The Hub of Green Inventions: Clean Tech Open

EarthzineArticles, Original, Sections, Sustainability, Technology

Read Natasha Chen’s second article on the Clean Tech Open here.

Dennis Murphy

Dennis Murphy

“I heard someone say on the news this morning that entrepreneurs are to bring us out of this recession. And with the help of the utilities’ social capital, we hope to help you guys do that. No pressure.”

Laughter erupted in a conference room after that comment from Robyn Zander, program manager of the California Public Utilities’ Technology Resource Incubator Outreach, or TRIO. She and fellow commissioners responsible for bringing in new, energy efficient technologies to public utilities were invited as guest speakers at a Clean Tech Open breakfast in Palo Alto, Calif. on Wednesday. California Clean Tech Open, an organization sponsoring a business competition for entrepreneurs in clean technology inventions, launches their 2009 contest on March 19. The goal is to help innovators go from a green idea to full-fledged business by connecting these contestants with mentors, potential customers and potential investors. Semi-finalists from this competition will go up against those from the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains regions, and finalists compete for the nationwide prizes in October.

Rex Northen, the executive director of Clean Tech Open, said, “We are the organization that’s built the largest business competition in our space, and what we say by business competition or clean tech, is that we’re not just here to get their business plans written. We’re here to help them with creating an entire viable, fundable business out of what in most cases is a very small company. So we start with people who are in an embryonic stage‰Û_and we give them all the components of a real business.”

Clean Tech Open is expecting as many as 200 team applications for the California division, which will be whittled down to 45 semi-finalists. Those teams, along with the semi-finalists from the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains competitions, will receive all the benefits of mentorship and guidance Then twelve finalists in six categories go to the national final competition, which will be held in San Francisco this fall. The six categories are in Air, Water & Waste, Green Building, Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, Transportation, and Smart Power (including smart grid applications and battery storage). Winners will receive what Clean Tech Open calls a “startup-in-a-box,” $100,000 worth of cash and services donated by sponsors to help the entrepreneurs launch their businesses.

Previous winners have included Nila Lighting, now responsible for lighting many of Hollywood’s blockbuster scenes. “[Nila] is an LED based lighting system. If you consider what goes on in a Hollywood studio, these are high intensity, heavy duty lights in the major studios in Hollywood‰Û_well you see they’re very very hot,” said Northen. “So what they do is they have an LED array, a very bright LED array that takes all their problems away. You can actually put your hand on this thing. And if all the movie studios in Hollywood were to use the Nila Lighting system, that would remove an entire power plant in a grid.”

Winner of last year’s sustainability prize and runner-up for the green building category, Dennis Murphy is the president and founder of GroundSource Geothermal, a company that enables drilling technologies for ground source heat pumps. “What we’re working on is technology to simplify the adoption of ground source heat pumps, which have been long considered the most effective way to heat and cool buildings. That was a joint assessment by the EPA and DOE back in ’93,” Murphy said, addressing the entrepreneurs in the audience. “The problem has been, how do you do that? It’s essentially creating heat sinks in the ground. That involves drilling; it’s kind of a mess. So we’re working on that part ‰ÛÒ we’re working on making better holes in the ground.”

GroundSource Geo officially launched in September 2008 as a spin-off of a different company called Potter Drilling, and Murphy won the sustainability prize from Clean Tech Open in November. His company anticipates a hybrid franchise model in which they serve Northern California residential clients and then offer that to regional partners around North America. Murphy said, “One thing I can say is that no matter how well versed you are in a certain technology or field of study, that no one really knows everything about everything, especially when it comes to starting a business.”

A crowd of green entrepreneurs competed in the California Green Tech Open (Photos by Natasha Chen)

A crowd of green entrepreneurs competed in the California Green Tech Open (Photos by Natasha Chen)

That’s why Murphy said he was extremely appreciative of the support Clean Tech Open gave him in starting his business. Clean Tech Open is on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, but Murphy calls it an “old-fashioned social network” of people sharing common interests and goals. He especially values the guidance he received from Ron Long, a business model strategist for emerging clean technologies and the mentor matched to this project.

Long said that this year’s political climate affects that of entrepreneurship: “The new stimulus program is a perfect match for bringing the funding and the expertise in the green tech environment to help emerging businesses.” In regard to his own GroundSource Geo, Murphy added, “The stimulus package recently includes a 30 percent tax credit for residential heat pump installations, because they recognize the power of the demand reduction involved. It’s even better in bigger buildings, in commercial institutions. It’s basically a replacement for furnace and air conditioning as usual.”

Northen recognized that this year’s competition occurs during a time of economic distress, and although none in attendance claimed to be investors, he has faith in the stimulus package in encouraging clean technology innovation.

In particular, Northen said he hopes to see leaps in development of smart power. “There’s a lot of money in the stimulus for smart grid applications,” he said. “Applications that plug into a smart grid will be very, very important. There is a saying that if you brought Alexander Graham Bell into today’s world, and showed him today’s telephone systems, he wouldn’t recognize them. But if you brought back Thomas Edison, who was one of the founding fathers of the grid, and get him to look at what we have today, he would recognize most of the components. So our grid has not moved on in a very long time. It’s very ancient technology.”

If necessity is the mother of invention, those at the Clean Tech Open breakfast made clear the great need for their products, currently in infancy but perhaps in full-fledged form by year’s end.

Read Natasha Chen’s second article on the Clean Tech Open here