Through technical expertise, funding and education, the Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust accelerates the go-to-market process for green innovations.
By Rick Carter, Executive Editor
Amy Francetic, CEO of Chicago’s Clean Energy Trust (CET), calls herself a “science junkie.” The entrepreneur and investor says she’s spent her entire career working alongside scientists and engineers, but not being a trained scientist, “my contribution is to help these people come up with a business approach for what they do.”
To make that happen, Francetic and two partners (investor Nicholas Pritzker and Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky) formed the Clean Energy Trust in 2010 as a source of funding and technical expertise for sound sustainable ideas. The Trust’s mission: “to bring to market solutions that can make the nation’s energy initiatives more environmentally sound and more competitive internationally,” she says. Though not the only such organization in the U.S., CET is one with an exclusive focus on the Midwest, an area whose expertise Francetic feels has been largely untapped. “And a lot of the technology solutions coming out of the Midwest can be scaled up across the country and across the world,” she says. In its short life, the CET has already supported development of many green inventions. They include a bearing reliability sensor; an at-home method for filling a vehicle with natural gas; an airborne drone that remotely monitors wind-turbine functionality; and an energy-saving polarized window film. Many others are in the pipeline.
CET’s 12-member, Chicago-based staff gets much of its power from nearly 140 partners and sponsors in seven key groups: research/university; corporations; government (city, state, federal and international); professional services (accounting, communications and similar); banks and investors; foundations; and trade groups. Support typically takes the form of funding and/or technical expertise from a diverse mix that includes big players like the Argonne National Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy, private energy companies (Excelon, ComEd, BP Alternative Energy), service and retail corporations (United Airlines, Hyatt, Walgreens) and manufacturers (General Electric, Dow Chemical, SC Johnson), as well as the U.S. Small Business Administration, the City of Chicago and many others. All share a strong interest in either improving sustainability or investing in ideas that can make money—or both.
CET’s power trio
CET divides its effort into thirds: technical assistance, financial aid and education/advocacy. The starting point is often through technical assistance, which CET offers free to innovators and entrepreneurs as a way to gauge idea viability.
“We provide mentors and technical assistance to the entrepreneurs and scientists who approach us,” says Francetic. “We’ll match someone who has a business idea with someone who has technology expertise in that area as well as maybe someone with business expertise, and we’ll help them grow their business.” They might also simply provide feedback.
The second tier of CET’s mission addresses the finances necessary to bring ideas to life and take them to market. Its most visible financial effort is the Clean Energy Challenge, an annual event that invites submission of innovative sustainable prototypes and projects for independent judging. At this year’s April event, CET awarded $350,000 to winners across six categories (refer to the Sidebar below).
The Challenge receives about 100 entries each year, which CET narrows to less than 20 for competition. To raise money for it and CET’s other projects, Francetic spends most of her time meeting with current and potential sponsors. She is now raising money for a new fund called the Clean Energy Impact Fund that will bring more capital to early-stage ideas. “We’re often the first money in to some of these ideas,” Francetic says, “and CET is willing to take on very risky investment opportunities and try to fund them so the market can eventually take over.” To date, the group has funneled $740,000 in award money and $5 million in services to Midwestern entrepreneurs.
CET’s third tier—education and advocacy—has already helped make more sense of the ever-expanding, but largely uncharted world of sustainability for anyone interested.
“When we began, there was no database or list of all the clean-energy companies,” says Francetic. “That made it difficult for us to describe the sector and explain it to lawmakers when we were advocating for certain policies regarding how many jobs or companies might be affected. So we started measuring this on our own. It’s now available online at www.thecleanenergyexchange.org where anyone can access it.”
The Clean Energy Exchange site includes sustainability news, notice of funding awards and information about the availability of special incentives and grants.
CET also advocates for pro-sustainability legislation. Though the group is limited in this effort by its tax-exempt, nonprofit (501c3) status, “we can do a lot of education around particular policy issues,” says Francetic. “We’ll often bring business leaders to speak with the lawmakers. They’re eager to hear from the CEOs and chief technology officers and the heads of engineering, especially from the smaller companies who usually don’t have someone to set up those meetings. We do that.”
Bringing ideas to life
To fine-tune a new idea or design, then fund, manufacture and market it is, of course, not a simple process. CET’s ability to work through the inevitable complications and roadblocks hinges not just on great ideas and its partner network, but also on a level of commitment from inventors and creators.
Students who wish to enter the Clean Energy Challenge, for example, must first form a company to do so. “This makes it easier for operating agreements and legal issues,” explains Chief Technology Officer and Sr. Vice President Jason Zielke. “This way, we’re giving money to a company and not a person. So just in the process of going through the Challenge each year, we see 20 new companies created.” Entrepreneurs who receive assistance from CET are also asked “to abide by certain codes and report back to us on their progress,” says Zielke. In turn, CET keeps their ideas confidential.
Of the approximately 70 sustainable concepts CET has supported to date, some are flying high (such as a Houston, TX-based maker of a waterproof, portable solar-powered LED light) and some are still evolving. “Not all have yet achieved the milestones or successes they hoped,” says Zielke, “but our mission is to accelerate the growth. We’re not in the business of picking winners. We are in the business of picking the best people to work with.” Adds Francetic: “We can’t take our staff time to focus on one idea. We’re really trying to support the ecosystem, so we’re better off at matchmaking and making introductions.”
