WisBusiness: Cleantech Open seeking green businesses for inaugural Midwest contest

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

MADISON – David Mead’s start-up company, C5-6 Technologies, makes enzyme catalysts to convert agricultural and forestry feedstock into fuels.

Tuesday morning, he was in Grainger Hall at the UW-Madison Business School, seeking a way – as he put it, tongue slightly in cheek – “to clone the money gene.”

In other words, he was looking for funding for his firm, an effort which drew him to a meeting for a business plan contest for green companies dubbed the “Cleantech Open.” The event was sponsored by WARF, Wisconsin Angel Network and the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations.

Mead, whose small company has eight employees – including six scientists – was one of about 100 people who gathered to hear about a program that aims to promote clean energy and transportation.

In the process, promoters say they hope the open will create 100,000 clean technology jobs in the country by 2015.

If Mead’s firm is one of three regional finalists from Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, it will win $30,000 in cash and in-kind services. The national winner will get a grand prize of $250,000 worth of investments and services.

“I’m here because the contest sounded fun and interesting,” said Mead, a PhD who founded Lucigen and then spun out C5-6 technologies, where he serves as CEO.

This is the first year the contest has operated in the upper Midwest.

Justin Kaster, executive director of the Cleantech North Central Regional said expanding into the upper Midwest “was a natural move, given the amount of businesses, entrepreneurs and public officials in these states who are focused on clean technology.”

“As we continue to build and launch the program here, we’re finding more and more individuals and organizations ready to participate in several capacities, which is a testament to the interest in this region.

“The Cleantech Open program will be a unique complement to existing local infrastructure and help create jobs, foster innovation, and facilitate more investment dollars into the region.”

Rex Northen, Cleantech’s national director, said he believes solutions to meet the “most critical energy, environmental and the economic challenges facing the U.S. will come from the creativity, dedication and passion of entrepreneurs and inventors.

“As we continue to expand, we are able to offer regional innovators a faster path to commercialization by entering the competition, and to introduce new sponsors to the compelling benefits afforded by supporting the organization.”

Andy Ritten, an attorney with the Faegre and Benson law firm in Minneapolis and volunteer with Cleantech, said the idea for the Open started at MIT and then jumped to California.

The first competition was held in the Golden State in 2006 and then spread to the Northwest, Rocky Mountain region and Northeast.

“Our goal is to help young companies achieve success,” explained Ritten, who said he volunteered because his dream job, if he weren’t a lawyer, would be to “work on the big ideas that will make a difference in the world.”

To date, nearly 200 start-ups have completed the program and 80 percent of them are still around. A typical start-up, he said, has only a 15 percent success rate.

Ritten said Cleantech competitors have raised more than $250 million in private capital to fund their enterprises, with some $65 million of that coming during the first four months of this year.

These companies created 2,000 new jobs in the clean tech sector through 2009, he said.

Ritten said the contest will get companies in front of some of the leading innovators in clean technology from the private sector, government and academia.

Executives of some start-ups will get the chance to go one-on-one with specialists in various clean tech fields “whose sole mission is to help take your business to the next level.”

Ritten said Open officials, nearly all of whom are volunteers, aren’t only looking for contestants from Wisconsin, but mentors and judges who could work with and rank competitors.

Open categories include air, water and waste; renewable energy; energy efficiency; transportation; green building; smart power, green grid and energy storage.

Entries for the competition are due by May 22. All entrants will receive feedback on their executive summary and discounted rates to all North Central events. For more information, go to www.cleantechopen.com.