Clean Energy Challenge Offers Up Tomorrow’s Cleantech Leaders

The complicated, multi-faceted and lucrative mosaic that is the American clean energy economy includes some of the world’s largest corporations as well as up-and-coming entrepreneurs. And those small-scale efforts are just as crucial to developing technologies and companies that could be the next big thing in clean energy.

The Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago is among a growing number of clean energy competitions that help startup companies and young entrepreneurs refine and launch their ideas and innovations. The third annual Clean Energy Challenge, hosted by the Clean Energy Trust, takes place in Chicago April 4.

image via Amplified Wind Solutions

image via Amplified Wind Solutions

Midwest Energy News is a media sponsor for the event.

The competition will showcase 17 finalists for potential investors, clients and partners. Finalists have also received mentoring and other support through the Clean Energy Challenge program.

In early-stage and student categories, companies will compete for $100,000 prizes sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. McCaffery Interests, a Chicago company,  is also sponsoring a $50,000 commercialization prize.

Here is a closer look at three of the competitors gearing up for April 4.

Smarter window shades

Mike Stacey “had the entrepreneurial bug” early on growing up in Pittsburgh; working as a paper boy and cutting the neighbors’ grass.

He paid for much of his undergraduate education at Penn State University thanks to his success setting up a painting company through an internship program. After a stint in the consulting world he got his MBA in 2007 from the University of Notre Dame.

That’s where he and collaborators got the idea for developing window shades made of wafer-thin “wave retardant thin film” that fits inside or directly on windows, freeing people from the need to buy bulky shades and blinds which can be annoying and easily breakable.

They were inspired by “smart glass” which automatically tints in response to sunlight, boosting a building’s energy efficiency. Though smart glass has been around for many years, its cost means it is still not widely used in commercial or residential buildings.

In 2007 Stacey and colleagues founded the company Lono, LLC to produce SmarterShadewindow coverings that they hope will fill a niche between both the shades-and-blinds market and smart glass; an option that is sleeker, more convenient and more effective than shades or blinds but much cheaper than smart glass.

SmarterShades function with the push of a button, and they are much quicker to take effect than smart glass which tints gradually. SmarterShades are especially suited for skylights or other hard-to-cover windows, Stacey notes. They can be placed in between double-paned windows at the point of manufacture or snapped on to the outside of windows after-market.

The shades are created by overlapping strips of film in the same basic arrangement as traditional blinds, that when “closed” create a black opaque surface and when opened are nearly invisible. They are two-dimensional, completely flat, with “closing” meaning that different strips of film are shifted to overlap and the designs imprinted on them combine in a way that creates opaqueness. The technology is similar to that used in polarizing sunglasses. Stacey and his business partners, Ryan Tatzel and Will McLeod, have patented the use of such wave retardant film for window covering.

Stacey and his colleagues are working on pairing the SmarterShade with light sensors and tiny motors so – like smart glass — they can change automatically in response to light, without a human manually pushing the button. This would be important for energy efficiency in large commercial buildings.

While SmarterShade could potentially increase energy efficiency of commercial and residential buildings significantly – hence the company’s participation in the Clean Energy Challenge – Stacey noted that they are first focusing marketing efforts on appearance and convenience. Those are factors, he said, that interest most homeowners more than energy efficiency. It’s an example of the fact that motivating consumers to make energy-smart choices often involves appealing to them on various other fronts.

“People are dying for solutions for hard-to-shade skylights, I’ve seen boarded up and painted-over skylights,” Stacey said. “If you just optimize for energy efficiency you might not be around in two years. The clean-tech sector has been through a phase where a lot of money is going into these companies and the returns aren’t always playing out. We’re taking a sophisticated view of clean-tech investment.”

Midwest Energy News, launched in 2010, is a nonprofit news site dedicated to keeping stakeholders, policymakers, and citizens informed of the important changes taking place as the Midwest shifts from fossil fuels to a clean energy system.