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Startups connect to industry giants at Cleantech Innovation Bridge

June 30, 2016

When electricity gets tight, clean-tech startup Go Electric has technology its founder says can help utilities stabilize parts of the grid without requiring customers to shut things down.


“The utilities have another choice if they don’t want to turn things off,” said president and CEO Lisa Laughner. “But we’re a small company from Anderson, Ind. It’s hard to get the word out.”

Go Electric was one of 18 startups from 11 states that pitched to three corporations Wednesday at Clean Energy Trust’s Cleantech Innovation Bridge at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center.


The private pitch event, in its second year, put six startups each in front of executives from Naperville-based Nicor Gas, Ohio-based utility company American Electric Power and Chicago-based food processing and commodities trading corporation Archer Daniels Midland Company.


Other companies that pitched included Conectric, a startup from San Diego, Calif. that built a platform to map hotel occupancy and control energy loads, and Colorado-based OptiEnz Sensors, which makes sensors that measure chemicals in water.


Clean Energy Trust and Freshwater Advisors organized the event, and sourced the 18 startups to match with the participating corporations.


The goal is to give emerging clean-energy companies a chance to connect to industry giants, who are increasingly looking to startups for innovation, said Clean Energy Trust CEO Erik Birkerts.


The corporations could enter into a licensing agreement, run a pilot program, invest in or even acquire a startup, Birkerts said. They’re not required to work with the pitching startups, but they must give feedback.


“If they take the process seriously, they’re going to see things that are very valuable to their companies,” he said.

Since Birkerts took over as CEO of the clean-tech accelerator in January, he’s made a push to help startups get past the often-deadly pilot phase. Earlier this month, Clean Energy Trust helped launch the Cleantech Pilots program, which connects startups to 12 colleges and universities where they can test their budding technologies.


Meena Beyers, managing director of customer and partner engagement at Nicor, said the company wants to work with startups that can reduce gas usage and save customers money.


“We look at new technologies like the ones that were pitched to us today and we’re able to test the products, validate the savings and, if they really do save natural gas, then we can connect the technologies to the customers through (rebate program) EnergySmart,” she said.


If Nicor decides none of the startups that pitched are good fits, they’ll look for other ways to work with them, such as through a partner utility company, Beyers said.


The startups that pitched Wednesday should receive feedback in a couple of weeks. Last year, the Cleantech Innovation Bridge connected Chicago-based clean energy company Invenergy to SparkCognition, a startup based in Austin, Texas, that helps energy companies predict equipment failure.


SparkCognition plugs data on Invenergy’s wind turbines into an algorithm that can predict if certain components of the turbine will fail. That knowledge saves Invenergy time and money, said John Majewski, vice president of asset management.


Clean Energy Trust often works closely with Invenergy. The former CEO, Amy Francetic ⇒, left Clean Energy Trust in December and later joined Invenergy as its senior vice president of new ventures and corporate affairs.


Invenergy piloted SparkCognition’s technology on one of its wind farms in Texas, Majewski said. It now has an enterprise agreement with the startup, and is using its technology on 1,100 of its wind turbines all over the country.


“That’s (more than a thousand) turbines worth of data with years of history,” Majewsky said. “They’re using our data to improve their algorithms, and in turn, we benefit from the improvement of their algorithm.”

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