CleanTech Open Finals

Last week I traveled to San Jose, CA for the finals of the CleanTech Open, for which Smart Office Energy Solutions had been selected as a finalist from the South Central region. I and 20 other finalists from the seven regions arrived in San Jose on Monday to begin two exhausting days of competition.

Each finalist was a startup company that has raised less than $1M and that is working on problems that make the world more sustainable. There were five categories of competitors: energy efficiency, smart power, green building, air/waste/water, and renewable energy. Smart OES could have competed in any of the first three categories but ultimately energy efficiency seemed to be most appropriate for us.

Each category had four or five competitors. Over the course of two days, each competitor presented a 15-minute business plan presentation followed by 15 minutes of Q&A from 20+ judges representing the category, the venture capital community, the science/development community, and the government/policy community. Competitors were scored based on their portenital for impact, likelihood of success, sustainability, and presentation quality. After all competitors presented, the winner of each category would then present again and a global winnner would be announced.

I came into the finals with several goals: 1. Win the global competition 2. Win the energy efficiency category 3. Tell a convincing story about product differentiation and competitive barriers (the perceived lack of which had always been our greatest criticism). Of course, those were the goals on which my competitive side focused. Much more meaningful for us, though, was using the competition as a means to connect with influential people, partners, and investors in the cleantech ecosystem - so that was our primary objective.

Tuesday morning featured an investor speed dating event that connected us with five VCs for seven-minute one-on-one discussions. This event by itself was worth the price of admission and I applaud the CleanTech Open for their success in putting it together.

Our scored presentation wasn't until Wednesday morning, so I spent much of Tuesday manning our booth. Interested potential investors, employees, and journalists stopped by all day to hear about what we were up to and to see our prototype products in action. It was really energizing to see how many people were keen to know what was going on on the frontiers of cleantech. I also left the booth unmanned a few times to go support some of the other entrepreneurs as they were presenting in other categories.

Tuesday afternoon I was called up to the main stage for a 3-minute product demo, which received some "oohs and ahhs" as I unveiled some of the behavior-influencing features of our product. My product demo especially caught the attention of one audience member, Jon, a friend of mine from college! He came up to me afterward and it was such a joy to see him there. As I've blogged about before, I'm an extrovert and I love having people "on my team." Having Jon there supporting me lifted my spirits and really gave me a boost going into Wednesday.

Wednesday morning I was joined by another team member, an investor of ours (also named Jon) who lives in the Bay area. Having two Jons cheering me on from the audience, I knew I couldn't be beaten. Add to that my SHOP undershirt and cuff links from my wife as additional talismans and I was ready to go - armored up and ready for battle!

I gave my full presentation and it went very well. I nailed the presentation portion and I believe I had good, previously anticipated answers to the Q&A portion. I received many compliments on the presentation, including one piece of feedback that it was as good as a presentation could get. Additionally, I didn't receive a single question from the judges about product differentiation or competitive barriers. Goal #3: check!

Unfortunately I didn't not achieve Goal #2, which meant that Goal #1 was out of the question. A company called Indow Windows won the energy efficiency category with a cool drop-in product to turn single pane windows into double pane windows. Clearly I was disappointed in the result and I will hope to get some good feedback from the judges. I'm told it was very close and I am still honored to have been chosen among the top energy efficiency startups in the country.

The Jons and I stayed to watch the final five presentations, attend the award ceremony, and then the gala dinner afterward. Throughout the evening it became abundantly clear that we were achieving our primary goal; I was able to line up meeting after meeting after meeting with potential investors for Thursday and Friday, while I would still be in town! This certainly softened the blow of the competition loss!

Looking back on the CleanTech Open experience, I'm really glad we participated. It took a very non-trivial amount of time and money, but it really helped us connect throughout the cleantech ecosystem - which is not very present in Houston. We received some great exposure, met some great people, and - of course - had a great time! I would recommend it for other early-stage cleantech startups and I'll hope to give back a little next year as a mentor.


Is There an Afterlife?

