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 potential 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 winner would be announced.
I came into the finals with several goals:
- Win the global competition
- Win the energy efficiency category
- 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.