Vortex Tools qualified as a semifinalist in the Cleantech Open—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for their application in turning harmful CO2 waste from oil and gas wells into recovered high-value energy. This blog covers Vortex Tools’ final placement and all the things we couldn’t (or shouldn’t) have said along the way.
After nearly five months, the 2012 Cleantech Open has wrapped. In writing these final thoughts, I wanted to give it some time so that I’d be fair. Inevitably, if you win, it’s hard to not come across as wearing rose-tinted glasses, and if you lose, it’s hard to not come across as sour grapes. As this entry is long (and I’ve covered the complete process over a half-dozen other entries), I’ll post a complete summary soon.
Throughout the Cleantech Open, I’ve tried to be fair about both the good and the bad, even if it’s just my opinion. Hopefully this blog is no different:
1. Vortex Tools Placed As a Runner-Up in Both Categories
In getting picked as runner-up in both sustainability and the overall competition, we had two avenues to mercilessly threaten the winning teams to get to the national finals, but for all the horse heads we left on pillows, no one dropped out to allow Vortex Tools to go on. As both these runner-up nods indicate that the Cleantech Open thinks somewhat highly of our product, we should be satisfied, right?
Well… we’re not. Before I get the “you’re just disgruntled because you didn’t win” line, let me explain:
Let’s get ready to rrruuuuumble!
2. The Best Teams Did Not Win
Bear in mind, throughout this process, you will connect with many other teams. If you’re like me, it’s possible to enjoy people, but still be objective about their strengths and weaknesses. Of the three teams picked as finalists in the Rocky Mountain region, one was clearly the favored pick, as they won both the finalist slot and the sustainability slot. This threw off the other teams in the region — as we thought there were four finalists, not three — but upon questioning this, we were told that the Cleantech Open judges like it when the same team wins both categories, as it shows that a winning team can also be sustainable. It should be noted that this is a 2012 rule update (in previous years the same judges divided these categories).
As sustainability is supposed to be 20% of your final grade, I figured each of the finalists would have a strong sustainability component, but all of them seemed surprisingly lacking, especially as several other teams excelled in this area. Worse than that, the sustainability finalist was a terrible pick. I’m not saying this just from my viewpoint, but also by the stated Cleantech Open guidelines. At mock judging, the sustainability judge told us that sustainability was graded based on a triple bottom line, meaning that the technology has to provide a profit, as well as benefiting both people and the planet. We were also told that Vortex led in this category, because as of the mock judging stage (as in two weeks before the competition was over), no other team had incorporated sustainability into their presentation. That’s right: in a green competition not one team save Vortex had green benefits noted in their presentation. Seemed pretty nuts to me, too.
I won’t list the finalists’ names (as that would be unfair to them based on what I’m about to say), but of the three winning teams in the Rocky Mountain region:
- The favored team didn’t show up to several “required” events, but was a shoo in as they’re a safe pick, had won prior green competitions, are involved in academia and nanotechnologies, but not in-revenue (all Cleantech Open soft spots). One of their team members noted that the Simon Cowell judge knew him from another competition and was excited to see him again (not surprisingly, this was one of the few teams that judge didn’t grill). Most judges would understand the need to remove bias and recuse themselves, but I’m assuming the Cleantech Open doesn’t have the support for that kind of personnel switch. In the end, it just serves to note that the green world is as much of an insider’s club as the good old boy industry agendas they despise. It’s okay; networking is that way of the world. We’ve benefited from it as much as it has hurt us.
- The second finalist is easy to pick apart, but as they worked hard and are a different take on what clean tech means, I’ll actually give kudos to the Cleantech Open for selecting a great long shot pick.
- The final team though — that’s the one that highlights all the issues with the Cleantech Open judging: This team struggled throughout the process, was unprepared several times (but allowed to fix things after deadlines), and didn’t even finish their final presentations. As a result, I have a hard time believing they came out ahead of most of the other semifinalists. For as harsh as that may sound, consider this: Even the leader of this team was surprised at being picked as one of the winners.
So if there were better teams in the Rocky Mountain region, how did we get these three finalists?
3. Cleantech Open Biases Come Out Late in the Game
As far as the 2012 Rocky Mountain region is concerned, there were certain obvious biases (covered above), but there also seemed to be judge opposition towards in-revenue companies and dirty industries (oil and gas, clean coal, biofuels, landfilling, etc.) – regardless of how much innovative companies improve these areas. I say this because most of the best teams in the Rocky Mountain region fell into at least one of these categories and didn’t win. Every team that won hasn’t sold anything yet.
At the beginning of the competition, we thought we had a chance to do well in our region, but not at the finals for a couple of main reasons:
1) This is a clean tech competition: Inevitably, we figured we’d run into the kind of green crowd that hates that we work in the oil and gas industry, even if we’re trying to improve it. Do you really see a clean technology competition picking an oil and gas company as their winner? As crass as an example as it may seem, it’d be like a mainstream beauty pageant picking a plus-sized model as their winner. It should be possible — as beautiful is beautiful regardless of size and there are a variety of factors in those competitions (like the verbal horror of the question and answer sections) – but in the end, whether it’s stated or not, we all know what they’re looking for.
