Tech startups vie for funding at Midwest Energy Forum


By Ann Meyer

Midwest Energy Forum panelists discussed innovations in transportation energy technologies
Michael Sinkula (left), co-founder of Envia Systems Inc., spoke Thursday at a Midwest Energy Forum panel moderated by James Greenberger (right), executive director of NAATBatt. Photo by SmallBusinessChicago.

The major automakers might get credit for launching electric vehicles into the marketplace, but they couldn t have done it without new technologies that scientists and small businesses created, panelists said Thursday at the Midwest Energy Forum held at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center.

We re able to craft technology to some degree, but not at the basic science level, said Bill Wallace, director of global battery systems at General Motors, which makes the Chevy Volt, an electric plug-in vehicle. We feel it important to work this vertical value chain from university and government labs down to suppliers of technology or component parts, Wallace said.

Yet entrepreneurs need more government support to take their innovative concepts to market. It interesting and frustrating to note that a lot of technology commercialized around the world has its genesis in the United States, said panelist Jeffrey Chamberlain, who is energy storage major initiative leader at Argonne National Laboratory. Moving from basic science to a commercially viable product is a major challenge in the United States due to capital constraints, Chamberlain and others said.

Inconsistent policies worry investors

What’s more, energy policies in the United States might be scaring away private investors. “Inconsistent policies create more risk,” said Mark Florian, managing director of private equity firm First Reserve, who gave the luncheon keynote address. “We can control the costs, but we can’t control the policy,” Florian said.

Still, with growing demand for energy on a global basis, Florian said, “Clearly, there is a big, big opportunity.”

Chicago is well-positioned to take advantage of that opportunity, due to its research base, Mayor-Elect Rahm Emanuel said during a luncheon speech. “I want to seize it,” he said. “We have all the pieces necessary to make Chicago the perfect place to be the center of activity for alternative energy.”

Not a level playing field

But others said seizing that opportunity will require government subsidies. It not a free market we re competing in, Chamberlain said.

Noting that governments in Asian subsidize development of alternative energies, Chamberlain said, We have to make some changes away from the free market to have a chance of winning this competition.

Startups likely offer the best chance of introducing a breakthrough technology, Chamberlain said. “Startups are more fleet of foot. They can change their business plan quickly when the market shifts,” he said. Large corporations, meantime, tend to move more slowly and often are averse to risk, he said.

Yet startups have struggled to find the capital they need to develop their concepts. There is a huge monetary gap that needs to be filled, said Mike Sinkula, co-founder of Envia Systems Inc., a California startup focusing on high-density lithium-ion battery technology. The company has received both venture capital, including from General Motors Ventures, and funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission. “In order to compete on a global scale, we do need government support,” Sinkula said.

Award winners

The U.S. Department of Energy provided $100,000 in prize money for Midwest Energy Forum’s Clean Energy Challenge. The top award, worth $75,000, went to Clean Urban Energy, which provides software  technology to help integrate HVAC systems with electric grid and energy markets. NextGen Solar, which has developed a thin-film technology for solar systems to boost their efficiency, received $25,000 as the second-place winner among early-stage businesses.

In addition, corporations, universities and foundations contributed $30,000 to sponsor a fast-pitch contest for concept-stage companies. The winner in that category was Thermal Conservation Technologies, which is developing a high-performance vacuum insulation panel for use in refrigerated transportation.

Michael Polsky, president and chief executive of Invenergy LLC, provided a $10,000 prize to Lotus Creative Innovations, which has developed a scaled-down wind turbine trainer designed to teach students about turbine assembly and performance in the classroom.

Last updated March 5 at 11:15 a.m.