Guest Blog: Capital to fill the Early-Stage Valley of Death

By Jetta Wong, Senior Advisor at Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator

In 2007 the National Academy of Sciences released the seminal report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, to Congress focused on how the United States needs a coordinated effort in science and technology to create high-quality jobs and solve some of our most pressing societal challenges. It stated that “Research sows the seeds of innovation. The influence of federally funded research in social advancement – in the creation of new industries and in the enhancement of old ones – is clearly established.”

Jetta Wong presenting at TAEBC’s Lunch and Learn.

While this enhancement has been clearly established, the process and ability to easily commercialize federally funded research has not been established. The federal government has an obligation, not to mention a congressional mandate, to see that federally funded R&D is utilized. Yet, so many of us that work in R&D know that the pre-commercial valley of death between early-stage R&D project to prototype, and then on to pilot demonstration is a valley too great for most scientists, engineers, startups or entrepreneurs to address on their own. They must look to additional federal funding, which may be drying up, or to the private sector to further develop their science project into a commercial product.

Luckily, the State of Tennessee and the federal government have been taking steps to support early-stage innovators and the commercialization of technologies. Building off of the great work that was going on in Tennessee through its REVV program and the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, the federal government launched an innovative pilot program called Small Business Vouchers. This was designed to increase small business access to DOE’s national labs to develop and prototype the small business’ technologies. SBV has held three rounds of selections, connecting 144 small businesses with 12 national labs for a total of $22 million taxpayer dollars.

Yet, most startups have never even heard of a Department of Energy National Laboratory, let alone one of its great new programs. To better support startups and entrepreneurs, the Department of Energy also funded the Incubatenergy Network which is focused on accelerating the transition to a sustainable economy through national coordination of incubator resources supporting entrepreneurs focused on clean energy innovation and deployment. Organizations like Greentown Labs, Clean Energy Trust and many others help companies tap into a variety of resources, like the National Labs, that could help entrepreneurs bridge the early valley of death.

The Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) is also one of those organizations. It is focused on creating an inclusive green economy. It was started in 2011 by the City of Los Angeles and has grown to be the hub of cleantech innovation in the whole region. It supports 40+ portfolio companies, which also benefit from the strong community of pro bono advisors and resources provided through LACI’s network. One way that LACI is helping to close the pre-commercial valley of death is by developing a scalable method to make low-cost microloans to early-stage hardware companies. It is focused on expanding investment from U.S. banks and Community Development Financial Institutions’ (CDFIs) into early-stage cleantech companies. This will help open up critical working capital to companies that are positioned for growth, but do not have access to traditional loans.

Other cities, like the City of Fremont California, are also in the game of early-stage innovation. In July of this year, the Fremont City Council approved a contract to develop a feasibility study for an innovation center on a plot of land owned by the City, adjacent to its new public transportation hub and across the street from Tesla’s assembly facility. LACI will lead a multi-disciplinary team to conduct this analysis. Fremont has a history of innovation, especially in manufacturing, and is at the cross-section between significant investor dollars, strategic R&D companies, advanced manufacturing, and strong universities and national laboratories.  Solving the early-stage finance and resource gap for startups may be the critical component that Fremont and other cities can catalyze to grow their community’s innovation ecosystem.

Business Startup Spotlight: Stone Mountain Technologies

(NOTE: This blog was originally posted on FundingSage.com)

Name: Stone Mountain Technologies, Inc.

Location: Johnson City, TN

Website: www.stonemtntechnologies.com

Product / Service Offering: Thermally Driven Heat Pumps

Co-founder Interviewed: Michael Garrabrant, President

Other Key Management Team Members: Scott Reed, VP Strategy & MarketingChris Keinath PhD, Director Engineering

This article is part of our Business Startup Spotlight series featuring entrepreneurs and their companies. We hope that these founders’ interviews will inspire and motivate you as you undertake your own entrepreneurial journey. 

Pictured: Michael Garrabrant, President

Tell us a little about yourself with a focus on what motivates you.

I am the type that always has to be doing something worthwhile and meaningful in the long run. Endless meetings, red-tape, and indecision are very frustrating. To me, there is nothing like 45-minutes on a lawn mower to clear your mind and trigger a good idea.

When did you establish your company and where did the idea originate?

I had the opportunity to learn and work with absorption heat pumps in the 1990’s. Initially as a graduate student at Ohio State University and then with a start-up that licensed the OSU technology. I found the technology fascinating and “addictive.” Although from a high level it appears simple, getting the details right to make it work well, be reliable and cost effective is very challenging. Also, there are a very select group of individuals globally that understand how to do this.

The start-up I joined in the 1990’s “ran out of gas” because it was targeting the wrong market and applications. I felt that the technology would eventually become a major player in the heating and cooling market when the time was right. In late 2008, circumstances in the market and for me personally aligned, and I decided to give it a go. I knew it would be a hard road, but I began Stone Mountain Technologies.

What need or needs does your company seek to fill for its customers?

SMTI is a B2B business model, with our direct customers being gas/oil heating product manufacturers. Indirectly, our customer “base” includes gas utilities, HVAC and water heater contractors, and of course the end-user (building owner or occupant).

