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Student startups awarded 200K for clean energy projects

Young entrepreneurs developing energy from wastewater treatment, robots for cleaning solar panels and solar cell films with 20 percent more efficiency took the top prizes at the First Look West (FLoW) regional finals competition, which closed in May. At an awards celebration held at the California Institute of Technology, Stanford Nitrogen Group, Greenbotics and Xite Solar shared $200,000 in prize money.

Professor Harry Atwater, director of Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute, said, “Successful competitions such as this show how universities, working with investors and the business community, are leaders in accelerating innovation flow to the real world, and in launching our future entrepreneurial leaders.”

FLoW represents the Western Region of the Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition. The winning teams from 6 regions across the country will now participate in the national competition in Washington D.C., June 12 and 13, 2012. The awards event was the culmination of a six month competitive process searching for the untapped clean energy innovation that lies in American university labs. In its first year FLoW attracted 83 applicants from 34 universities across 12 states, and saw inventions ranging from new battery materials for portable electronic devices to net energy+ home kits, hydroponic farms and telephone apps for tracking energy use in the home.

At the Regional Awards Celebration, keynoter and Judge Andrew Chung, partner at Khosla Ventures, captured the tone of the competition during an address that touched on the importance of thinking beyond the obvious. “Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be about extrapolating the past, but rather inventing the future,” Chung said. “Startups shouldn’t let the word of the ‘experts’ or conventional ‘wisdom’ constrain them from imagining new possibilities.”

At the FLoW competition, a top panel of judges from Mohr Davidow, Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Sierra Ventures, CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund, the Angeleno Group and Southern California’s Pasadena and Tech Coast Angels were amongst the investor groups to decide on the following awards:

First Place: Stanford Nitrogen Group’s Yaniv Scherson and his team tackled a worldwide pollution problem with engineering smarts that yields a new source of energy while handling a serious waste issue. Stanford Nitrogen Group’s innovative CANDO process not only removes waste nitrogen, but also converts it into a combustible gas that can “turboboost” energy recovery from wastewater treatment systems.

Nitrogen runoff as ammonia accounts for a growing number of “dead zones” in coastal waters, more than 400 around the world, and billions of dollars in economic losses from damaged fisheries and lost tourism. Uncontrolled nitrogen runoff contributes to the swelling burden of wastewater treatment that imposes a 3 percent load on the U.S. energy supply alone. Cleaning up water discharges is often the highest energy expenditure for U.S. municipalities, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of city energy budgets.

At its core CANDO relies on novel combinations of microbes that have the potential to reduce the cost of treating nitrogen by 50 percent while generating nitrous oxide, a new energy source never before considered in the management of wastewater. Limiting nitrogen discharge has become a legislative priority in the U.S. and Europe, creating a growing $1.6 billion annual market for nitrogen disposal processes such as CANDO. Scherson said that the company’s next steps will be to build a pilot facility and begin testing a scaled up version with municipal partners and waste treatment corporations.

Second Place: Greenbotics’ university team from UCLA and Caltech spotted a $3 billion global market opportunity in cleaning dirty solar panels at solar power plants that are currently operating below their peak performance. The company’s cleaning service is centered on a robotic vehicle (GB1) that drives directly on top of rows of panels, brushing panels clean with very little water, no gasoline and minimal human assistance. Greenbotics’ launch market consists of utility-scale PV projects greater than 10 MW in California, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona. This market currently represents 368 MW of installed capacity across 18 plants, and is expected to grow significantly to 20GW of installed capacity across 135 plants by 2015. This annual beachhead market for Greenbotics is $200M.

Third Place: Xite Solar’s UC Berkeley team has developed a new class of solar cells that could provide the long-awaited breakthrough that will make solar a major source of energy production. Solar power currently accounts for just 1 percent of the electrical energy market and one reason is that low-cost, thin film solar cells are somewhat inefficient energy converters.

Xite Solar’s founder Will Regan said that by fine tuning the junctions between the materials comprising today’s commercial thin film cells, Xite can improve efficiencies by 20 to 40 percent. Even more exciting, the technology could also open up the commercial viability of a whole new group of cheap, non-toxic semiconductor materials which will make solar affordable. Altogether, Xite will tap into an estimated addressable world market of $3 to $4 billion for thin film solar cells. The company’s next steps will be to work with thin film manufacturers and other corporate partners to perfect the commercial applications and begin developing prototypes and a low-cost fabrication facility.

Promising Idea: Hawaii’s eHale took the inaugural Promising Idea award given to companies whose business vision has potential but is not quite a ready-to-go business. E-Hale is a Hawaiian alternative design group, integrating sustainable materials, ergonomics and S.E.E. (Spot Energy Enabling)© energy storage units within innovative indoor and outdoor, home and office furniture. The idea behind eHale’s outdoor approach is to integrate photovoltaic cells into the design of furniture that provides a convenient source of stored energy for portable power devices.

In addition to the prize money FLoW’s partners offered contestants experienced mentors, legal start-up packages with firms such as Morrison & Foerster and the opportunity to pitch to investors ready to take action and work with these teams. Partners such as the Cleantech Open and UC Davis’s Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy provide places for FLoW finalists in premier entrepreneurial programs for commercializing green tech innovations. Selected companies will also enjoy access to facilities and services in the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, the city’s new innovation center supporting the cleantech entrepreneur.