Four New Energy Stars: A Greenstart Demo Day Preview

Shouldn’t there be an easy online place to share a bike, the same way people are sharing their cars and apartments these days? Shouldn’t it be easier and cheaper for homeowners to put solar panels on their rooftops? Shouldn’t it be possible to control your electrical plugs, your fridge, your thermostat, or your home security system from your smartphone? Shouldn’t small power-generating plants have access to the same type of software that helps large utilities run more efficiently?

Those are the kinds of questions being asked by the entrepreneurs behind the four startups graduating today from Greenstart, the San Francisco-based accelerator and design studio for digital cleantech companies. And you can bet their companies have answers.

In a “demo day” session scheduled to start at 4:00 pm Pacific time today, the founders of Liquid, Root3, People Power, and Kiwi will explain to investors and journalists why their startups deserve attention and funding, and how they plan to change the way people get around town or manage their homes and energy-generating facilities. To get a preview of their presentations, I met with the CEOs of the four companies last week; my extended profiles are below.

“What we’re seeing is that entrepreneurs are really excited about this connection between energy and software, and so there is an increasing number of good-quality companies out there, and I think this group is representative of that,” Greenstart co-founder Mitch Lowe told me in an interview yesterday. “All four are pretty well poised to do some great things.”

Mitch Lowe addressing the audience at Greenstart's May 2012 Demo Day

Mitch Lowe addressing the audience at Greenstart's May 2012 Demo Day

Lowe has some news of his own to announce today: Greenstart, which invests $115,000 in each startup, is switching to a rolling investment model, with companies entering and leaving the program on their own schedules. That’s a big change from the “cohort” model that’s been the tradition in the accelerator community; under that model, startups are admitted in semiannual batches and move through a curriculum of presentations and mentor meetings together, climaxing in a final demo day like today’s.

“We continue to veer farther and farther away from the accelerator model, though we are certainly taking the best pieces from that,” Lowe says. “When you’re building an ecosystem around the companies—the design studio aspect and the teaching and helping with the business model and product design and brand design—it just doesn’t scale. When we’re throwing all of our resources into these companies, we can only work with three or four at any one time. So rather than having six months a year when we’re not working with any companies, we are switching the model so we can work with 12 to 15 companies a year and spread it out evenly.”

Companies will still be in residence with Greenstart for about three months, but new companies will only be admitted as old ones graduate, Lowe says.

“We are trying to take the best elements of an accelerator and the best elements of a seed-stage venture firm and the best elements of a design studio and see what that looks like,” Lowe says. “It’s as if Y Combinator and Ideo had a baby in cleantech.”

Greenstart will still have Demo Days for graduating companies in the future, but they’ll be smaller and more specialized, Lowe says.

Meanwhile, here’s a look at the cohort exiting the program today.


Many big universities, hospitals, and corporations have something in common: they’re off the grid. In the electrical sense, anyway. They’ve got their own energy plants that generate heating, cooling, and electricity for their campuses. They build these plants to save money (and stay independent of the big utilities), but the truth is that smaller energy plants also waste a lot of money, because they typically aren’t equipped with the same caliber of predictive analytics and management software long used by big utilities.

These small operators “have all this data coming in from their machines, they know energy prices, they know the weather patterns, but they can never figure out the right machines to use—which ones to run and which ones to turn off,” says Archisman “Archie” Gupta. “So they are usually super conservative and they leave them on all the time. My software helps them figure out how much energy to generate, on which machines.”

A former systems engineer, regional planner, and grid analyst at the Michigan-based transmission company ITC Holdings, Gupta developed the idea for Root3 while he was working toward an MBA at Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He says companies like ABB, General Electric, and Siemens have been supplying energy system management software to large utilities for years—at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per utility. “We found a better way to do it for … Next Page »

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

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