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Midwestern competition to award money to cleantech startups

LuminAID is among Clean Energy Challenge finalistsThree Midwestern solar startups are competing for $250,000 with innovators in other green technology fields in the Clean Energy Trust’s annual Clean Energy Challenge.

The Chicago-based nonprofit technology accelerator announced 17 finalists in the Midwestern regional competition this week, including nine in the student category and eight in the early stage category. There is a $100,000 award in each competition for the company with the best business plan and pitch along with a $50,000 McCaffery Interests commercialization award that all participants are eligible to win.

“This annual contest is a way for us to find the best candidates in the Midwest and help us identify the best early-stage new companies,” said Amy Fancetic, executive director of the trust.

Finalists get intensive coaching from business and technical experts who will spend the next six weeks working with contestants to help them fine-tune their business plans, polish their pitches and iron out kinks in heir technologies. Even those companies that don’t win the prize money, leave the program better equipped to solicit funding elsewhere, said Winston Lazar, program manager at Clean Energy Trust.

The contest is funded with Department of Energy grant money and student winners will go on to a national competition, where they could win even more money, Francetic said.

Early-stage winners don’t have a next competition, Lazar said. But that doesn’t mean the Midwestern competition is the end of the line for them.

Previous regional winners have gone on to win the Cleantech Open, a major national clean energy technology competition with an audience of high-profile investors and some major prize money.

Among the student finalists, only one is focused on solar energy technology. Stef Gen won $10,000 in the Wisconsin completion.

“They’re basically attacking a problem with installing residential solar panels,” Lazar said.

The student startup is working to reduce hardware costs and increase panel efficiency with a simple, low-cost solar tracking device designed for rooftop solar installation, Lazar said.

LuminAID, which is competing in the early-stage track, has developed collapsible solar lanterns using a thin, flexible film.

“They have the ability to pack about 50 lanterns in a box that could hold eight to 12 flashlights,” Lazar said.

The products would be ideal deployment in a disaster, he added.

S2E Energy is another early-stage competitor. The company has created what it calls an organic transparent conductor.

“It has several applications from solar to displays,” Lazar said.

The technology is designed to increase efficiencies in technologies including solar and video display.

“We have a deep network of experienced entrepreneurs, technical experts and corporate sponsors we can help these teams plug into,” Francetic said. “The contest goes beyond teaching them how to pitch to venture capitalists. We provide a lot of networking support.”

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