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Energy COOL: ARPA-E Shark Tank

February 11th, 2015 · 1 Comment

Since diving into the deep end when it comes to energy issues, almost every day sees new fascinating concepts, approaches, and technologies. Fascinating … exciting … even hope inspiring at times. And, as well, as the passion builds, so many of these are truly Energy COOL.  Not surprisingly, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) annual Energy Innovation Summit is a target rich environment for finding truly amazing Energy COOL technologies and possibilities.

For a number of years, perhaps the most enjoyable Summit events has been a ‘Shark Tank’ session, with a number of emergent energy tech firms giving three minute pitches with four venture capitalists then asking questions and giving recommendations.  This year, selected out 150 applicants to represent a range of technologies and energy challenges, seven firms presented:

Follow after the fold for some discussion / impression of these firms and their pitch sessions.

SIDENOTE:  Perhaps the biggest issue with ARPA-E:  the nation would be well served if its budget was roughly an order of magnitude larger.

Somewhat following the format of the event, the following provides a brief (uncritical) description of the firm/project and then reactions from the VC panelists (Colleen Calhoun, GE Ventures; Cody Nystrom, SJF Ventures; William Rensink, Shell International; Zack Schildhorn, Lux Capitol).

Accio Energy is developing an offshore wind technology with a very different approach from any in the industry today. As they describe it:

Accio Energy’s Aerovoltaic system generates electricity using wind and charged water mist. The wind separates positive and negative charges as it moves the charged water mist. The separation of charges creates high-voltage, direct current electricity. The generator itself has no moving parts and consists of wind-permeable flat panels composed primarily of mass-produced tubes.

The claim is for less than half the capital cost compared to traditional systems with as much as a 40 percent increase in capacity.  Combined, in theory, a halving of the cost of offshore w

ind electricity.

When it came to the panel, they expressed some serious doubt — somewhat providing, as per all the conversations, a “given” that this works but challenging the business potential.  In essence, “the top challenge for offshore wind is financing, to secure it and to do so at an affordable price. To do that, you need to have a track record of reliability … and it is hard to get the reliability track record that enables financing.”  The top recommendation: perhaps seek to go off-grid, “look for the smallest-scale opportunity so that you can get electricity production underway and start developing the reliability data that the big projects will require.”

AmberWave is developing a flexible solar panel, applied on steel, that can be worked to — for example — provide quality, cost-effective BiPV (building integrated photovoltaiics — enabling replacement of asphalt shingles with energy producing PV).

Again, the panelists were stark in their comments.  The basic question, “how do you not die, this is a field with a graveyard of companies?”  As to recommendations, a strong suggest to “put it on your rooftop and blog about it, show that it is working in the real world.  … Get some installers involved to brag about the savings through easier and higher quality installations.”  Schildhorn, however, had a recommendation that no solar enthusiastic in the audience could feel thrilled to hear:

If I were you, I would do a gut check tomorrow morning. I am a big believer in the long-term value and importance of PV but am a realist about the success/death rate of PV companies. Look in the mirror and decide whether you want to work incredibly hard for years to come in a field littered with failed firms. It will be a tough road ahead.

Axiom Exergy is targeting a major arbitrage opportunity between low-cost off-peak and high-cost peak electricity.  They are focused on the refrigeration in supermarkets, using that cheap off-peak power to chill tanks that are then drawn upon to cover cooling during the day when prices are higher. Refrigeration is a major portion of a supermarket’s energy demand and this arbitrage would significantly lower the cost of refrigeration.

In an industry operating on very thin profit margins, the Axiom “Refrigeration Battery(tm)” offers a serious profit opportunity. As Axiom puts it,

$20,000 in utility savings has the same impact on a store’s profits as $1.2 million in additional sales revenue.

To make this far more interesting to the market space, Axiom is pursuing a ‘no money down financing’ path so that a store would see savings from day one.  Axiom’s payback will come sharing those utility savings with the store.  As to ROI from the investment, Axiom sees a 2-4 year payment in their 11 target states (dependent, likely, on price differences from peak and offpeak power along with reducing demand charges).

The VC comments questioned about how easy this would be to integrate into systems. The key recommendation was “to strive to get ROI below 2 years, that is what commercial market is set to for easier and quicker decision making”.  (Note: If the Axiom model is to offer no money upfront financing with savings from, in essence, day one, the ROI for the store is much faster than two years already …)

EnZinc is tackling one of the greatest challenges and opportunities in the energy space: quality, light-weight, inexpensive, reliable, rechargeable, and portable energy storage.  Their ‘sponge’-like approach to zine-based battery storage could, they suggest, reduce the cost of electric vehicles batteries by more than half. And, as per ARPA-E targeting, that would be a ‘game changer’ in terms of EV affordability and penetration. [NOTE: sigh — had emergency calls that pulled me out of session for both EnZince and SAF Cell … mea culpa … can’t speak to investor reactions … if an ARPAE Summit attendee wishes to add information in the comments, much appreciated …]

Indoor Reality derives from a Berkeley program funded by ARPA-E and is developing a wearable backpack for doing automated energy audits. As a tag line, “Faster, Cheaper, Automated Building Energy Audits”.  Very roughly, this offers the potential for reducing energy audit costs and timelines by an order of magnitude.

The questions and comments focused, in part, on the cost of the backpack unit: projected to be $40,000.  And, the comment, in part:  drive down these costs and focus on the information technology rather than components which will be(come) a commodity item.

NOTE:  I first saw this project at last year’s ARPA-E Summit. And, I have a passion for home performance inspections (e.g., energy audits).  This is, to me, truly Energy COOL — with huge potential not just for expanded energy audits but for creating whole new possibilities through high-quality digitation of the indoor environment (from air quality data to supporting interior decorating to insurance …).  And, well, within the audit world, that $40,000 really isn’t such a hurdle if it leads to expanded business and reduced training time.

SAFCell is working to develop next generation fuel cells. [Note, again, issue with getting called out of the room.]

SLIPS Technologies has a pretty simple mantra: “We solve sticky problems.”  Their product creates a layer so slippery that even a gecko can’t hold on.  Think chemical trucks — all the chemicals come out and the steam required for cleaning is either greatly reduced or eliminated. Much reduced waste (e.g., nothing left in the tank without contaminated waste water) and reduced energy demands (don’t have to generate the steam).  Huge range of potential market spaces — from those chemical tanks to marine fouling on ships to …

Honestly, the recommendations here were insightful and intriguing.  “Go fishing … find the customer with deep pockets and serious problems to solve.” Associated with that was the idea of creating a web series along the lines of Blendtec’s Will it Blend? entitled “Will it Stick?” to create excitement and generate awareness … ‘let your market come to you’.

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