Ryan Wartena has designed what he calls an energy computer, although he routinely refers to it by different names — home micro utility, demand response device, a suite of tools. It’s the size of a small refrigerator. The device is essentially a battery for solar power, storing energy collected from solar panels for use later. Solar, Wartena says, is a “use it or lose it” commodity — if the generated power is not used in real time, it’s gone. He believes his device can change that, putting more control in the hands of the consumer rather than the utility company.
“You can decide what you want to do with your energy,” Wartena says. “You can become your own utility.”
Hoping to turn his design into a reality, Wartena entered the 2011 Cleantech Open, held last Thursday in Richmond. Sponsored by Chevron, the event is the world’s largest competition for clean technology entrepreneurs hoping to bring their innovations to market. Wartena’s company is San Francisco-based start-up Growing Energy Labs Inc., though he prefers the truncated GELI — pronounced “jelly” — in conversation.
“There needs to be another ‘G‘ company, right?” Wartena said. “Because GE is not going to be able to do it. Neither is Google.”
Wartena and his company’s Vice President Margarita Colmenares are one of 39 teams to advance to the California regional finals. They were placed in the “Smart Power” category that included smart grid, energy control, and battery storage technologies. At stake was a “start up in a box” prize worth $20,000 and the chance to compete against finalists from six other regions for the national prize of up to $250,000 in cash and services.
The daylong event was staged at the Craneway Pavilion. Teams lounged on sofa and loveseat installments and huddled around conference tables that were scattered throughout half of the 45,000 square-foot floorspace. The atmosphere was relaxed. Smiles were flashed. Hands were shook. Business cards were exchanged.
Six white, igloo-shaped pods dotted the perimeter. Inside each was a panel of venture capitalists that would judge the teams’ business pitches. No one save the judges, the team and other authorized personnel were allowed inside. An event volunteer eventually tracked down Wartena and his VP, ushering them into one of these pods. Until then, both made the rounds, schmoozing with other teams, consulting with mentors, and keeping their energy levels high for the pitch to come.
Wartena’s energy computer is bold, unconventional, forward-thinking. But so are the ideas of his fellow competitors. And perhaps contrary to what you’d think, for this event the brilliance of the idea itself is a secondary concern. Of primary importance is market feasibility. Gint Federas, a volunteer team mentor who has sat in on judging sessions, referred to it as customer validation.
“If I don’t have customer validation where someone is willing to pay for the product, then I’ll never see a return on my investment,” Federas said. “I’m seeing a $3 million cliff, and nothing on the other side.”
Wartena and Colmenares managed second row seats, center aisle for the awards ceremony. They had an unobstructed view of the ceremony’s emcee, Bay Area tech reporter and NBC TechNow host Scott McGrew. The awards ceremony was simple. McGrew announced and explained the category, a panel judge was handed an envelope and read the winner aloud. The smart power category, Wartena’s category, was second to last. His sealed fate was delivered to the podium, but when it was opened and read aloud, ECO Catalytics, not Growing Energy Labs, made its way to the stage to accept the award.
Despite the outcome, Wartena remained positive. He said the event had exposed him to the world of venture capital, and given him numerous contacts with other similarly-minded clean tech start-ups.
“I know a lot of these people here, we’re going to be working in the same industry together, for the next couple decades,” he said. “A lot of us have the potential to make it.”
Wartena will get another crack at the pitch when heads to LAUNCH in November, a global initiative sponsored by NASA and Nike to support sustainable technologies for the future.