From solar-in-a-suitcase to super-efficient irrigation systems, my time at the CleanTech Open’s North Central awards show proved that the U.S. has no shortage of innovators, entrepreneurs, or passion. I came away feeling hopeful about our future, patriotic about the diversity of our country, and humbled by the perseverance of our entrepreneurs.
The CleanTech Open is a network of thousands of professional volunteers who find, mentor and fund the best and brightest cleantech start-ups in the U.S. It’s the world’s largest accelerator for companies addressing our most pressing energy, environmental and economic needs. Since its inception, it’s worked with nearly 600 organizations, 80 percent of which remain viable today, and has raised more than a half billion dollars in external capital.
Hailing from Indianapolis to Fargo, the North Central entrepreneurs had solutions for everything from large-scale fertilizer applications and more cost-effective solar power to residential planning and superior battery technology. Many of the companies I spoke with were already up and running, and sought additional funding to scale-up their product or service.
The North Central Regional finalists will move on to the national competition in Silicon Valley and the chance to receive $250,000. The three finalists were:
- IrriGreen is a landscape-irrigation company with a sprinkler design that cuts installation time and water use in half by using digital technology.
- SiNode has developed a new type of battery with significantly improved energy capacity and charge speed using Nano-composite systems.
- HEVT makes advanced electric motor technologies to foster the faster adoption of electric transportation.
The sustainability award for the company that best embodied the triple bottom line approach went to Barasa, which has a patented process for converting industrial, organic waste into topsoil.
I visited with a few other companies that were particularly interesting:
LandMentor has developed ultra-intuitive software for designing sustainable communities, taking into account environmental factors that traditional design software doesn’t recognize.
Peppermint Energy has designed what looks like solar power in a suitcase. The simple design only weighs 25 pounds and has an outlet into which you could plug a TV, refrigerator, or laptop. In an undeveloped country, the simplicity of design means storing meat for a family or preserving vaccines for a rural clinic.
Real Time Ag helps large-scale crop producers more efficiently plan their fields and apply fertilizers to get the maximum yield with the lowest use of pesticides and watering. It also tracks the applications and creates the regulatory reports for the producer.
One of the stars of the night wasn’t a finalist, but its founder was arguably the most passionate.
Before the three finalists were announced, each of the 20 semifinalists gave the audience a two-minute pitch on their company. Jim Dierickx founded a company called Direct Drive Energy, a technology that uses the kinetic energy of heavy-duty trucks to store power so that at night, drivers can avoid idling their trucks for heat and power. Dierickx was a loud, no-nonsense Midwesterner who argued that his technology is urgently needed to help solve our country’s oil addiction. At the close of his pitch, he shouted into the microphone: “I was in the service when we liberated Kuwait and big oil almost killed me. Now I’m going to kill big oil so my four boys never have to fight for it again!”
The crowd roared its support and this writer may have choked up a bit. He had an all-consuming passion and drive, and although Direct Drive Energy wasn’t a finalist, it won the People’s Choice Award and I have no doubt Jim will find success.