Augment Ventures’ Vijayargiya Feels Bullish About Midwestern Cleantech

Sonali Vijayargiya is back in Michigan after representing Midwestern VCs in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, which was held as part of the Obama administration’s Startup America Initiative. She’s the founder and managing director of Augment Ventures, an Ann Arbor, MI-based venture firm that invests in cleantech and IT startups that aim to make an impact on the energy ecosystem.

Competitors were the finalists and semi-finalists from previously held regional competitions. Representing the Midwest were NuMat Technologies from Chicago, which went on to win the national competition, and ReGenerate Solutions, a University of Michigan spin-out company that has designed a compact organic waste station designed to transform food waste from grocery stores and restaurants into renewable energy sources.

Vijayargiya said the competition, which was held in Washington, D.C., was designed to be an intimate affair, and estimates there were about 100 attendees, including venture capitalists, government officials, and competing startups. The 20 VCs in attendance acted as mentors, listening to company pitches and giving advice. “The idea was to create meaningful interaction,” she says. “The teams got very good traction—they were able to meet lawyers, VCs, talent people, and build relationships with the DOE. It was a nice event.”

The finals were held at the White House. Though President Obama was unable to attend, Todd Park, the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, was on hand as the startups competed for the $100,000 prize. Vijayargiya says she went to the competition intending to shine a light on innovative cleantech companies in the Midwest, and was thrilled that NuMat Technologies validated the gospel she was spreading by winning the competition. “I think there is great talent and potential in our region, but there aren’t enough VCs here focused on cleantech,” she notes. “At Augment Ventures, we’re trying to bring that into focus and make sure the VCs on the coasts are aware of Midwest opportunities.”

Vijayargiya has more than 16 years experience working with early-stage companies across various industries in different parts of the world. She has acted as an advisor to some of Michigan’s most buzzworthy cleantech startups, including Accio Energy, Accuri Cytometers,  and Adaptive Materials. To put money into a company, Augment Ventures requires it to have defensible intellectual property, capital-efficient business models, and global market opportunities. It will invest between $200,000 and $2 million in startups that meet its criteria. Vijayargiya adds that getting customer validation of cleantech plays a vital role, and because of that Augment will often try to pick up strategic partners as either customers or co-investors on each deal they back.

Last July, Augment Ventures made its first investment in San Francisco-based Aperia Technologies, a company developing an automatic tire inflation device for trucks. Vijayargiya says Augment Ventures will announce investments in two more companies in a few weeks, though she declined to go into detail about the deals except to say one of the companies is focused on optimizing resources for carbon-footprint management.

Vijayargiya says she’s feeling bullish about Michigan and the Midwest’s future when it comes to the creation of cleantech startups, but finding executive talent remains a challenge. “There is a pipeline here, but the biggest problem is attracting managerial talent,” she adds. “I’m hoping we’re able to create a cluster of companies and enough movement that we’ll attract that talent. And some of that is happening already.”

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