The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is known for its research in clean energy, but the entity also has been working as a matchmaker. In December, NREL's Industry Growth Forum brought together 400 representatives from energy companies and also investors in a two-day event in Denver.
Kate Cheesbrough, project manager in the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center at NREL, says the forum provides an opportunity for folks in the space to discuss the current state of investing, meet exciting new companies – not only from the U.S. but from around the world – and begin and continue conversations about investments and partnerships with young companies.
‘The relationships built and information shared at this forum are vital to the advancement of clean energy technologies,’ she says.
The event kicked off with a one-on-one networking session. Cheesbrough says the session took place over three hours and featured 60 investors, government officials and strategic partners who were available to meet with entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs signed up for 10-minute meetings in which they could pitch their companies to the seated professionals.
‘A few weeks prior to the forum, we allowed companies that applied to present the first opportunity to sign up for these meetings,’ Cheesbrough says. ‘We then allowed general attendees to sign up for remaining meetings. Overall, there were close to 600 individual meetings that took place during the session.’
Alvin Compaan, president and chief technology officer of Toledo, Ohio-based Lucintech Inc., participated in several of these meetings.
‘We moved from one table to another table,’ he says. ‘I spoke with four investors in one hour, and we were there three hours, so I spoke with 12 investors.’
In addition to this speed networking, company representatives were also able to present to a larger audience. Entrepreneurs spoke to the roomful of investors for about 10 minutes, then opened up the floor to questions. That was the valuable piece, Compaan says.
‘Most of the questions were constructive,’ he says. ‘That was an opportunity for quick feedback and helping us to improve our pitches.’
Compaan says Lucintech, which develops thin-film modules for building-integrated photovoltaics and for auto sunroofs, did not get any investment capital from the event, but that is because the process takes time.
‘Hopefully we will get some investment,’ he says. ‘In the larger context of the ups and downs of the industry, the word at the forum was that the interest level seems to be picking up again.’
Douglas Hutchings, CEO of Picasolar in Fayetteville, Ark., says the NREL forum kicked off the selective emitter technology company's fundraising.
‘We got the conversation started with 15 different groups,’ he says. ‘It's all about building engagement.’
He adds that Picasolar won several grants in 2013, and he expects to get funding from investors in six to nine months.
One advantage that the NREL forum has over other events is that the audience consisted of people who intend to invest money in clean energy companies. Of the 30 companies that pitched their new businesses, nine were solar related, or made products that could be used in applications that included solar. Others worked on technologies related to energy efficiency batteries, and controls.
‘Obviously, it's fairly specialized,’ Hutchings says. ‘Instead of having a very general audience, you have people that are inherently interested in the types of things you're doing. There was a lot of difference between the technologies, but at least they were all interested in the cleantech sector.’
Cheesbrough says collectively, companies who have presented at the Industry Growth Forum since 2003 have raised nearly $5 billion in growth financing, and close to 360 companies have presented since 2003.
‘Ultimately, for entrepreneurs, the forum raises a start-up's profile and credibility,’ she says.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.