Due to steadily increasing DOE minimum efficiency regulations over the last 20 years and technology limitations, conventional gas and oil heating products (furnaces, boilers, water heaters) have very little differentiation left. The products are becoming a commodity, competing more and more on price alone, with market shares evening out among the players. At the same time, electric heat pump technology has advanced rapidly, and has begun to erode market share from gas.

Gas heat pump technology provides a leap in efficiency without sacrificing the comfort gas heating customers are used to. SMTI’s “Thermal Compressor” technology allows the current gas/oil heating equipment manufacturers to offer exciting, new very high efficiency products to their customers, at a much faster pace and with lower risk compared to trying to figure out how to do it themselves from “scratch.”

Gas utilities are mandated to spend a percentage of revenue on efficiency incentive programs. Due to the lack of efficiency differentiation between “good-better-best”, they are struggling to offer incentives that make sense for the consumer. Their core business is also under increasing pressure from climate change driven regulations, especially in California, parts of the Northeast, Canada and Europe; therefore, gas utilities are very excited about the prospect of cost-effective gas heat pumps entering the market and have provided a variety of support, including financially.

What is the one thing that sets your company apart from its competitors?

SMTI has a unique combination of specific market, technology and manufacturing know-how.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while getting your company up and running, and how did you overcome it?

Our biggest challenge was seed funding. Our space is not conventional Angel or VC friendly. Also HVAC/water heating is not “sexy,” is capital intensive, and the development time-frame is long. Fortunately, the Department of Energy, gas utilities (including European), and several OEMs agreed with our premise and business model. We were able to win non-equity funds to develop the core technology and prove it out in the “real world.” My knowledge of the market and reputation with key players was instrumental in raising the funds.

Are there resources you have utilized that other founders might find compelling or useful?

There is a litany of start-up information and business help available on the web. Much of it is very helpful, but it is often contradictory. To apply the knowledge heavily depends on what market your business is in. My advice is to spend evenings and weekends reading and when you think you have read it all start again.  Learn to filter out what makes sense for your specific business type and focus.

90% of start-up business advice out there is tailored to technology companies developing an application or SaaS. Good luck if you are a brick-and-mortar or manufacturing company.

What steps have you taken to secure funding for your company and what, if anything, would you do differently if you had to start over?

We felt we needed to have prototypes in the field. Several OEM customers were “significantly interested” to reduce the amount of risk for a Series A investor. We are at that point, and have initially targeted industry strategic partners who know the market very well to lead our Round A, with Angel groups with a “green” focus (fortunately this is a growing segment) filling in the gaps.

Have there been any questions you have had as an entrepreneur of a fledgling startup that you had a particularly hard time finding the answers to?

There are a dizzying array of financial terms and investment vehicles out there. Unless you spend your entire career entrenched in this area, it’s next to impossible to wrap your mind around all of the variations and the impact on your company. Professional investors definitely have a large advantage over the typical entrepreneur.

What challenges, if any, are you grappling with?

The challenge is how we share ownership of the company with key employees without either causing them a horrible (and at-risk) tax penalty or running afoul of IRS and SEC rules. The current laws are not friendly to small privately-held companies with a decent valuation but are still at a high risk stage.

What is the most helpful tip or “hack” you’ve ever learned, stumbled across, or been given?

There is no substitute for being obsessive and working extremely hard. There are no short-cuts.

TAEBC reflects on 2017 accomplishments so far

The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council has been continuing its mission of championing advanced energy as an economic development and job creation strategy within the state.

Now that the year is more than halfway over, TAEBC wants to reinforce our commitment to our members and stakeholders:

  • Inform the national energy agenda.
  • Help Tennessee become the #1 location in the Southeast for high quality jobs.
  • Foster the growth of Tennessee advanced energy technologies and startups.
  • Support TVA’s efforts to become the utility of the future.

As we look forward to the rest of 2017, TAEBC shares its accomplishments so far this year.

First, TAEBC hosted in February its Annual Meeting in Nashville. The meeting announced Mary Beth Hudson, Vice President Wacker Polysilicon NCA and Charleston, Tenn. Site Manager as well as Ryan Stanton, formerly with Schneider Electric, would serve as board members. Members also enjoyed hearing more about 2017’s energy outlook and opportunities. Clean Line Energy’s Executive Vice President and former DOE Assistant Secretary for former President George W. Bush’s administration Jimmy Glotfelty spoke about what we could expect in 2017.

This May, several TAEBC members had the opportunity to hear from Jay Stowe, Senior Vice President of Distributed Energy Resources at TVA during a listening session held in May. Members heard Jay’s thoughts on the state of the utility industry. They also got a chance to participate in active Q&A with Jay. This lead to a productive and open conversation and to a longer term relationship between TAEBC and TVA. In addition, TAEBC participates as a formal member in TVA’s newly formed stakeholder group: the “Distributed Generation – Information Exchange” or DG-IX for short.

