Builders, architects and building material companies from all over the country — and all over the world — will converge this week in San Francisco for the Greenbuild 2012 international conference and summit. The annual event includes green building tours of the City by the Bay, a leadership awards ceremony and more LEED workshops than you can shake a stick at.

The event has always been a place where smart, up-and-coming startups in the green building space might hope to catch the eye of a company well established in the field, via the magic of networking. But this year, in the convention’s exhibition hall, that opportunity will take the form of actual matchmaking between startups and a well-heeled international company looking to form strategic partnerships.

Nova Innovation Competition 2012
image via Saint-Gobain

The company is 350-year-old global building materials giant Saint-Gobain of France, which is hosting its Nova Innovation Competition for the first time in the U.S. at this year’s Greenbuild. (The European counterpart of this competition has been held for the last three years.) Nova essentially seeks out inventive startups in the fields of building construction, advanced materials, energy efficiency and environmental sustainability, offering both cash prizes and the opportunity to partner with Saint-Gobain’s Nova External Venturing organization.

This opportunity opens up potential joint development, licensing or other collaboration agreements — an approach Saint-Gobain terms Outovation, and which it cites as a key factor in keeping the largest building materials manufacturer on the planet agile in a rapidly changing market.

Those startups who made the final round of the Nova competition were announced around the middle of October, and this week, those companies will have just 10 minutes to pitch their big ideas both to Saint-Gobain and Greenbuild attendees at large via several rounds of what Saint-Gobain calls “speed-dating.”

Existing Nova partnership: Corso -- sustainable, multi-layer, ready-to-use paint systems, which look and feel like leather
image via Saint-Gobain

Rakesh Kapoor serves as the director of both Saint-Gobain’s Northboro R&D Center its NOVA External Venturing program. He told us, “It’s a way of encouraging innovation in the target areas for us. And of course if you couple it with a prize, and — much more important, from our perspective — the opportunity to talk to the senior-most managers of a 60 billion dollar company,” you gain more participation.

Prior to the presentation, all the finalists have been screened, not only by Saint-Gobain, but by “external experts,” including two from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, one from MIT, and one who heads up the sustainability division of a major U.S. construction company. These finalists have also been coached on how best to convey their company’s unique selling proposition in the speed-dating format. Which is to say, the presentation is less of a true competition unfolding before your eyes than a bit of a green building reality TV — call it the The Ultimate Green Elevator Pitch.

Existing Nova partnership: Air Sur -- photocatalytic air purification
image via Saint-Gobain

All of the startups that have made the final round of judging could be looking at a potential partnership with Saint-Gobain. (Or, for that matter, another company that happens to be impressed by their presentation at the conference.) By making a show of the showdown, so to speak, both the startups that have made the final round and Saint-Gobain gain a platform for discussing and capitalizing on innovation in the green building sphere.

Which startups should win the cash prizes, and attract that fairytale partnership with Saint-Gobain? Check out our super-speedy guide to Sain-Gobain’s Nova speed-dating startup competition, on Page 2. (And if you happen to be in San Franscisco for the conference this week, check out that competition live on November 15 and 11:00 AM.)

Architectural Applications: (Portland, Ore.) When it’s necessary to pull moisture out of the air used in ventilating a building — i.e., in air-conditioning — the primary method used today is to cool the moist air below its dew point temperature so that the water vapor condenses into liquid and drops out of the mixture, which is a process whose efficiency can be improved via energy recovery ventilation (ERV). This startup aims to improve the efficiency of air-conditioning equipment with a membrane-based ERV fabricated in a large, panelized system integrated into the building itself, which dramatically improves the thermal transfer resistance of the process.

SmarterShade: (South Bend, Ind.) This startup has developed what it terms a “simple and affordable smart glass platform” that can allow any window to go from clear to dark with the touch of a button, via a sliding shade system. (An affordable platform for this sort of tech is a bit of a Holy Grail in the building industry right now — consider Saint-Gobain’s existing partnership with Sage on this, and the bold new nano tech of RavenBrick.)

Heliotrope Technologies: (Oakland, Calif.) This company also aims to help solve the tintable glass challenge in buildings, but goes for a high-tech solution by applying a proprietary nanocrystal ink solution to the glass. This nanotech coating (like RavenBrick’s) can switch between solar transparent, heat blocking and heat and lighting blocking states.

ThermoCeramix: (Boston) Ovens, ranges, hot water, space heating radiant heat — all of these residential heating technologies can become both more efficient and cheaper through the use of ThermoCeramix’s tech-forward approach, according to this company.  Specializeing in the development of heating solutions for industrial, commercial and residential applications, ThermoCeramix has applied its film heater technology and smart manufacturing methods to the tune of a broad patent portfolio.

Encapsulix: (Simiane, Provence, France) This developer of thin-film coating equipment aims to make OLED, LED lighting, photovoltaics and organic electronics more durable and less expensive to manufacture. The method? A nano tech coating process that forms a vapor transmission barrier equal in stature to those used today, but cheaper and more flexible.

Plangrid: (Sunnyvale, Calif.) The aim of this company is simple: to create a complete collaborative platform for construction information and the fastest pdf viewer in the universe. Combining the power of the cloud with the mobility of the iPad, Plangrid provides a service that allows builders to view and communicate with all their project information right from the field (rather than having to be in the office to effectively consult files).

Aquamost Inc.: (Brookfield, Wis.): This company is built around a chemical-free system for the remediation of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and other oil/gas well wastewater. Its approach combines catalyst plates, UV light and electricity.

Blue Water Bioproducts: (Port Huron, Mich.) This developer of eco-friendly polyurethane resins had developed a process using lignin, a pulp and paper industry waste product. LEED point score alert: There are a broad range of building material applications here that could potentially qualify for the recycled product credit.

The top three winners will be awarded cash prizes of $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000, respectively — but the bigger prize, of course, is the opportunity for all Nova Innovation Competition participants to partner with Saint-Gobain’s NOVA External Venturing organization in exploring potential joint development, licensing or other collaboration agreements.

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