I just had a great discussion with a Rice freshman about whether or not there is an afterlife. As somewhat of an empirical pragmatist, I reasoned through it as follows:

People I know who have died continue to have an effect on me. I think about them, I make decisions based on ways they have influenced me, and sometimes they even show up in my dreams. So, from my perspective (and from the perspective of the many other people whose lives they touched), they all have afterlives.

The only afterlife of which I am not certain is my own. From a practical perspective, though, that point is essentially moot. After my death I will either A. have a conscious afterlife and know it or B. not have a conscious afterlife and not even be able to contemplate the question.

As such, I conclude that there is effectively an afterlife. What do you think?


Houston Great Pumpkin Run 5k Race Report

Saturday I set a new PR at the Houston Great Pumpkin Run 5k. In the week leading up to the run I had a sore throat and even lost my voice (while yelling all night at a Huey Lewis and the News concert, so it's my own fault), so I made a morning-of decision whether or not to run. The good news about this was that I had been planning to taper my running later in the week anyway, so I rested up, got plenty of nutrition, and hoped to be in good form Saturday morning.

Race day came and, while I still had no voice and still had a stuffy nose, I felt pretty good so I decided to go ahead with the run. It would start downtown and proceed along Allen Parkway for an out-and-back course. The course was pretty flat and the weather was great (sunny and ~50 degrees F) so, other than the lingering cold, it was a great situation for a PR.

My race plan - as always - was to start off with a fast launch, finishing the first km in 3:59. I would then settle into a 4:12/km pace for the next 3.65 km, at which point I would kick up to a 4:00 pace for 250 m and an all out sprint for the final 100. This would bring me in at 20:39, 6 seconds under my previous PR of 20:45.

The starting line was close to my office so I camped out and stretched in my building until ~15 minutes before start time. Then I jogged to the starting line, warmed up a bit, and positioned myself near the front. 0.6 seconds after the gun went off, I was across the starting line and tearing off down Walker Street.

The first km went basically as planned. It included a bit of a downward dip, so I found myself speeding along (always trying to flow with the downhill grade rather than resist it) a bit more than anticipated early on. I finished the first km in 3:51 with an average heart rate of 171 - higher than anticipated, especially given the low temperature. By comparison, my first km in my previous three PR 5ks were: June (3:58, 166 BPM), April (3:53, 167 BPM), and February (4:01, 165 BPM). This didn't worry me much, though; I was feeling good.

The second km breezed along too, finishing in 4:06 at 175 BPM. I was then 14 seconds ahead of my target. I was still feeling pretty good but it was starting to feel clear that I wasn't going to keep this speed up forever. I was hoping, though, to stick to my 4:12 target for the remaining kms.

The third km is where things got funky. It turns out that the race organizers had not marked the turnaround point! The runners in front of me turned around at the near side of Montrose (which is where the course map had specified), but there was nothing to indicate whether this was right or wrong. If I had been paying close attention to my GPS, I would have noticed it telling me that I was still 70 m short of 2.5 km, but I wasn't. And, even if I had been, I wouldn't have trusted it since lord knows it has made errors before. It turns out that the correct turnaround point was just beyond Montrose. Some people turned early - as I did - and some kept going all the way to Waugh, which was way too far. Epic fail, race organizers.

I finished the third km in 4:15 with an average heart rate of 177 and the fourth km in 4:23, still at 177 BPM. At this point I was still 2 seconds ahead of target but clearly I was losing steam. I'm not sure if this reflects my fitness level simply not supporting such a fast burn up front or if this is a result of the sickness I had been battling (and possibly still was) - maybe a combination of both.

The next 650 m went by in 2:48, a 4:18 pace. As I began the final ascent I kicked it up a bit but, owing to the shortened turnaround, all of a sudden I could see the finish line rushing toward me. I sprinted the final 100 m, passing a couple of tapped out runners along the way. My official time was 20:02, which would have been a PR by a long shot if it had been for a full 5k. My GPS showed that I had run 4.86 km by the time I crossed the finish line. I estimate that, at this rate, I would have finished around 20:40, which would still have been a PR, but I guess we'll never know.

I feel good about the race, especially given the circumstances. Katie and I have already signed up for a December race so there will be another chance to shoot for a new PR before the year is through. In the meantime I'll work on bringing down the pace of those later kms!

