Use Your Ecomagination

on June 24, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Venture capitalists have repeatedly said they are excited to fund renewables. But they are worried about fledgling companies that have little track record.

GE’s ecomagination Challenge: Powering Your Home may succeed in solving this catch-22 by awarding $63 million to 10 winners, selected from among some 5,000 submissions. The innovation challenge also resulted in 22 new commercial partnerships with GE, all dedicated to smart grid technology and home energy efficiency.

“What a start-up company wants is not only access to money but the ability to scale and get their ideas to market,” said Beth Comstock, GE’s senior vice president and chief managing officer.

If I could change one thing, it would be unleashing the power of the consumers to accelerate innovation.

ecomagination therefore focuses not only on funding innovative projects, but on helping new ventures produce at scale and reach commercialization. GE is using $20 million from the overall project to create a fund dedicated to specifically to scaling and commercializing ideas from the Challenge.

Furthermore, on June 23 with the award winners, ecoimagination announced a partnership with Best Buy that would fast-track the process of bringing the Challenge winners to customers. Two of the winners, VPhase home energy control and Suntulit air conditioning control system, will be made available for retail testing at Best Buy in the near future.

Comstock emphasized that a market customer orientation was critical for new technology start-ups to succeed.

“How can you meet unmet customer needs? That’s what your company and start-up should be focused on day in and day out. Then you have a good shot at being successful,” she said.

Put Your Money Into It

Although many of the ecomagination winners’ technologies have yet to be proved out, Vice President of ecomagination Mark Vachon–like recent similar investors in renewables, from finance firms to Google–insisted that return on investment would surely be strong.

“I think what we’ve learned in this space is that making one singular bet in a place that’s so fast moving is folly,” he said. Investing in many innovative renewables projects was essentially a diversification of bets for the more than 120-year-old company.

But Managing General Partner of RockPort Capital, David Prend, which was among GE’s partners on the Challenge and a co-investor in Project Frog, a green building company, said he expected that payoff may come only in the long term.

“We are talking about very long investment cycles to get to commerciality,” he said.

And without a real push from consumers for energy efficiency, it may take even longer than expected.

“If I could change one thing, Vachon said, “it would be unleashing the power of the consumers to accelerate innovation.” Things change, he said, when consumers demand it. “It’s the consumer that has really been the tipping point.”

GE also partnered with Emerald Technology Ventures, Foundation Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Carbon Trust Venture Capital Partners on this year’s Challenge, which is only a segment of GE’s total $200 million “GE ecomagination Challenge.” This year’s round of financing, which focused on home powering projects, marked the program’s fifth annual contest.

And The Winner Is…

ecomagination also selected five Innovation Award winners that would each receive $100,000 to further develop their technology. Breaking Energy had the chance to meet these winners at an awards event in New York City on Thursday:

1. Suntulit Balance is a California-based home HVAC company that uses demand response and smart grid technology to automatically turn on and off cooling, heating and ventilation systems.

For example, it may detect that a homeowner uses the a room midday when cooling is most expensive and plants are at peak capacity. The system will hyper-cool the room in early morning hours when energy is cheap and then use a fan system later in the day to spread the cool air. When the consumer enters the room, it will already be set at optimal temperature.

Suntulit, which means ‘balance’ in Sanskrit, is one of two technologies that ecomagination selected to be sold on Best Buy shelves, because it may be particularly appealing to consumers.

“Your house shouldn’t be your mother,” Deepinder Singh, Suntulit CTO told Breaking Energy. “It shouldn’t tell you, don’t do the laundry now!”

Singh said Suntulit is unique because unlike previous demand response or smart meter technologies, it works around a consumer’s existing lifestyle habits rather than asking the consumer to adapt.

“You shouldn’t have to be green at the price of being uncomfortable” Singh said.

Vachon told Breaking Energy he thought this technology would be particularly attractive to consumers, who might say: “Geez, I didn’t know that I never go into that room. Well okay, help me with that! I want that in my house right away.”

2. Pythagoras Solar is a California-based solar panel company that has developed an innovative transparent photo-voltaic panel that acts as both a window and an electrical generator. In addition, the panel provides a thermal shading barrier that keep the sun’s heat out of building, ideally allowing them to use less energy for cooling during the summer.

The project is already at commercialization-stage and has been deployed in buildings in Israel and the United States.

According to Udi Paret, vice president of business development and marketing for Pythagoras, the company will announce partnerships later this year with several glass and technology companies that will allow the solar panels to be produced on an even larger scale.

3. E.quinox is a London-based student-run non-profit organization that developed a stand-alone solar photovoltaic kiosk, with a battery box for energy storage, that could be deployed in small villages that are not connected to an electrical power grid.

So far, the group has deployed these kiosks in both Rwanda and Tanzania but it hopes to expand to villages in other undeveloped countries.

“We’re trying the find the solution that electrifies the world,” said E.quinox Vice Chairman Daniel Choudhary.

4. PlotWatt is an upcoming greentech, eco-geeky business that developed a cloud-based energy dashboard designed to offer homeowners recommendations in regards to their appliance level energy cost.

The PlotWatt Energy Dashboard is an advanced machine algorithm that uses smart meter data to determine patterns energy usage patterns.

“There is great value to the data we are collecting,” said PlotWatt Energy Analyst Daniel Arneman. He explained that with easy-to-manage data about their usage patterns, consumers would be able to save as much as 50% on their energy bills.

5. Xergy Incorporated is a green cooling technology company that uses electro-checmial refrigeration, known as Kuel-cell technology, to transform refrigerator use.

According to President and CEO Bamdad Bahar, the fuel-cell technology allows consumers to use the same refrigerators they are already using, but with fewer emissions.

“We want to inform our consumers that their is an efficient and noiseless option,” Bahar told Breaking Energy.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Stephanie Spanarkel.

Photo: Five Innovation Award winners, some holding their winning technology.