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Archive for the ‘Cleantech Open’ Category

cleantech open logoSpiroFlo 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 (regional) 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 regional 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 regional judging experience still sucks.

EDIT: To avoid any confusion: I’m referencing the final judging in the Rocky Mountain region, not the overall final judging in San Jose, CA (where they vote on the top teams selected from each region).

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 regional 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.”

inconceivable

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 regional 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 regional 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 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).

Read Full Post »

cleantech open logoSpiroFlo qualified as a semifinalist in the 2013 Cleantech Open—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for its application in reducing pumping costs and providing water/energy efficiency to green communities. This blog covers what changed from last year.

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 is a great process for startup companies to connect with customers, refine their business plan, and get exposure in the marketplace… but the final regional judging experience still sucks.

Last year, I had a blog series on what to expect at each stage of the Cleantech Open (CTO). In going through the process a second time, this time I’m noting what changed and what stayed the same. As per usual, this is just the opinion of one big mouth fella in the Rocky Mountain region.

So what’s different?

I already noted the positive reasons of why we went through the Cleantech Open again, and despite any qualms I may note, I’m still appreciative of the overall value of the CTO experience. I could make a numbered list like last the last blog, but most of the intentional changes are minor and positive, whereas most of the unintentional changes are rooted in deeper structural issues or they’re things that can’t be helped:

  • There were less technical issues and more support (aided by help at the regional level). However, somewhere along the way, we seemed to get skipped on random emails. It wasn’t an issue that got resolved until late in the process.
  • Overall, the CTO stuck to deadlines this year, save delaying the initial application deadline (which seemingly every organization like this does—people like to try and enter things last minute).
  • The business clinics, though still a positive experience, were worse this year. Some of the help noted that it was missing some of its oomph, but like many aspects of the CTO, it’s based on the volunteer support.
  • They added a panel of sustainability mentors this year. That way you could connect with different people on your needs. This was a strong area before that got better. However, despite claims that sustainability is 20% of your final judging grade, it still doesn’t feel all that important.
  • The worksheets—which are designed to summarize your business and prepare judges for your presentation—were opened back up for one more round of editing before final judging. This was a good move as it allowed for one more round of growth.

So there you have it. Most of the changes are positive, and the CTO is still looking to improve their process. The easiest place they can start is with final judging, but as that’s a deeper issue, I’ll cover that next time.

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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).

Read Full Post »

cleantech-open-logo1SpiroFlo qualified as a semifinalist in the 2013 Cleantech Open—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. Up first, what stayed the same.

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 regional judging experience still sucks.

Last year I had a lot to say about the CTO (when we went through as our established oil and gas company, Vortex Tools). This year we went through the process as a startup water company—SpiroFlo. I haven’t said much this time around, but I will now. Given that I’ve gone through the accelerator twice, I believe this gives me a decent sense of what’s working and what isn’t.

In sitting down to write this out, I’ve realized I’ve gone quite long, so I’ll upload my thoughts in three parts. As usual, this is just the opinion of one big mouth fella in the Rocky Mountain region.

Up first, here’s what stayed the same:

1a. At its core, the CTO is still made up of caring people who want to connect businesses to knowledge and networks that will help them succeed

There were a number of people I name-dropped as helpful last year—add Dick Franklin, Jeff Lints, Dale Zink, and many others to that list—and several continue to be involved year after year.

1b. The CTO lives and dies by the quality and commitment of its volunteers

Last year, we were assigned a generalist mentor—ideally, someone who is a sounding board and connector for your business—but he didn’t really have the time. This year, it seemed like the CTO took longer to assign mentors, but they were a better fit for the teams. Alas, many CTO volunteers are still in-between jobs, so when they do get back to making a paycheck, this gig can get dropped.

In addition, when things do go awry, the standard deflection line for many of the CTO higher-ups is “We’re a volunteer organization”; instead of saying, “That is a problem; let me see what I can do.” Still, most of the volunteers are what help make the process worthwhile.

2. Webinars are still boring

Each Tuesday for 10 weeks, you sit at your computer and listen to experts chat on a variety of business needs for a few hours. Alas, for me, a computer screen equals work time, so it’s easy to get detoured by business needs. Also, did you know there are distractions on the internet? I mean, there are these pictures of cats with grammatically incorrect captions under them! Amazing!

