Accelerators Leverage Relationships To Fast Forward Infrastructure Innovation

For startups, accelerators represent a chance to change the way consumers interact with infrastructure. We talk to three of them.

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SDG6 is a set of sustainable development goals developed by the United Nations. Those goals include equitable global access to safe drinking water at affordable rates, and a reduction in pollution  by 2030.

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Advances in clean energy, transportation and water conservation technology have made the role of accelerators pivotal in terms of connecting investors with cutting-edge research. But commercial viability is key to moving technology from the whiteboard into homes and businesses.

Icons of Infrastructure spoke to three accelerators about their processes, and the importance of using their relationships to help startups reshape the market.

Free Electrons

The global energy startup accelerator Free Electrons connects late-stage electric distribution startups with utilities in the US, Europe, and Asia.

To date, the accelerator has helped launch two successful US-based energy companies: Boulder, Colorado-based Grid Cure which is working on a SaaS platform to help utilities convert smart grid data into what it calls “actionable insights”; and Kisensum, an Oakland, California-based software developer that has created solutions to integrate, control and optimize distributed energy resources such as electrical vehicle charging stations, and photovoltaic arrays.

Startups must complete a 35-question survey as part of the accelerator program. The surveys are then reviewed by Free Electrons’ utility members such as Columbus, Ohio’s American Electric Power to determine the best potential fit with their business plans, markets and customers.

Ram Sastry

Ram Sastry, vp for enterprise innovation and resiliency at AEP, said that the survey results help utilities better understand how mature the technologies are, and which may be commercially deployable in the mid-term. He added that getting the technology from a demo to a commercially viable product often includes a degree of coaching through its Beta-I program.

The face-to-face interactions that define the program enable startups to ask utilities directly about the possible applications for their inventions, and develop pitches that are tailored to meet the utility’s needs,” Sastry said. “This can, in some cases result in pairings between a startup and a single utility, or multiple utilities can agree to work with a startup directly in order to commercialize a technological innovation.”

Imagine H20

Water is the most important resource on the planet, and accelerators such as San Francisco-based Imagine H2O are making it easier for new conservation technologies to get traction in the market.

Imagine H2O Team

President Scott Bryan said that the water sector’s innovation ecosystem, while broad, does not accurately reflect the actual scope of the market. That market, according to Felton, California-based Hexa Research is expected to grow to roughly $675 billion in 2025, from approximately $478.15 billion in 2016.

“Telecom, healthcare, energy and other large sectors rely on innovation ecosystems to develop new technologies and cultivate talent. Water should not be any different.”

Startups enter a 10-month program through which they access customers, investors, and mentors as well as capacity building and marketing resources. As part of the program, Imagine H2O convenes a panel of third-party industry experts to evaluate applications primarily on the basis of commercial viability. Bryan noted that the accelerator’s process identifies entrepreneurs who successfully merge a promising or proven technology with a strong business model, but also evaluates how startups will advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 forward.

One program participant, Redwood City, California-based Fracta was earlier this year  acquired by Japan’s Kurita Water Industries for $37 million. The company, which is one of the accelerator’s 2018 applicants, has developed a cloud-based artificial intelligence that can assess the condition of drinking water pipes.

San Francisco-based Valor Water Analytics, a 2015 cohort member, was also acquired by Xylem in early 2018. The company uses algorithms and data analysis to help utilities better determine how to reduce the amount of unbilled water service, identify customers who do not pay their bills, and predict the outcome of new rate structures before they are implemented.

Neither Fracta nor Valor Water Analytics immediately responded to requests for comment.

Bryan said that Imagine H2O will open its 10th annual accelerator to applicants this fall.

Joules Accelerator

North Carolina’s Joules Accelerator, like Free Electrons, also leverages a network to bring cutting-edge, cleantech innovations to the broader market. But unlike global accelerators, the nonprofit is focused on helping corporations and cities in the Carolinas identify innovative cleantech startups.

President Bob Irvin said that his role is to identify technologies that are opportunities or threats to the energy value chain; advise those companies or startups to work with a corporation to develop a pilot project; and along the way engage the community to improve the sustainability of the region.  He added that the accelerator’s primary focus is on disruptive technologies that are less capital intensive than one such as a nuclear reactor, and as such do not require significant regulatory change. These technologies include sensors, energy efficiency, big data, artificial intelligence, and electric vehicle charging.

The accelerator typically looks at 300 companies twice a year, Irvin said. He added that a business development team made up of energy executives, research and development managers, consultants, venture capitalists and lawyers narrow that number down to 20. Ultimately, Joules Accelerator picks six or seven startups that it advises in conjunction with its corporate sponsors to help them successfully land a demo.

Among the accelerator’s 2018 cohort members are Vernon, California’s Local Roots which uses proprietary agricultural technology to create modular farms. The company’s sensor systems can ensure that plants are grown in optimal conditions all the time. Moreover, Local Roots also uses networks modeled on the human nervous system to monitor plants and determine how healthy they are.

Another cohort member, Zap & Go, is advancing energy storage technology by developing carbon-ion or “C-Ion” cells. Unlike slow-charging lithium ion batteries, the C-Ion cells can charge electronic devices in less than five minutes.

Irvin said that the accelerator has found that the startups it works with rarely need significant financing or organizational support. Instead, they are looking for a means of getting traction in the market.

“They may have a business plan,” Irvin said. “But they may not have the customers.”

He added that, while the opportunity for startups to work with energy corporations is invaluable, institutional knowledge from other successful startups is also important for continued development.

“We find that startups learn mostly from other entrepreneurs that have bootstrapped their operations to make their ventures successful,” Irvin said. “You need frontline, real-world experience.”

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