Rapid development of the sustainable-product marketplace is also changing the types of submissions CET receives. “We are seeing a new maturity in early-stage products,” says Zielke. “People have realized you have to do more than just software.” Where entrepreneurs once tried to build companies “in the space known to them,” he says, “they’re now much more quickly connected with industry” thanks to the efforts of CET and similar groups. “CET accelerates the connections to sector experts and experienced industry leaders to bring them up to speed in the new markets they’re focused on,” he says. “They get the feedback they need about what’s actually required to develop a product and sell it in the energy space.”
The trend helped shape the 2013 Clean Energy Challenge, CET’s third. “This year we had the most tangible products and services yet,” says Francetic, who adds that because “people understand this better” than ideas or theory, media coverage was better, too. Tangible submissions included two electric bikes, the airborne drone and the easy-to-demonstrate solar-powered light.
CET is not just a matchmaker. As partner to some of the world’s greatest centers of scientific research, the group is a front-line participant in key clean-tech developments. Its staff meets regularly with scientists at Argonne National Laboratory (Lemont, IL), at Purdue and Northwestern Universities, and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, CA), among other top locations. Such meetings are “super experiences,” says Francetic, “because you get to interact with the scientists and hear their passion for their ideas and be in the lab to see what they’re doing. It helps us shape our view of the future.”
Research projects currently underway among CET partners involve aviation biofuel, advanced water-use strategies and waste-to-energy, as well as a high-profile effort to boost battery-storage capabilities for electric vehicles and the grid. On that front, CET was asked to join a new initiative called the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR) at the Argonne National Laboratory. Funded through a $120 million Department of Energy grant, JCESR brings together four national labs, five Midwestern research universities and four industry partners. “We’re one of the industry partners [with Dow Chemical, Applied Materials and Johnson Controls],” says Francetic, “and our role is to commercialize the resulting science. This is a unique situation for us because not only are we partners with this big initiative, we’re the exclusive commercialization partner. They’re going to be birthing all these great ideas for energy storage, and we will take one and help create a company around it.”
Another great idea also has CET’s attention. The group met with a startup called RedWave Energy (Wheaton, IL), which was formed to develop a nanoantenna-based process that creates electricity from industrial waste heat. The company has proven the process in the lab, says Zielke, adding that its effort “is the first of this type that’s come to me that didn’t seem like a science project.”
CET does not have a formal relationship with RedWave, but is ready to put its resources to work for the new company as part of its “open-door” policy for helping those with impactful ideas. “This is a far-reaching technology that could have major ramifications,” says Zielke. “You get on the exhaust stream of a big chemical or coal plant, for example, and if these nanoantennas can actually create electricity from that waste heat, it will be a good thing. That waste heat is almost free.”
To learn more about the Clean Energy Trust and Clean Energy Challenge, visit cleanenergytrust.org.
Meet The Clean Energy Challenge 2013 Winners
The Clean Energy Challenge is the Clean Energy Trust’s (CET) annual competition that allows entrepreneurs with sustainable-product companies at different stages of development to compete for funding. The following winners were announced at CET’s third Challenge event, held April 4, 2013, in Chicago:
$100,000 Early Stage Challenge Grand Prize: — LuminAID Lab (luminaidlab.com), of Houston, TX, for its lightweight, ship-flat solar-powered light designed to fulfill the need for light in natural-disaster situations. The company has sold more than 30,000 units to date. (Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy [USDOE], the Early Stage Challenge is for early-stage companies located in the Midwest. Clean Energy Trust administers the competition and will also provide mentorship to each
$100,000 Student Challenge Grand Prize —Bearing Analytics, of Purdue University (purdue.edu), for its temperature- and vibration-sensing solution for industrial bearings. The technology allows users to predict bearing failure before it happens.(Also sponsored by the USDOE, this competition is for students at colleges and universities in the Midwest who are interested in developing a clean-energy business.)
$50,000 Chicago Lakeside Prize — SmarterShade (smartershade.com), of South Bend, IN, for its film system for windows that controls light transmission, privacy, clarity and reflection. (This prize is sponsored by McCaffery Interests, Inc., a Chicago-based real estate developer. )
$20,000 Breaking Barriers in Cleantech Award — Amplified Wind Solutions, of Cleveland State University (csuohio.edu), for its
wind-amplification system that can produce up to six times more electricity than a typical wind turbine.
The system has an application in the telecommunications industry to power remote cell-phone towers and equipment. (The Breaking Barriers prize is sponsored by ComEd Co., an Illinois-based utility, and CET.)
$10,000 Invenergy Renewable Idea Prize — SkySpecs (skyspecs.com), of the University of Michigan, for its lightweight, modular, scalable system for general-purpose aerial data collection. (This prize is sponsored by Invenergy, LLC, a Chicago-based developer, owner and operator of power-generation facilities in North America and Europe.)
$10,000 Judges’ Choice Award — Ornicept (ornicept.com), of Ann Arbor, MI, for its natural-resource data-surveying software that analyzes endangered-bird migration patterns to help wind developers comply with siting regulations. (The Judge’s Choice Award is a special prize that was created and funded by the this year’s panel of Clean Energy Challenge judges.)