Circa 2006 (though the first lolcat dates back to the 1870s... seriously)

Circa 2006 (though the first lolcat image dates back to the 1870s… seriously)

Finally, it’s hard to be engaging when it’s just your voice and a series of slides, and frankly, most of the speakers just don’t recognize the oomph you need to put in to make the medium succeed. Add in accents and technical difficulties (although there were far less this year), and despite my understanding that webinars are still the best way to rally hundreds of people from all over the country to one virtual place, it’s an unengaging way to receive info.

3. There are still growing pains

The CTO is on its way to being a global organization, and while it’s not there yet, it seems like they’re stretching to get there in a hurry. Once they arrive, I think the status will help them pull in more volunteers. Until then, you can feel the gaps. It also doesn’t help that there are several green organizations—NREL, CCIA, Rocky Mountain Innosphere, Energy Fellows Institute, and local university grant/competitions—all tapping the same niche of people.

Finally, both years the CTO has tried to implement something last-minute and it hasn’t worked: In 2012, it was YouSeeU—a site that lets you upload/watch your presentation and receive feedback—but it didn’t return for 2013, as most teams didn’t use it. This year it was LaunchPad Central—a site that helps you keep track of progress in your business strategies and customer interactions. While I’m not a fan of how the site inflates their numbers, overall, the structure is valuable. However, the CTO didn’t require LaunchPad Central in each region, and this option seemed to lose favor, especially as teams grew concerned that the competition might be able to check their progress. With this in mind, I doubt it’ll return next year.

4. Everyone’s after something

Don’t be shocked; if you’re participating as a team, you’ve got an angle, too. As noted, the core of the CTO wants to see you succeed, but there are people angling for jobs, sponsoring companies want to transition you into a paid client (and when they’re a good fit, we’ve obliged), and more than one organization wants a little too much information so that they can get government funding. Lines can get blurred, but you learn to say no.

We said no to surveys from the CTO and the local Chamber. Even if I wanted to give out all that sensitive business information, my boss would sledgehammer my computer and pack my stuff. After two years of not getting responses from the South Metro Denver Chamber—despite them offering one-on-one help then me requesting it—I can tell you that it feels like they’re in it for the funding (they get paid per team they help, or really, paid per team that fills out their paperwork). I’ll give the Chamber credit though: they are helpful when you’re part of the group standing in front of them.

Up next: What changed in the 2013 iteration of the Cleantech Open.

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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).

Read Full Post »

cleantech open logoSpiroFlo qualified as a semifinalist in the 2013 Cleantech Open—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for its application in reducing pumping costs and providing water/energy efficiency to green communities. This blog covers the flaws of pursuing nothing but green grants.

Given that I had a thing or fifty to say about the Cleantech Open the last time, I haven’t said much this time around. However, I had a chat with one of the generalist mentors not too long ago, and it shaped my thinking on both the Cleantech Open and niche groups as a whole.

In going through the 4-5 month process in 2012 as Vortex Tools, I assumed the generalist mentor the Cleantech Open assigned to you would help fill in any confusing parts of the process. This year I know better, but I bounced my thinking off a long-term mentor. His response:

We intentionally don’t help Cleantech Open teams in every little step of the the process. You need to be able to figure it out, and serves as a litmus test for how well you’ll do overall in business. Actually, the teams that win the Cleantech Open usually don’t do the best in business. You can spend all your time in green competitions—NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory), DoE (Department of Energy), Cleantech this, Cleantech that—and never have to have any success as a business. You just keep getting grants. Often times, it’s the losers in the Cleantech Open who go out and do better in business.

It’s one thing if I think these things, but it’s another to have it confirmed by a staple of the organization (it was no surprise to me that he was mentor of the year several times). However, it’s the truth. Small green competitions are full of archetypes. When you see someone who’s under 35 at the Cleantech Open, odds are they’re a PhD. Many of them are bright; many of them have qualified for several stages of SBIR/STTR grants (government grants for small emerging technologies); and many of them will go nowhere in business.

It’s not necessarily inexperience or taking the wrong path—the archetype became a good standard for a reason—it’s the reality that doing well in the classroom doesn’t equate to doing well in the business world. Plus, the reality is most small business fail anyway—there are gobs of ways to mess it up.

