By: Brian Bartony and Katie Roberts Issue: Energy & The Environment Section: Jewel Of Collaboration
Growing Startup Businesses Into Thriving Clean Tech Companies
The founding team knew when they sat down at that dining room table that they were looking for people just like themselves: ambitious, entrepreneurial, willing to take a risk, and nurturing a great idea or two. The founders could picture someone scribbling ideas on a cocktail napkin at a similar dining table. They imagined two friends debating an idea in a local coffeehouse. They could almost hear someone down the street tinkering with a new technology in his garage. Those were the people they wanted to reach. And, at that table in Palo Alto, this group discussed their ambitious plan to reach out to those folks in the coffee shop, a garage and around a table. It was important they reach out soon, because the future of the planet was at stake. The result of that conversation was the national organization known as the Clean Tech Open (CTO).
The Clean Tech Open was founded on the belief that the best way to improve and preserve the environment is through technology - in large part developed or acquired, commercialized, and taken to market by sustainable startup enterprises.
The founders knew that labs and universities, basements and coffee shops throughout the nation were teeming with ideas and solutions to pressing environmental concerns, growing energy demands and global climate change.
The goal was clear: ensure that the best and brightest ideas, and the entrepreneurs and inventors behind them, had access to the resources and support they needed to grow startup ideas into thriving clean tech companies.
“There were a number of us MIT Alums in the Bay Area that were getting together around clean tech activities,” recalls co-founder Michael Santullo. “We would attend events that started off with 20 people in a small conference room, and eventually grow to 400 people in large auditoriums. A lot of us knew we wanted to do something more. We wanted to engage in clean tech and we wanted to try and help the local community.”
These alumni heard of a program in the Boston area whereby clean technology startups were supported through a business plan competition. The Clean Tech Open founders liked that idea, but wanted to take it a step further, by offering more than cash to the winners. They wanted to offer a “business competition” that would support the winners, but also catalyze the other companies involved in the competition into viable businesses.
“Our goal was to make all of the resources available that are necessary to allow an entrepreneur in the clean technology space, to take their idea from concept to reality,” explains Marc Gottschalk, Partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
The first step for these founders was to find the cash for prize money; but that isn’t the only thing start-ups need. While a few volunteers chased down potential sponsors, others planned a series of classes to help startups write a cohesive, thorough business plan that would catch the eye of potential investors. Speakers were asked to address various aspects of a business plan, including sustainability; these embryonic clean technology companies would not only be sound businesses, they’d also address the planet’s growing energy and environmental concerns.
Finally, the founders sought out a few companies to provide services. Clean tech startups tend to be heavy on the operations side, and if certain basic company needs could be handled, the cash could go toward building prototypes or seeking third party accreditation. Offers poured in, as companies from throughout the area donated marketing services, legal consulting hours, office space for a year, employee insurance, and accounting oversight.
The only step left was to find these clean technology start-ups and start them through the education and mentoring process, to select the companies most worthy of receiving the “Startup in a Box” prize package of cash and services. Four years later, this is the ledge upon which the founders of the Rocky Mountain Clean Tech Open stand. After threeIssue 4 Clean Tech Open pic006 successful years in California, the model was too good to stay local. The Department of Energy has vigorously supported the founders’ ambitions to take the program to the national level. The Rocky Mountain Clean Tech Open is the first regional competition to take this leap, and 2009 will be the year they fly.
“An idea that gets us very excited is the idea of having a national competition,” elaborates Santullo. “We will roll out the Clean Tech Open to other regions … hopefully having six to eight competitions running simultaneously, covering the entire country. Then at the end of the competition year, we will hold a national competition for the best teams from all over the country. We think this will be fantastic for the teams – they will get national visibility – and we also think it will help drive a lot more visibility for the competitions overall.”
The Rocky Mountain region was selected as the first regional competition because of the extraordinary infrastructure and support of industry, academia, NGOs, state and federal agencies. But really it was the founders of what would become the Rocky Mountain Clean Tech Open who paved the way for national expansion.
John Brackney, Richard Franklin and Brian Bartony of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce were working with a group of concerned citizens on the Renewable Energy Task Force. They began searching for a way for the monthly meetings to address the state of the world’s energy crisis more proactively. Similar to the way the founders in California sought out a larger project after initially engaging in clean tech, several Task Force members began searching for other groups throughout other regions to gather best practices. They eventually made their way to Silicon Valley.
Brian Payer, the Clean Tech Open Programs Director in charge of National Expansion recalls, “In the summer of 2007, they found Clean Tech Open through an introduction from PG&E and contacted Mike [Santullo] and Marc [Gottschalk]. They said, ‘We’re coming on a fact-finding mission. Would you mind meeting with us for an hour or two to tell us what you’re doing?’ They also asked us if we were willing to expand, and that really forced us to address the issue of national expansion.”
