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Energy Excelerator Provides Boosts for Clean Energy

An agency called the Energy Excelerator is giving 15 clean-energy startups a boost this year with cash, good advice, synergy and the most important fuel for success: connections

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1. Energy Excelerator senior manager Dawn Lippert was named one of Hawaii Business’ 20 for the Next 20 two years ago.

2. The Energy Excelerator encourages each startup to keep refining its pitch. The next big chance to make a pitch will be at the Startup Paradise Demo Day in June. That’s Lippert seated on the left and Ibis Networks CEO Michael Pfeffer in the center.

 

3. The executive team from Oroeco, a seed-stage company that helps people align their spending with their values. Here are, from left, CEO Ian Monroe, CTO Kirstin Cummings, Chief Product Officer Yang Ruan, and COO Arash Danaie.

 

4. The companies are encouraged to give as many public presentations as possible, even if it’s just to each other.

 

5. Members of the 2014 cohort gathered for a group portrait.

 

6. Here is the team from Ibis Networks, a startup launched by Oceanit.

 

7. Growth Week kicks off the 12-month program for the Excelerator’s later-stage companies. It’s a time to formalize a strategy for demonstrating technology and investigating how to scale to commercial customers.

Photos: Courtesy of the Energy Excelerator

It’s sometimes easy to believe the famous saying:

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. But when the market is already full of mousetraps, and your R&D is better than your marketing, that knock on your door may never come.

Oceanit didn’t wait. The Fort Street Mall-based engineering firm developed the InteliSocket, a clever device that helps customers manage the electricity used by their appliances. The company had some funding, but lacked the connections, capacity and know-how to commercialize it. Luckily for Oceanit and other clean-energy innovators, clean-tech incubation has arrived in Hawaii.

That incubator is a 501(c)3 called the Energy Excelerator, which is funded by both government and private money. In 2013, its first year, the Excelerator supported Ibis Networks (the Oceanit spinoff that produces the InteliSocket) and seven other startups. With the Excelerator’s support, Oceanit spun off Ibis Networks to help commercialize the InteliSocket, under the leadership of CEO Michael Pfeffer.

“Doing business in Hawaii is all about connections,” Pfeffer says, “and the Energy Excelerator helped connect us to early-market adopters and synergistic software providers.” The Excelerator also helped get Ibis in front of the owners of large buildings and the National Guard, as well as Silicon Valley angel investors. It helped Ibis set milestones that investors want to see, and to leverage the growth funds it provided into matching funds that then incentivized the first venture-capital investments in Ibis.

Senior manager Dawn Lippert says the Excelerator helps incubate businesses by going beyond financing. “We have a six-month program for seed-stage companies and a 12-month program for growth-stage companies that focus on mentorship, market research, go-to-market strategies and creating strategic partnerships. It takes a lot of moving parts to help an energy startup succeed,” she says.

The 2014 crop of incubated companies includes nine seed-stage companies, each of which will receive $30,000 to $100,000 from the Excelerator, and six growth-stage companies, which will each receive up to $1 million. One change from last year: This time the selection committee specifically looked for complementary services.

“Ibis Networks and People Power are perfectly synergistic,” Lippert says. Ibis focuses on the hardware used by large commercial customers, while People Power, part of the Energy Excelerator’s 2014 cohort, focuses on residential applications, software and behavior modifications. “They need each other for rapid growth,” she says.

Companies in the first cohort, which went through their support period in 2013, included kWh Analytics, which was founded by Punahou grad Richard Matsui, one of Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30, who is based in San Francisco. kWh Analytics provides data to the solar financing community – an “independent, statistically valid, Big Data view on how panels, inverters and systems perform,” according to Matsui.

The data have many uses, but their prime use is to “make solar affordable for all by attacking solar’s biggest problem: the high cost of capital,” Matsui says. Investors can be more confident in deploying capital when they’re more convinced of the diminished risk quantified by independent analytics, he says. Lower risk means cheaper financing, and that reduces the cost of future solar installations.

Late in 2013, clean-tech giant SolarCity announced the first sale of a bundled solar security, valued at $54 million. The assets are not home mortgages, but photovoltaic solar leases that SolarCity signed with homeowners, who got PV systems at no money down. Such financing deals are possible because of better data from a company like kWh.

Perhaps more important for Hawaii, though, kWh Analytics’ data can help HECO and other utilities manage the intermittency of solar by giving them better predictive capacity for actual power generated by on-grid solar. This should allow more solar power to be reliably added to the grid.

For kWh, the Energy Excelerator was a launchpad. The company is now monitoring and providing data from roughly 10,000 solar installations, has received a prestigious SunShot award of $450,000 from the federal Department of Energy and is in the process of signing a joint research agreement with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The Energy Excelerator received $30 million from the Navy, which will be used to support clean-energy startups over the next five years. In return, military representatives joined the Excelerator’s selection committee and all the companies picked this year had to show their products or services could help the military cut its dependence on foreign oil and energy costs.

Lippert says this year’s Excelerator cohort will receive more executive mentoring than last year’s. “We used to have mentors who were technical or legal or investors,” she says, but now “each company has a lead mentor who’s built a company in a similar or related field. It’s the difference between having someone on the outside telling you how it should be done, and having someone with some battle scars roll up their sleeves and help you do it.”

Gene Wang, CEO of People Power – a growth-stage company in this year’s cohort – is mentoring Oroeco, a seed-stage company. Oroeco is developing a web platform that helps align people’s spending with their values. “I really like what Oroeco is doing,” Wang says. “I hope to help them land an investor, and to help them develop a world-class product.”

Wang helped the company by doing a deep dive through the user interface of Oroeco’s beta product, and spent a lot of time with the Oroeco team to help it build a sustainable corporate culture. Wang’s expertise with People Power really lies in mobile technology, and Wang helped guide the Oroeco entrepreneurs through the experience that users will go through. “Hopefully I’ll also be able to give them some moral support that will get them through some times of trouble and help them along the long road that startups walk.”

The Excelerator is creating a flexible co-working space for energy startups on the fifth floor of 1000 Bishop St. (one floor above the offices of Hawaii Business). The space will be a “hub for the clean-energy innovation community,” according to Lauren Tonokawa, communications specialist for the Excelerator.

To win the Energy Excelerator’s support, applicant companies had to demonstrate how their technology would be deployed in Hawaii and later expanded beyond. The nine seed-stage companies in the 2014 cohort represent early-stage technologies that, with few exceptions, are not at the point of commercialization. The six growth-stage companies generally have a product in testing phase and are looking for financing and connections that will help them grow.

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