Here’s to failing in the right areas.

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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).

Read Full Post »

SpiroFlo was in Silicon Valley this weekend, hanging out in a room full of emerging green technologies.

One of the speakers was Guy Kawasaki—the one-time Apple evangelist (translation: he built a lot of marketing support in the 80s and from that [and other ventures] he’s now got 1.3+ million followers on his Twitter, along with several books and speaking engagements).

During the question and answer part of his presentation, an audience member noted that Steve Jobs didn’t follow the rules Kawasaki described.

Kawasaki rightfully noted, “You’re not Steve Jobs.”

“No,” the man replied, full deadpan. “I’m still alive.”

And there you have it folks: How to win friends and influence people.

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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).

Read Full Post »

cleantech open logoI’m pleased to announce that SpiroFlo qualified as a semi-finalist for the 2013 Cleantech Open (CTO) for our residential hot water savings and industrial biofilm removal applications.

If you’ve followed this blog—gnawing on every tasty word (and why wouldn’t you?)—you’d know that I had a lot to say, good and bad, about going through the 2012 CTO as Vortex Tools. A fair question then to ask is: Why are you doing it again?

There are two main reasons:

  1. The Cleantech Open receives criticism and makes changes: I’m not going to say that all the changes came from what I said—common problems become commonly shared complaints—but I’m as blunt in-person and I had opportunity to share my thoughts with the CTO planners. Regardless of how it happened, this year they’ve changed the overall judging scheme. I still think they’re going to be painfully shorthanded volunteer-wise, but I’m willing to wait and see.
  2. SpiroFlo is a better fit: Last year, we entered thinking that the CTO is a competition, and chose our more established, more successful green oil and gas company, Vortex Tools. While the CTO is a competition, it’s designed more to accelerate smaller companies, making SpiroFlo a better fit.

I highly doubt I’ll write as much on the CTO as I did before, but I do like that it keeps me apprised of innovation in the green sector, as well as the same old flawed thinking that doesn’t seem to budge. Odds are there will be a speaker who, A) believes nuclear energy and/or oil and gas can be done away with today; and B) we can do so because of what some non-American country (usually Japan or somewhere in Europe) is doing with wind and solar.

I’m a fan of some of these technologies—living in a dry state, seeing what Germany has done to implement green roofs makes me jealous—but there’s a misguided belief among some environmentalists that multi-year, best scenario projections will equate to reality. Even by favorable estimates, Japan’s current wind and solar use could offset maybe 10% of their nuclear energy use, and that’s before you get into the painful realities of what happens when you try to move large amounts of business from one entity to another.

However it goes, I’m sure I’ll annoy some people when I take to the microphone. I’m looking forward to it.

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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).

Read Full Post »

Vortex Tools explains why, with fuel costs and slim profit margins, the airline industry is one of the likeliest to not go green.

By Flickr user Axwel [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsI’ve mouthed off a lot about airlines lately (see here and here). Maybe it’s just that I’m experiencing their joys and troubles more often from traveling. For instance, the fact that a plane can leave the gate, then stall on the runway while luggage gets loaded on late, while still allowing the airline to check the box for an “on time” departure is indicative of the level of meaningless standards.

But here’s my bent today: I realized a while ago that the airline industry has no motivation to go green.

Many environmentalists don’t like oil and gas, but there are motivations to keep the industry cleaner. In the event of an oil spill, there are fines, cleanup costs, public relations pains, etc. In the event of too many CO2 emissions from the wellhead, the producer gets fined until they’re in compliance with air laws. Additionally, regulations keep changing—usually in a way that’s stricter on oil and gas pollution. Flaring gas is continuing to get scaled back and I doubt fracking will make it, in its current form, through another 10 years.

Vortex vapor recovery tool

Vortex vapor recovery tool

In working in the oil and gas sector—using Vortex Tools to vastly reduce CO2 emissions and to recover 10 times more valuable natural gas liquids to make a profit while burning a cleaner flare—I can tell you that all of these aspects equate to motivation to make a dirty industry cleaner.

But airlines don’t really have this kind of motivation.

