San Diego and von Liebig Center Award First Grants Under New Cleantech Initiative

San Diego has been looking into the expanding pool of renewable “cleantech” technologies and trying to see a reflection of itself. To make that vision a reality, city and economic development officials embarked last year on an initiative intended to promote cleantech in this sun-drenched land. 

The initiative began with a study that found 148 cleantech companies in the region, the beginnings of a technology cluster that city officials say could become as significant someday as biotech and telecom. Their count of cleantech companies recently jumped to 172–and they want to push that number even higher by seeding the landscape with more green startups.

As part of that effort, the city organized a “Cleantech Iniative Challenge” seven months ago. The challenge asked university researchers to submit proposals for promising cleantech ideas, and offered grants of as much as $50,000 to develop a prototype or conduct proof-of-concept studies.

The three winners, two researchers from UC San Diego and one from San Diego State University, were announced last night in a ceremony at UCSD’s von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders attended the event, along with university and venture industry officials.

In addition to the grants, the winners will get business advisory services provided through UCSD’s von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.

“This hasn’t been done anywhere else,” says Jacques Chirazi, who was hired last year to guide the municipal initiative as the city’s cleantech program manager. “It is very hard to find VC or angel funding for this early proof-of-concept sort of stuff,” Chirazi says.

The three winners were culled from 12 proposals submitted, says Rosibel Ochoa, commercialization director of the von Liebig Center.

“Hopefully, at the end of this process we have advanced the evaluation of these technologies so that venture firms or angel investors will step in,” Ochoa says.

The city provided funding for two of the grants, with San Diego-based Qualcomm, the world’s second-largest maker of wireless chips, backing the third grant.

Conspicuously absent from the program was San Diego’s Sempra Energy, a Fortune 500 energy services company whose interests would seem to be naturally aligned with promoting renewable energy technologies.

Sempra was approached for assistance, says Chirazi, who added, “We’re definitely hoping to increase our corporate sponsorship in the future.”

The winners selected for the grants were:

John J. Love, SDSU associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, for a bio-fuel concept that proposes to lower the cost of bio-diesel by using re-engineered enzymes to extract hydrocarbon molecules from cell membranes.

Paul Yu, UCSD professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, for a project that proposes to increase the efficiency of electricity-generating photovoltaic panels by using quantum wells and waveguides to concentrate the solar energy.

Yu Qiao, an associated professor in UCSD’s Department of Structural Engineering, for a proposal to increase the efficiency of thermal power generation by using nanoporous material.


Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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