Tuesday, May 12, 2009

VLAB Panel: Notes from the Cutting Edge of the Cleantech Revolution, Part 1

Panelists on the first panel, "Clean Tech Emerging Leaders Speak On: Market and Offering, Current Position and Background, Challenges" included five prominent tech company representatives, three of whom are pictured above -
ATDynamics' Engineering VP, Chuck Horrell
GroundSource Geothermal CEO Dennis Murphy
Mohit Singh of Seeo, Inc.

Also on the panel were: Fraser Murison Smith, CEO, ElectraDrive, and PR Yu, CEO of Optony Inc.

Chuck Horrell from Advanced Transit Dynamics, a company that helps save diesel trucks save fuel, says his company has been looking into and finding potential in attracting state level grants. "VC's don't find us that sexy since the trucking industry is a slow moving target and there aren't billions to be made," he said.

Dennis Murphy from Groundsource Geo, a company that makes heat source pumps easier to install, is dealing with promoting a technology that is definitely not a household word. But the products it makes have great value, according to Murphy. The product won the overall Sustainability Award at the 2008 California Clean Tech Open.

Groundsource Geothermal's solution sounds so elementary - but it saves so much. According to Murphy, "150% of the trouble and 2/3 of the cost is in the drilling" to use geothermal heat source pumps to help regulate temperature. Murphy says the company creates elliptical shaped (not round) holes to sink the heat pumps, drawing on technology used in China in 3000 BC. "We are not looking for heat," he says, "we are looking to use the constant temperature underground - anywhere from 6 feet to 1,500 feet below the surface- to exchange heat."

Hot water can be a byproduct of this technology.

"In I/O terms, this can be a 550% rate of efficiency," he said. "For every unit of electricity used, you get five units back in heating."

Murphy also said his company, while potentially profitable, has not been exciting to VCs because it's a service business with a franchise model.

Singh spoke about his company, SEEO, Inc., an energy storage technology company that is tackling the issues of batteries by replacing liquid with a solid polymer. The cost per cycle is an important statistic. A lithium battery is 600-700 cycles, while SEEO's polymeric battery lasts 400 cycles. The ploymeric battery is much safer, since it has no flammable components, he said, in contrast to the industry's current safety issues.

Fraser Smith from ElectraDrive talked about his company's technology, which can help save auto fuel and emissions. He likened electric vehicles to computers on wheels and described his efforts as tackling the OS (or operating system) of electric vehicles. Fraser Smith said the sweet spot for ElectraDrive's technology are wholely owned fleets. The company is currently negotiating with the city of San Jose which has 2,900 vehicles and a legal mandate to go clean tech by 2013 - a tight timeline.

Comments from the high level audience were as informative as the panelists presentations.

One audience member talked about how easy Silicon Valley finds it to transition from IT to CT when software is the product. "The Silicon Valley ecosystem is designed around IT; we have a social network here in the Valley where you can ask around for anything or anyone with the expertise that you need. When you're ready, you can ask around for a VP of marketing, engineering, etc."

Panelists agreed that California's AB32 legislation was contributing to their success.

Fraser Smith also pointed out that, while the IT and computer revolution had been an often local affair, launched with Valley VC, the clean tech revolution was already quite global. "Now capital is international," he said. Also in contrast to the old IT high tech model, he said there are now more public aspects to the CT. "It's driven in part by social causes, and legislative reform, along with public funding."

PR Yu of San Jose-based Optony, Inc., talked about the rapid pace of solar energy innovations coming from China. "Last year there were 10 IPOs on the equivalent of the Chinese NASDAQ," he said. He said that U.S. solar investment spent more dollars but had less success.

The Chinese solar industry is selling very little internally in China, according to Yu, and a great deal outside of China. "There is only a tiny solar market in China - about .12% of the market," he said. "Ninety eight percent of Chinese solar products are sold outside of China."

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