with a passion for their technology, but they hadn’t really talked to customers yet,” Semler says. “They’ve learned how to answer who their customer is, what the market looks like, and where the best opportunities are. They didn’t have that at the beginning.”

Here are the three companies that made the cut last night and will advance to the nationals, with and a little bit about what they do.

HydroVolts. Sure enough, Hamner got the attention of the judges just like he did with the Governor. The company says its floating turbines are easy to install and operate, don’t need dams, and provide a return on investment in less than five years. Rachel Tompa described the technology in some depth for us back in May.

Green Lite Motors. This Portland, OR-based company has a vision of making commuter vehicles that get 100 miles per gallon. They are supposed to combine the stability, safety, and comfort of a car with the parking maneuverability, express lane privileges, and fun of a motorcycle. We included this company in our Oregon cleantech cluster story back in March.

LivinGreen Materials. This Seattle company is developing new dye-sensitized crystals that will boost the efficiency of converting sunlight into electricity in solar panels by more than 50 percent, and lower the cost per watt of operating solar panels by 40 percent. Eric Schwartz had a detailed feature on this company for us back in August.

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