Contest finalists receive mentoring and coaching from the Clean Energy Trust, based in Chicago.
“We want everyone to make the best possible presentation they can,” said Amy Francetic, Clean Energy Trust executive director.
While contestant winners can take home $300,000 from the competition, the coaching is the real prize. Winners have gone on to win big money in future competitions and gain major investment from venture capitalists.
This will be the third year for the competition, Francetic said. “The companies that have gone through our program have gone on to get $23 million in grants and venture capital investments,” she said.
The program is a Midwestern competition much like the national Cleantech Open. It favors early-stage technologies and emerging companies.
A women-owned electric motor company was one of last year’s winners. The complex technology eliminates the need for rare Earth materials. “We especially like stories like that,” Francetic said. “It’s a technology that grew up in the lab and then some young, smart entrepreneurs said, ‘hey we can make a business out of that.’”
The competition is a magnet for innovative solar startups. There were two solar companies that were selected as finalists the first year, Franceic said. They’re both still working on bringing their products to market.
One of the companies, NextGen Solar won second place. The company is commercializing a three-dimensional thin-film solar technology.
A 2012 finalist, Intelligent Generation, combines software and energy storage with solar so home and business owners can store the power their solar panels generate until a time when power is at a premium and then deploy it onto the grid for maximum cost savings.
The Clean Energy Trust aims to support startups and increase public awareness about the clean energy startups in the Midwest. “It’s not the sunniest place on Earcth,” Francetic said. “But every year, we will have someone with a unique material or business model.”
She said she expects to continue seeing innovative solar companies forward with new technologies. “We have really strong material sciences in the Midwest,” she said.
The competition accepts participants from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Sometimes the states submit a state winner, Francetic said. Other seats are wildcards. “The process really yields the best of the Midwest,” she said.