2) Chevron was the main sponsor: Yes, you read that correctly: one of the six supermajor oil and gas companies was the largest corporate sponsor of the Cleantech Open in 2012. While some might think this should have improved Vortex’s chances to win, large “dirty industry” companies promote green activities to A) keep a pulse on innovation; and B) improve their image. Again, with the latter, there’s no way they’d pick and oil and gas company to win a green competition. Everyone would assume it was rigged by sponsor dollars.
Even with these factors in mind, Vortex figured we’d enter to network and prove that the oil and gas industry can do better environmentally (reducing CO2 emissions) while doing so economically (increasing oil vapor and natural gas liquid recovery for greater profit). Up until the final judging, we thought we were wrong about these initial assumptions and the aforementioned biases, but it was really disappointing to be proven right in the closing days.
As a clean coal company won the Rocky Mountain region in 2011 — but got ripped apart at the national finals — we thought we had a chance, but it turns out the only reason that clean coal company went to the finals at all was because one of the safe companies took the prize money and immediately dropped out of the competition. You can bet your pocket lint that little payday flub got fixed this year. As a result, the biases we noted above have remained consistent over several years.
4. Come On, Are You Sure You’re Not Just Bitter?
With this much criticism, I imagine a number of you must be thinking: “Why don’t you just say you should have won?”
Okay, I’ll say it: Vortex Tools should’ve been one of the finalists.
Angry cat: More socially acceptable than I am in this situation
It’s one thing if we say it — we could easily be delusional about how good we are (watch the tryouts for any talent show on TV) — but the problem is others were saying “Vortex should win,” too. This includes some of the other semifinalists, the volunteers who helped teams with their messaging, and even Cleantech Open personnel. When Vortex didn’t win and the wrong company did (above a field of stronger competitors, not just us), the Cleantech Open personnel said things to us like, “I don’t know what happened”; “I don’t get it, but we have no pull on the judging team”; and bluntly: “You should have won.”
As I’m as direct in private as I am publicly, Vortex discussed this with some of the more open Cleantech Open personnel. One high up volunteer told us, “You only lost by half a point” (hence the runner-up status in both categories) and that we were leading the competition until late in the day. The problem is that two of the teams who beat us presented early and the last one was the weakest team. As genuinely supportive as the Cleantech Open is to each company throughout (and even after) the process, there are still hidden standards and expectations for their winners.
Final judging should not be able to override what was a good process, but as of this year in the Cleantech Open, it does. Pick the wrong judges and they’ll send on their bias rather than consistent teams. In the end though, it’s their competition; they can judge it however they like. However, people also have the right to judge the way they judge — especially when they don’t follow their own guidelines — and we’ve come to the conclusion that Vortex’s runner-up nods were given as platitudes for a dirty industry team that wouldn’t be allowed to win a clean tech competition.
I’m guessing that I’m not the first person to feel this way, but if the Cleantech Open doesn’t want a repeat of Vortex Tools in the future, it needs an update. The easiest ways I see to do this are A) have pre-revenue and in-revenue companies compete for different finalist slots; B) place “dirty” technologies in their own category that they can actually win; and/or C) rewrite the entry rules so that a team like Vortex can’t slip through the initial process.
Inevitably, whatever the Cleantech Open is at this stage — a small business accelerator, a positive image shift for large sponsors, or a way to feel good about supporting small green startups — it’s not a business competition.
5. The Bottom Line: Knowing What We Know Now, Vortex Tools Wouldn’t Have Participated in the Cleantech Open
It’s safe to say that Vortex got more out of the Cleanteach Open than we put in. There are many good parts, including:
- Lots of networking opportunities
- Several great Cleantech Open staff volunteers, including David Talon, Rex Northen, Cindy Jennings, Jerry Healey and Jennifer Mayes
- Excellent business clinics (every region should have these); and
- The ability to improve your marketing message, especially with volunteer companies like Posit Partners involved
So then… what’s the problem?
The problem is that you can do all the above with far less commitment. You can be intentional about networking; you can work with business clinics and marketing groups more specifically (even if you have to pay for their services, they’re worth it); and guess what? Usually it doesn’t take a four-month commitment and you don’t get all the bad we’ve covered either.
Early on, we knew the Cleantech Open would be a hefty commitment, but we chose to dedicate the resources. This meant working early/late and on our vacations. It meant that as a company already selling a patented and proven technology into growing markets, we had to spend our resources carefully, so to get a late game bait and switch from the Cleantech Open feels like a rip off.
I will say this: If you’re just starting a business (pre-revenue), the Cleantech Open is worth it. You’ll get a rapid business education, technology development, market help, a level of credibility for your company, extensive networking and many other good things. As a company actually doing business, however, we got a basic business education we already knew and are far beyond, resources we could get elsewhere more efficiently, and the final jab of watching weaker teams stumble into awards with less effort.
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In the next (and final) Cleantech Open blog, I’ll provide links to every Cleantech Open blog I’ve written as well the top five pros and cons of the process. If you read all of this entry, you get an e-high five. 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) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).
-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, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).
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