Through the combined efforts of the co-founders in California and the urging of the representatives from Colorado, the Clean Tech Open began the process of becoming a more lasting and sustainable organization. By the end of 2007, Clean Tech Open was raising money to hire staff, canvassing the Department of Energy for national expansion funding, and working with the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce to explain in depth what it took to run a Clean Tech Open business competition.
“Colorado is one of the fastest-growing renewable energy clusters in the nation, and our ability to leverage the extraordinary efforts of the Clean Tech Open’s founders will benefit a whole new crop of budding entrepreneurs,” says Stephen Miller, Rocky Mountain Clean Tech Open co-founder. “To be associated with the California Clean Tech Open is an honor and a privilege.”
Now at the beginning of 2009, two regions in the Western United States are set to launch their business competitions, aiming to recruit a combined 200 entrepreneurs to enter their companies in the competition. The collaborative effort will result in a staggering array of events and support. There will be monthly Breakfast Briefings detailing the competition and clean tech topics; two Executive Summary seminars to educate potential contestants how to enter the competition; six Symposia providing a deep dive into a particular clean tech topic and showcasing clean tech startup companies; 17 Summer Seminars designed to educate the companies participating in the competition; hundreds of 45-minute one-on-one sessions with business professionals at carefully coordinated Business Clinics; upwards of 100 hours of judging written Business Plans; at least 50 hours of watching Business Plan presentations; two local Awards Ceremonies; and one national Awards Gala honoring the winners of the entire national competition. These events will be supported by no less than 400 volunteers, 40 sponsors, 50 partner organizations, including labs and universities, 150 mentors, 50 judges, four staff members, and 30 Chairs volunteering their time, not to mention the financial contributions of sponsors and pro-bono services offered by speakers and advisors.
Thus far, the two affiliates have collaborated to find sponsors and partners, and properly addressed the growth of Clean Tech Open as the young company reaches eastward across the country.
“We are delighted to welcome the Rocky Mountain Clean Tech Open to the CTO family,” says Rex Northen, Executive Director for Clean Tech Open. “The RMCTO team has shown extraordinary commitment, passion and absolute professionalism in the way they have built out their plans for the launch of the first regional competition. We expect to see great things from the entrepreneurs and inventors who attend their seminars and work with their mentors.”
In early March, a delegation from Colorado will join the CTO founders in the Bay Area. Representatives from the Pacific Northwest, Iowa, New York and several other potential regions will also join together for the first Clean Tech Open Spring Summit. This weekend will consist of a retreat-style event where the national expansion seeds take full root. The founders and many volunteers from California will pass along program information, lead discussions on the best ways to run events, and brainstorm about the ideal ways to build local clean tech communities. By pooling resources across the country, in person, Clean Tech Open is ensuring that the proper education and support is given to those interested in beginning a regional competition.
Since the first competition in 2006, the overall success of the business competition is apparent. Rocky Mountain CTO is anxiously looking to add to the 84% success rate of alumni companies.
In just three years, 125 companies have raised $125 million in private funding from angel investors, grants and venture capitalists. The companies can also boast 500 employees in the clean tech sector, and have projected more than 1,200 employees by the end of 2009, which proves that clean tech is one of the few sectors currently showing major growth. Finally, the alumni companies show their success through the almost 1,000 customers they serve, including Whole Foods, Marriott Hotels, Johnson Controls, The Gillette Company, Yahoo!, Facebook and Home Depot. The technologies created by these alumni companies are solving the problem of energy waste in buildings, addressing the problems of inefficiency in public transportation, and successfully providing consumers more environmentally-friendly products and services.
The success of the alumni companies and the dedication of the hundreds of volunteers across at least six states for thousands of hours is a testament to the ambitious plans, high ideology, and environmental importance surrounding the competition.
“It’s really been rather remarkable how smooth the entire organization has been run – not just for the two of us – but even down the line in terms of how we all had the same vision for where we wanted things to go.” Gottschalk jokes, “Part of the reason, I think, is because Mike and I grew up two towns away from each other and graduated the same year from different high schools nearby in New York. So it’s that, or maybe we’re twin sons from different mothers.”
From an auspicious beginning involving a small group of people, to a nation-wide collaborative effort, Clean Tech Open is a success story full of proof that collaboration among groups can lead to major change where it is needed most.
Katie Roberts graduated from Santa Clara University with degrees in Communication and Business Marketing. Before joining the Clean Tech Open staff, Katie’s experience includes roles in marketing with a Bay Area home builder, and the San Jose Sharks. She is the Communications Chair for the local Santa Clara Alumni Chapter, and spends many hours per month volunteering with Hands-On Bay Area. Katie is originally from Colorado and enjoys running, skiing and any outdoor activity.