SpiroFlo qualified as a semifinalist in the 2013 Cleantech Open (CTO)—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for its application in reducing pumping costs and providing water/energy efficiency to green communities. This blog shares SpiroFlo’s summary thoughts in going through the accelerator. In this final part, the focus is on the biggest problem in the Cleantech Open: the final judging process.
The ‘too long, didn’t read’ (TL;DR) version of this three-part series: If you’re willing to put in the work and ride out the flaws of a growing volunteer organization, the Cleantech Open (CTO) is a great process for startup companies to connect with customers, refine their business plan, and get exposure in the marketplace… but the final judging experience still sucks.
Last year, I had an extensive series on what to expect at each stage of the Cleantech Open (CTO). In going through the process a second time, I spent the last two blogs noting what stayed the same and what changed. As usual, this is just the opinion of one big mouth fella in the Rocky Mountain region. In reading my other CTO posts, you’ll see that most of what I’ve had to say on the process is positive, but well, let’s cut to the ugly: The final judging experience still sucks.
As this is the biggest problem in the CTO—one that leaves a bitter final impression after months of work—I’ve dedicated this post to it. One of the improvements that the CTO tried to make this year was to have mock judging—where you go in and pitch to a different set of judges a month before the real deal—be as similar to final judging as possible. Unfortunately, there’s still an issue with some of the people they bring in for the big show.
I don’t think anyone expects every judge to connect with every team. You can have a mixed experience, and I’ve covered before how judges can miss the value of your product at each stage in the competition. Last year we presented early enough for the judging team to forget our value by the end of the day. This year, we presented mid-afternoon and the room was giggly enough to stifle our Q&A session. All this is to say, like everywhere else, there’s not an ideal time to present and people are flawed.
One of the judges who was engaged last year spent a number of presentations this year farting around on his phone and computer. Another judge grilled a team extensively, then later, upon getting a chance to have his questions answered, said, “Oh, I was wrong. Disregard my comments then,” but by then, his comments already held sway, and he’d already voted against that team. The biggest problem though, is the same judge from last year.
I debated identifying this judge by name, as I figured that if the CTO seems content to keep bringing him in, I figure you—if you’re not a fan of this blog, you’re a potential CTO team—might as well know what you’re up against, but I don’t think it would help. You’ll know him though. He’s a bit of a Simon Cowell (Brit accent and all), where even if he’s giving a fair criticism, he feels the need to phrase it in an obnoxious way.
I mentioned judges missing obvious information. This is the guy who last year missed that we (Vortex Tools) were in revenue, despite stating it on multiple slides along with noting that we’ve sold over 1,500 tools into the marketplace. He actually realized his mistake towards the end of our Q&A session and instead of owning it, decided to put it on us, stating, “You guys blew it.”
Last year, this judge torpedoed every team except the team he already knew, liked, and planned to work with. This year, we met the team who was like us last year—they worked hard, participated in everything, and were picked by most as a winning team. I can’t say it was a surprise when this team came away burned by, guess who? The same ol’ judge pulling the same ol’ crap.
Both years, I’ve asked other teams about their experience (hence some of the more encompassing comments above), and this is the worst judging story I heard:
Everyone’s favorite judge is an investor. As an investor, he’ll sometimes make himself a board member in his investment companies. Other times he’ll appoint himself CEO. The problem is this judge sat in on a pitch from a company that’s a direct competitor of one of the investment companies he sits on as board member.
While you shouldn’t be sharing proprietary information on your technology at any stage of the CTO, most of us can understand that sharing your go-to-market strategy—your intellectual property protection plan, testing data, target market, initial clients, and other business development pieces—with your direct competitor in the room is something most people won’t like, especially when your business is small enough that you’re not sharing these types of strategies anywhere publicly.
Let’s be honest: entrepreneurs can be a bit off kilter. It gives them a brain for innovation and the guts to risk all the pitfalls of running a start up. It also leads them to protect their baby (invention) in a way that can wind up driving themselves out of business. They’ll say things like, “I’m never selling any stock ever; I will always be in complete control of my company.” (Run from this person—at least for long enough until they figure out that this is an unreasonable standard for most growing businesses.)
So if it becomes standard fare that the CTO connects you with both valuable resources and the types of people you don’t want anywhere near your business, eventually, start ups will simply go to other green competitions instead. It’s not like there aren’t plenty around. In fact, half the problem is that green competitions, at least on the state level, pull from the same volunteer resources, so it can be hard to be completely neutral on a company, especially when some go the route of snagging every green grant or competition slot they can get.
This isn’t to say everything this judge does is wrong. One of the things he does right is that he only shows up for final judging. You won’t see him anywhere else in the CTO. Every judge in the final judging room should do the same.
Alas, there’s still that direct competitor issue listed above. This judge was smart enough to recuse himself from scoring his competitor team, but not before grilling the team during Q&A. According to a team member, this judge didn’t have to score the team low; he’d already poisoned the room so that scoring judges would do the same anyway. As a direct competitor, he shouldn’t have even been in the room to hear the presentation.
A tough judge is fine (even if I’ve got some preferences for demeanor); a compromised judge is not. Even the CTO has acknowledged that they depend on judges to have the standards to recuse themselves when a blurred line inevitably rises, but as far as I can tell, this judge doesn’t have the sense.
Really, the CTO is in need of an overhaul in judging. I think they should look at teams and say, “Look, if you put in the work, you’re going to improve your business no matter what in this accelerator, but final judging is just like the real world with any investor: It’s all about your final presentation. If you blow off each stage of the competition—the events, the webinars—I can tell you that you won’t win, but it’s this isn’t cumulative. Whatever you think of your presentation, whatever you think of the judges, come with your best and hope for the best. You’re going to have to kiss many investor frogs in this world to find a prince, and while the CTO final judging is just one frog, we’ll improve your smooch for the rest.”
So there you have it: Whether you win or lose, the Cleantech Open is a good accelerator for focusing and growing your start up business, but it’s an imperfect experience that unfortunately has most of its flaws at the end.
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If you have any questions or comments, please email me at blog (at) spiroflo (dot) com
Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:
-SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home), industrial water purification (biofilm removal), and reduced water pumping costs.
-Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).
-Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, dairy waste, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).