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Posts Tagged ‘Cleantech Open’

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 series of blogs was designed to cover our experience going through the process a second time (we went through as our sister company, Vortex Tools, last year)—giving future applicants a heads up on what to expect from the CTO. Each 2013 entry is included here.  

Another year, another Cleantech Open. As I see no reason I’d be back in a participating team next year—unless someone wants to pay me in excessive amounts of nachos—I figured I’ll compile our complete 2013 CTO experience here:

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.

Main Posts: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the 2013 Cleantech Open

Part One: What Stayed the Same? Covers how the CTO is a good process at its core, but that there are still flaws with webinars, variance in volunteers, and growing pains.

Part Two: What Changed? Notes that most of the changes made this year were positive.

Part Three: Final Judging Still Sucks: Covers how the final regional judging process needs an overhaul, as it’s flawed in its current form.

Every post from the 2012 CTO experience can be found here (covers what to expect at each stage).

Misc. Posts

Step Away from the Green Grants: Comments on what generalist mentors are for in the CTO.

An Awkward Steve Jobs Joke

SpiroFlo Qualifies as a Semi-Finalist in the 2013 Cleantech Open: Covers why we decided to return for a second year.

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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).

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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).

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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.

*     *     *

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).

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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).

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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).

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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).

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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 »

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