Magical Weekend in Florida

Last weekend we went to Florida to celebrate our nephew's sixth birthday! It's been years since I've been and a great deal has changed since the last time I was there. Katie and I flew in Thursday and were immediately treated to a wonderful dinner of fish tacos at my brother's new house. Both he and his girlfriend are conservation-minded marine biologists so we had high confidence that the fresh fish we were eating were sustainably caught. To add to the enjoyment, we drank some very good Bordeaux and were serenaded by our nephew's burgeoning piano skills!

Friday morning, while our hosts were at work / in school, Katie and I borrowed a car and headed to Orlando for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter! I didn't have high expectations for it as I generally find theme parks to be cheesy, poorly detailed, over-commercialized places filled with too-long lines of screaming kids (basically the same way I feel about Vegas). Still, it was clearly something I had to check off my bucket list, especially when so close. Katie was a little more optimistic, caring less about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter's execution and more just about riding roller coasters for the first time in years.

We got a late start, arriving at Universal's Islands of Adventure more than an hour after opening time. At least we had bought our tickets online in advance so we could bypass the entrance lines. We made a bee line for the Harry Potter section and started with the piece de resistance, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This ride takes place in a mock-up of Hogwarts Castle. They did a good job of recreating the castle, but the exterior facade was so small that it kind of ruined the effect.

While waiting in line for the ride we passed through several Hogwarts rooms, which were pretty faithful to the movies. They did a good job with the talking paintings and several other effects. Our wait was probably only half an hour but, on days when it's multiple hours, these extra effects would surely help alleviate the burden of the line.

The ride itself was really cool, a combination of cool chair/arm technology and cooler multisensory A/V effects. Unfortunately it was over after just five minutes, which would be hard to swallow if we had waited much longer!

By the time we exited the ride, the line for The Flight of the Hippogriff was already 60 minutes long. Given that it looked like a kiddie coaster, we opted to skip it. Thank goodness for the digital displays at each ride that estimated the wait time - bravo, Universal, for that!

We moved on directly to the Dragon Challenge, which appeared to be a more serious roller coaster. The wait for this one was only 10 minutes and it did not disappoint! Jam packed with loops, rolls, and drops, it was a 2.5-minute adrenaline rush - lots of fun! If we did one roller coaster over and over (as my brother and I used to do at King's Dominion), this would have been the one!

Having exhausted the Harry Potter rides, we made our way to the re-creation of Hogsmeade Village. Most of this comprised touristy shops that didn't interest us but the effect of snow-covered roofs was well done - even in the Florida heat! We stopped by The Three Broomsticks pub for an early lunch. The food was predictably "meh" but the butterbeer was a very worthwhile bucket list item.

So, as expected, the Harry Potter section of the park was pretty cheesy, but I'm glad we visited it at least once. For my money (and time), though, I'd just as soon play Harry Potter video games if I want to wander around Hogwarts Castle. Or, better yet, re-read the books!

As we didn't need to be back for another few hours, we dallied a bit and checked out some other rides on Marvel Super Hero Island. This began with the Spider Man ride, which was similar to the Forbidden Journey ride we did earlier, and ended with The Incredible Hulk, which was fun but not so much as the Dragon Challenge. Having then satisfied our roller coaster fix, we headed back home.

Friday night we had another great dinner with more great wine - Italian on both accounts! As the girls got sleepy and headed off to bed, my brother and I devoted ourselves to a much worthier cause - EPIC PING PONG! The last time we played ping pong together was probably sometime in high school so this was a fun trip down memory lane.

Saturday began with a morning jog followed by breakfast at the farmers market - what a way to start! The rest of the day was taken up by my nephew's birthday party. It was super hero themed, which meant that the house was decorated with super hero paraphernalia, the kids customized their own super hero capes, and many super hero games were played, including red-light/green-light/kryptonite and tug of war against evil villains (us adults)! The entire ordeal was great fun . . . but exhausting!

Due to an early Sunday obligation we had to hop on a Saturday night flight back to Houston. It was just a quick trip to Florida, but what a blast. It was so great to see my brother and his family settling in and thriving. Add excellent food, wine, company and magic rides to the mix and it was a heck of a weekend!