Like any other industry, they can spin their efforts as green, but it’s about intent and application. Everything the airlines do is to get planes in the air with less cost. The biggest obstacle to this is the price of fuel. While they can’t control the cost of the commodity, they can control the weight they’re putting on the plane. You may be familiar with examples of airlines using lighter seats, thinner and lighter magazines, and not serving food on shorter flights.

(The exception to all these rules is if you pay a premium—for larger seats, for extra luggage, for food on the short ride.)

Then there are some uglier examples of controlling weight. While we’re seeing people get dinged for their bag being overweight, we’re also seeing examples of people getting dinged for they themselves being overweight. I get it logistically—I’m a small man and the airline experience gets me way too familiar with the odors and feel of the people around me—but you can see how this can get cruel quick. I’ve got some larger friends who understand that they need to buy a first class ticket if they want to fly comfortably, but what happens when you put these kinds of requirements on say, an obese kid?

In addition, the cynical part of me is waiting to hear some secret audio from a worldwide airline executive complaining about how fat Americans are ruining profit margins. In the mean time, Samoa Air has already introduced a “pay what you weigh” model.

During the Cleantech Open, I met a company, Molon Labe, who made a sliding airline seat. The value of this is that you could load / unload the plane faster (slide over the middle seat on your side and go), get a faster turnaround (using energy in the air instead of wasting it on the ground), and, according to them, saving airlines $75,000 a day in fuel costs (not sure how many planes would need to install their seats to get that number, but it’s still significant).

As the Cleantech Open had a large sustainability component, Molon Labe’s argument was that this kind of efficiency could allow a plane to have more flights in a day, allowing airlines to remove planes from their fleet entirely. In theory, less planes = less energy use = less environmental impact, but from what I’ve seen of this industry, less energy use + greater flight turnaround = more flights in a day. More flights in a day = more environmental impact, and, if it makes sense and the profit margin is good enough, more planes in the fleet.

It’s a reality that rarely gets pushed back on companies touting green, but more efficiency does not always equal greater sustainability.

In the end, regardless of what I think of certain airline practices, I know it’s a tough industry. The profit margins are surprisingly slim and most airline companies go bankrupt at some point. As comedian Louis CK noted, it is amazing that we can sit in chairs and fly through the sky to the other side of the world (see 2:00 on — yes, the clip is in English):

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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).

Read Full Post »

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 series of blogs was designed to chronicle our experience going through the 2012 Cleantech Open as a reference point for future applicants. Every post — as well as the top five best and worst things the Cleantech Open has to offer — is listed below.

After five months and now 10 posts on the Cleantech Open (or clean tech open if the search engines are slacking), it’s time I get back to things that are ongoing, like my disdain for Captain Planet. Before I go, however, here’s a post of the top five best and worst parts of the Cleantech Open, as well as every post of what to expect from each section of this green business accelerator:

Top Five Best Things in the Cleantech Open

  1. You get your money’s worth: Despite the initial cost, with the extensive networking, volunteer services, and yes, free swag, you’ll get more value than what you put in. Based on time input, though, that’s a whole other angle. For more on this, see posts I and III below.
  2. Rapid education for new small business people: If you’ve just started a company or you just have an idea, the Cleantech Open is for you. Established companies should stay away. For more on this, see post III, IV and VII below.
  3. Excellent business clinics: Currently these are only in the Rocky Mountain region, but with the caliber of support and the expertise of the specialists, they should be expanded to every region. For more on this, see post IV below.
  4. Cleantech Open volunteers genuinely want to help every team succeed in business: With the networking alone, you’ll start to connect to some of the right people (though networking is always a numbers game and you never know its true value until later). More than that, however, Cleantech Open volunteers want to see innovation succeed. For more on this, see post II below.
  5. Win or lose, your company messaging will improve: Whether it’s your elevator pitch, legal needs, target market or customer connections, the Cleantech Open will point you in the right direction. For more on this, see posts III, IV and V below.

