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Why digital startups + big business = unparalleled opportunity

<p>Think cleantech is over? You haven&#39;t seen the new generation of digital cleantech startups, where software meets energy&nbsp;</p>

Witness a heart-pumping startup pitch battle featuring early-stage ventures with high-growth potential in digital transportation, smart energy systems and collaborative consumption. Join us at VERGE Accelerate, coming Nov 13 to San Francisco.

If you've followed headlines on cleantech in the last year, you haven’t seen a pretty picture. Bankruptcies of prominent companies like Solyndra and A123, reports of venture capitalists running for the hills, cheap natural gas crowding out renewables, and even discouraging images like this. All in all, a pretty tough time to be leading a cleantech startup.

But beneath this veneer of negative media, a vibrant startup ecosystem exists of innovative young companies pioneering a new path in cleantech. They are addressing major problems in energy, transportation and buildings — using data as their fuel.

We’re partnering with GreenBiz Group to bring many of these companies to a larger audience. More about that in a minute.

Digital cleantech is where software meets energy — think of it as information technology picking up where traditional cleantech left off. At Greenstart, we describe it as technology that “uses software to either reduce dirty energy or expand clean energy,” and we see hundreds of startups in this space building diverse, interesting businesses. A few examples:

  • Scoot Networks is a digital transportation startup offering a fleet of $5-an-hour electric scooter rentals you can unlock with your smartphone. Their software helps you find your scooter, determine its battery charge, even turn your phone into the dashboard while you’re riding. The scooters get 850 mpg equivalent and use 18 cents of electricity to charge, making them the cleanest, cheapest transportation option available outside of bicycles.
  • AutoGrid is helping utilities make sense of big data from smart meters, enabling them to accurately forecast demand with unprecedented precision. This helps utilities produce just the right amount of energy, potentially yielding hundreds of millions of dollars in savings — not to mention significant carbon reductions.
  • Liquid is an online marketplace enabling peer-to-peer bicycle rentals. The service allows anyone to rent a bike from a neighbor or stranger, and helps bike owners make revenue off their existing asset — an unused bicycle. Better utilizing idle goods is a key value created by this type of “collaborative consumption” company.
  • kWhOURS is collecting data in buildings by putting its iPad app into the hands of the professionals, who record building data for many purposes — audits, commissioning, certifications, etc. Its app creates a single cloud-based record of building assets and equipment, making future energy upgrades and retrofits easier.
  • GELI, a software company for large-scale batteries, can turn any energy-storage system into a smart, networked system capable of communicating with the grid. These communications and controls allow batteries to become “intelligent,” choosing when to store energy, when to sell that energy to the utilities, etc. This has huge implications for bringing renewables onto the grid, allowing intermittent sources like wind and solar to be intelligently stored and distributed when we need them.

These startups and hundreds more are working to bring their digital innovations to market, but the broad venture capital community doesn’t seem quite ready to fully re-embrace this type of cleantech as tightly as it did in 2005. That’s where the corporate sector — and VERGE — comes in.

Fortune 500 companies are natural partners to pioneering startups, especially ones building interesting products in digital cleantech. Here are three reasons:

  • First, large corporates need startups’ innovations to keep their massive business units on the cutting edge of new technology. Digital cleantech is on the early side of many important trends: smart energy distribution and storage, collaborative transportation, residential energy automation, networked buildings, etc. Startups can actually outpace corporates’ own R&D units, and embrace out-of-the-box thinking that the giants often struggle to replicate internally.
  • Second, corporates have the distribution channels, logistics capabilities and global reach that make any ambitious startup turn green (with envy). A joint-development agreement or sales partnership can save a startup the capital and time to build a sales channel of its own, helping it get to market quicker. For capital-efficient digital cleantech startups, this is a huge value, as they may struggle to build the sales force or distribution channels necessary to bring their products to broad markets.
  • Finally, both talent and technology make startups an appetizing acquisition option for a large corporation, and an equally compelling buyer from the startup’s viewpoint. Many leading business analysts in cleantech predict bigger trends of corporate acquisitions and partnerships in the coming years. Successful digital cleantech startups will be looking to exit as they mature, and corporate acquisitions will be an important option.

All of this leads to VERGE Accelerate, a new venue for bringing the best startups in digital cleantech to meet the leading corporations focused on clean technology. By providing a venue for connection and exploration, VERGE is helping spur the match-making between large companies and startups necessary to bring clean technologies to market. This holds the potential to both inject fresh capital into cleantech while giving leading companies the chance to remain just that — leaders.

The first-ever VERGE Accelerate event at the 2012 VERGE SF conference will feature a “state of the union” on cleantech from top venture capital investors, with an emphasis on how digital trends are disrupting the industry. Next, 10 leading digital cleantech startup CEOs will take the stage, delivering pitches on how their technology and team are working to change the world. Finally, the CEOs of three digital transportation startups will discuss how their companies and others can disrupt the transportation sector.

Could this spark a new chapter in cleantech? It just might.

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