NSTAR, Energy Department Offer $200K Prize to Energy Entrepreneurs

The pot of prize money available to students and entrepreneurs with innovative ideas about commercializing clean-energy technologies just got a lot bigger.

MIT, the U.S. Department of Energy, and local electric utility NSTAR announced today that they’re collaborating to offer a new $200,000 cash prize for the best idea for a business supporting a technology, product, or service in the clean-energy sector. The “MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize” competition, or CEEP—which has a February 15 entry deadline—is open to all student teams, not just MIT students, as well as teams from early-stage startups, as long as they haven’t yet received any venture funding. (Each team must include at least one U.S. citizen.) The sponsors define clean energy technologies as those that increase the diversity of energy supply, increase energy efficiency, or reduce environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s such a much bigger prize than anything else out there,” says Bill Aulet, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Entrepreneur in Residence at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center (and an Xconomist) who is advising the competition organizers. “But it’s not just a big carrot that we’re offering. It’s also bright lights and a large stage. That’s why MIT is involved—people perceive us as being honest brokers.”

The new energy prize is an offshoot of two existing business competitions, the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and the Ignite Clean Energy Business Presentation Competition. Xconomy reported in October that the two organizations planned to combine resources and announce a new prize; CEEP is it.

At the same time, the MIT $100K competition (which is open only to teams that include at least one MIT student) is being divided into eight separate tracks, including energy, mobile technology, Web 2.0, consumer products, biotechnology, aerospace, technologies for the developing world, and “other.” The judging process for CEEP, ICE, and the energy track of the MIT $100K competition (which is expected to amount to between $20,000 and $50,000 in cash and in-kind prizes) will be integrated, according to Aulet, and all teams will receive coaching, team-building help, and other forms of mentorship as the competition proceeds.

According to background materials released today by CEEP organizers, entrants will be judged based on their chances of creating a successful new venture—which will depend, in turn, on the strength of the team they’ve assembled, whether they’ve focused on an attractive market opportunity, whether they have a strong execution plan, and whether they have a competitive advantage (technological or otherwise). Teams will not be judged simply on whether they have a “cool technology” at the core of their business or whether their proposal is likely to attract venture funding. Prize winners will be announced in May.

Organizers expect that at least 100 to 150 teams will throw their hats into the ring for the unified competition, whose overall mission is to accelerate the pace of energy innovation and entrepreneurship. “Our customers are looking to meet their energy needs in the cleanest, most efficient way possible and that requires innovation,” said NSTAR chairman, president and CEO Tom May in a statement about the new prize. “We want to help these entrepreneurs get their great ideas and possible solutions to the nation’s energy needs off the drawing boards and into the homes and businesses of our customers.”

In two widely-read essays for the Xconomist Forum (What’s Wrong with Energy Investing? Part 1 and What’s Wrong with Energy Investing? Part 2), Aulet has argued that energy entrepreneurs face a wider variety of challenges than those in most other technology fields, including a shortage of support for early-stage technologies. He says the CEEP award will help to reverse that. “It’s hard be an energy entrepreneur,” Aulet says. “But people know that there is a huge shortage of funding and support here, and now DOE and NSTAR are willing to put up some money and say ‘This is what we need to do.'”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “NSTAR, Energy Department Offer $200K Prize to Energy Entrepreneurs”

  1. Bill AuletBill Aulet says:

    Wade, just one very important correction. To clarify, I believe there is lots of money out there now for energy but the lack of the high quality energy entrepreneurs (which are a special breed) is one of the key choke points for greater progress. Not funding. In speaking with my esteemed colleague, Dr. David Danielson, founder of the MIT Energy Club, he felt that there was also another important choke point at the invention level and that this prize/competition could help in that regard as well. I believe his point is valid as well. The competiton is meant to be very inclusive both for participation and in terms of its definition of energy. We like to think of this as being a “big tent” for helping to solve the energy challenge.

    The Ignite Clean Energy competition has been at this for three years and blazed a trial and built a foundation that we all can build on, as has the MIT $100K Competition. This will be an opportunity to expand the programs they have started as well as draw more people into them – for the good of everyone.

    Why is a big prize relevant? Because this is no strings attached money. It is a big carrot to get them to develop the skills (and the bright lights and the big stage) that we need.

  2. anonymous says:

    Clean renewable energy already exists, the American government quardened off the area to all construction, and named it Yellowstone National Park.

  3. Joseph Alvite says:

    I am an inventor with many US and foreign patents to my name and I also have 30 years in the robotic business, I have developed a robot which makes electricity by using gravity and electromagnetic induction, I have a prototype working and also an US patent pending but I need marketing and financial help. I feel I have the product that can save us from the oil mess we are in but I need help