Also, TAEBC and Launch Tennessee invited mentors to meet Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Innovation Crossroads’ Innovators. The event served as an opportunity for the Innovators to become acquainted with the Energy Mentor Network and its mentors. The Innovators were selected to work at Oak Ridge National Lab taking their next-generation ideas to solve some of our country’s greatest energy challenges. The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and Launch Tennessee provide non-exclusive business mentoring services to the Innovators.

The Energy Mentor Network has had several Tennessee advanced energy startups continue through the program with panel presentations and mentoring sessions. During its first year, EMN welcomed more than 20 mentors and five companies to the program, and it’s continuing to grow. EMN company Solar Site Design had the chance to pitch at the 36|86 Entrepreneurship and Technology Conference in June for a $50,000 cash prize. Solar Site Design was the only cleantech startup pitching.

Finally, TAEBC’s board also engages throughout the year with local and statewide government officials.

Remember to save the date for the next TAEBC event! The WACKER Polysilicon Plant Tour will be Wednesday, August 9 in Charleston, TN. We hope to see you there.

Knoxville welcomes Innovation Crossroads’ innovators to East Tennessee

The Knoxville Chamber was a packed house Tuesday when the Innovation Crossroads’ innovators pitched their startup before Knoxville’s entrepreneurial community during an Innov865 Happy Hour.

Dozens came out to see the cleantech companies present their next-generation ideas solving global energy challenges.

Innovation Crossroads is a program based at ORNL that matches aspiring energy entrepreneurs with the experts, mentors, and networks in technology-related fields to take their world-changing ideas from R&D to the marketplace.

Several entrepreneurs were selected to transform their ideas into clean energy companies with financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Innovators receive a fellowship that covers living costs, benefits and a travel stipend for up to two years, plus up to $350,000 to use on collaborative research and development at ORNL.

The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council and Launch Tennessee provide non-exclusive business mentoring services to the Innovation Crossroads innovators.

The crowd heard from Mitchell Ishmael of Active Energy Systems first. Ishmael is utilizing a saltwater material to store electricity as thermal energy. The method provides a much cheaper alternative to providing onsite backup power for customers than standby generators or batteries. It is expected to encourage the installation of more distributed, renewable power generation.

Ishmael explained how energy storage is still high cost and low efficiency and the resources available to him in East Tennessee could help change that.

“Innovation Crossroads is providing us all a leg up already,” said Ishmael.

Anna Douglas of SkyNano Technologies presented her pitch next. Douglas’ technology utilizes carbon dioxide as feedstock to significantly lower the production cost of carbon nanotubes. The process provides a use for captured greenhouse gases while benefiting clean energy technologies and advanced manufacturing.

“SkyNano Technologies has made immense progress with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and my company has benefited from the lab’s community connections,” said Douglas.

Finally, the crowd heard from Matthew Ellis and Samuel Shaner of Yellowstone Energy. The two are developing an advanced nuclear reactor with the potential for faster installation while optimizing safety in order to provide a clean source of baseload electricity. The design uses an already licensed uranium fuel with an ambient pressure, high temperature coolant.

“Yellowstone Energy’s solution delivers lower cost, advanced nuclear sooner,” said Ellis.

Tom Rogers, Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development at ORNL, stressed to the audience afterwards that applications are still open for Startup Day 2017 pitch competition.

Interested East Tennessee startups have until July 10, 2017 to apply to pitch their business on the U.S. Cellular Stage at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville. New this year, the Startup Day pitch competition will feature two prize categories: judges’ choice and crowd favorite. Competitors will have an opportunity to win up to $15,000.

Energy Mentor Network Spotlight: Mark Patterson

The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council is continuing its series of feature stories highlighting the mentors behind the Energy Mentor Network program offering industry specific expertise.

The Energy Mentor Network‘s goal is to foster the growth of Tennessee advanced energy technologies and startups by connecting entrepreneurs with mentors. This gives Tennessee yet another advantage in grabbing its more than fair share of the $1.3 trillion global advanced energy market.

The Energy Mentor Network is run by the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council in partnership with Launch Tennessee.

In broad strokes, the Energy Mentor Network pairs mentors with promising new companies and entrepreneurs through a structured program involving panel presentations and mentoring sessions.

The purpose of the program is to develop quality startups. After completing the program, startups will have an investable pitch deck, a rock solid business model and a plan to establish more traction. These tools will position Tennessee’s entrepreneurs to raise capital, request other funds like SBIR grants, and scale their company.

TAEBC is highlighting this week Mark Patterson of Patterson Intellectual Property Law. Mark has 35 years of experience counseling clients in the protection, management, and enforcement of intellectual property rights, including patent and trademark prosecution and licensing. As a former electronics design engineer, Mark works regularly with complex electronic, computer, and electro-mechanical technologies.

He manages patent and trademark portfolios for clients with significant domestic and global operations. Mark began his legal career as a litigator and for 30 years tried numerous cases and argued appeals in both state and federal courts. He was an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt Law School and has provided expert witness services in a variety of intellectual property disputes.  He applies all of this experience in providing cost-effective, strategic IP advice to businesses throughout the U.S.

TAEBC is continuing to accept mentors for the Energy Mentor Program. If you are interested in this opportunity, please visit the “For Mentors” section of the Energy Mentor Network portion of TAEBC’s website.