Top Five Worst Things in the Cleantech Open

  1. Very disorganized; needs more staff support: This was the true constant in the Cleantech Open. If they want to grow, they need to invest in the proper infrastructure, but those costs could well change its value. For more on this, see posts I, II, IV and VI below.
  2. Not all regions and personnel are created equal: Whether it’s the amount of finalists, the engagement of personnel, or what state you’re in (in proximity to where the regional events are held), your experience can vary. Call up past semifinalists in your state and check. For more on this, see post III below.
  3. The worksheets are frustrating and have little value (especially to an established company): Whether it’s meaningless deadlines, shifting requirements, or the sheer amount of busy work (especially with the webinars) for a product that doesn’t have that much value in the Cleantech Open or the business world, the worksheets — at least with their current form and emphasis — are a waste of time and effort. Additionally, much of the education materials throughout default to the lowest common denominator, meaning the more basic info you know, the less you learn. For more on this, see posts IV and V below.
  4. Some judges will continually miss the value of your product: People mess up and have biases, and since the judges in the Cleantech Open are no different, it doesn’t matter what you say, some will miss or misconstrue what you present (even if those worksheets were supposed to help ease that problem). This can happen as early as the application phase or as late as final judging, but it will happen. For more on this, see posts I, VI and VII below.
  5. Final judging bias overrules overall competition effort: Although the Cleantech Open says overall competition participation is important, it feels more like you can shrug off the first 80% of the competition and hope to hit the judges niche at the end. Rather than sending on the best teams, it feels like they send on the teams that safely fit the Cleantech Open mold. For more on this, see posts VI and VII below.

Process Posts: What to Expect from the…

I. Application

II. National Conference

III. Regional Academy

IV. Webinars (part one) and business clinics

V. Webinars (part two), worksheets and mock judging

VI. Final judging and the awards ceremony

VII. Final thoughts on the Cleantech Open

Misc. Posts on the Cleantech Open

VIII. Five insights to the current state of green energy in the U.S.

IX. Vortex Tools clip from the Cleantech Open

* * *

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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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.

*                             *                             *

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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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 series of blogs is designed to chronicle our experience going through the 2012 Cleantech Open as a reference point for future applicants. Today’s blog: What to expect from final judging and the awards ceremony.

Of note: I’m writing points 1 and 2 before we find out if we’re selected as one of the Rocky Mountain region finalists—it feels like I’ll be more objective that way.

After four months, we’ve completed all the regional activities in the Cleantech Open. If Vortex is selected as one of the finalists in the Rocky Mountain region, I’ll blog onward. If not, you’re on your own, dear souls. As usual, these are the opinions of one participant going through the process in 2012:

1. Even Volunteers are Frustrated by the End

I’ve mentioned throughout these blogs that there’s a degree of disorganization that needs to be addressed in the Cleantech Open. Thankfully, as the competition progress to the final stages, things mostly run smoothly for the companies. However, this doesn’t mean that the volunteers aren’t still stressed. We happened to catch a high-up volunteer on an honest day and he expressed his frustration that nearly every “this will not be moved” deadline was extended and that, with the current structure, even the simplest tasks took far too long to be completed.

In coming to the end of this process, one of the last tasks is to upload your presentation about 10 days before the final judging day. This is good, as since the Power Point deck of your presentation cannot be changed, you get a week-and-a-half to get your final presentation polished. There’s just one catch: Throughout this process, we tried to turn our work in early. This meant we didn’t get the shaft from website overload issues and that I didn’t flog my teammates as the deadline rapidly approached (it’s only happened three or four times, I swear).

In seeing that the deadline was on a Sunday—the worst day for an online deadline, as there’s all the issues and none of the technical support—we elected to wrap up two days early. Unfortunately, the Cleantech Open website wasn’t accepting any documents, as the organizers hadn’t opened the submissions back up after the worksheets were due. Apparently nobody else tried to submit early, or at the very least, they hadn’t complained. It’s these kinds of minor oversights that can cause major issues, but once you get the last of your materials in, it’s time to present:

2. Some Judges Will Be Harsh

In the Rocky Mountain region, both the mock judging and the final judging were held at Faegre Baker Daniels, though the judges and the rooms were different each time. When it comes to final judging, you have to arrive 30 minutes early. You get 10 minutes to present, then there’s 10 minutes of Q&A followed by five minutes of feedback. In the Q&A you’re graded based on how you answer questions and in the feedback you’re graded based on shutting up. Although two people can present, only one can answer questions while the other is a scribe. There are six judges in the room (it can be hard to tell who’s who) along with a few more familiar faces.

At this stage in the Cleantech Open process, no matter how much you’ve enjoyed the connections or the ways it has helped you refine your company message, you’ll be ready to be done. With this is mind we elected to go first. Why wait a few more hours?

By Alison Martin of SimonCowellOnline.com (XF58) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Simon Cowell

We’d received positive feedback throughout the Cleantech Open, but since they’re preparing you to go against other finalists from other regions, some of the judges can be tougher on you. For the most part, we appreciated the criticisms, but there was one judge who was the equivalent of Simon Cowell, where even if the heart of the criticism was fair, his delivery was not. It seemed like it was his job to get a rise out of you, but we survived him fine. Unfortunately, this was the first time we felt we experienced a bias in the Cleantech Open process—something that was wonderfully absent before.

As for the other judges, one of the earliest frustrations comes back again, in that even if the information was a part of your presentation, they can miss or misconstrue that info. In some ways it felt like they hadn’t read our worksheet materials and executive summary at all, lowering their value in the competition, but with 16 other companies still in our region (down from 20 total at the start), I can see the need to cut them some slack, too. In updating your presentation to earlier rounds of judging, you either, a) get criticism that’s the opposite of what the last judge wanted; or b) get new criticism based on the flaws that are left. Inevitably, a 10-minute presentation is designed to have gaps. In the real world, this type of presentation is designed to leave people wanting more. In the Cleantech Open, it’s a never-ending edit-fest, but that’s the parameters in this type of competition.

3. Awards Ceremony: See How Far People Have Come / Haven’t Come

And then the big day…

In our region, the awards were held at the University of Denver’s Cable Center and were hosted by Emmy award winning news anchor, Cheryl Preheim. She graciously skipped the 60-year anniversary of her own network, 9 News, to host the Cleantech Open awards.

Before that though, teams were required to show up by 2 PM (most by 1 PM) in order to set up a presentation table and get parking validated (never miss an opportunity to avoid paying for that kind of thing). At 2:30 we went through and practiced our three-minute pitches. What was strange about this is that A) some teams did not show up for this practice and had a hard time getting through their actual pitch; and B) very few teams made a specific three-minute slide deck. Many had either just a single screen or had just put in the 10-minute version, which they’d have no hope of getting though. Despite the standard claim that you wouldn’t be able to change your presentation, several companies were allowed to do so, because deadlines mean nothing in the Cleantech Open. Every deadline throughout this four-month process was amended/extended.  

Before the pitches, there’s essentially a small trade show in the main area of the Cable Center consisting of the Rocky Mountain finalists. Like the original national conference, you get a 6’ table for anything you can fit on there (electricity is extra). From 3-4, the sponsors come in and from 4-5 it’s open to anyone with a ticket—likely your friends and family who like you enough to pay $60 per ticket. There’s an open bar and “heavy appetizers,” which means random hors d’oeuvres and a feeling you should’ve eaten a bigger lunch. All in all, 170 people attended the event.

After this, you’ll hear a few brief speeches before moving into the auditorium for the three-minute pitches and awards. The teams will sit up front to get in and out easily. If you don’t complete your pitch in three minutes, the sound booth will turn up that fancypants orchestral awards music until you get the hint (though some speeches sure did seem longer than that limit). As usual, you don’t know who you’re in the room with, so present your best.

Like everything else in the Cleantech Open, not all regions are created equal. The original western region in California—which started it all and is still a hotbed of green activity—gets six entrants to the finals (one in each category). The Rocky Mountain region gets three entrants (and can pick multiples from the same category) whereas the new pilot region in Texas only got one finalist this year (based on the number of entrants). Each region also picks a winner in sustainability that gets to go on to the Global Forum/finals in California the following month. Each winner gets prizes in cash and services.

After the awards are handed out, you’ll spend the last hour back out by your table meeting and greeting people again, this time with dessert. By 8:30-9, things wrapped up and it’s tear down/pack up time. In the end, no matter who wins, you’ve built some great relationships and you’re happy to see whoever go on…

…but if you’re like me, you’ll have some opinions on who does and does not go on and why. I’ll cover those next time.

* * *

In the next blog, I’ll reveal Vortex Tools’ placement in the Cleantech Open and will share my closing thoughts on the semifinalist process. 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).

Read Full Post »

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