VERGE Accelerate: A hopeful future in two and a half minutes

Never in my life had I been so nervous about another person’s presentation. In this case, other people’s presentations — plural.

Sweaty-palms nervous, yes, because supporting these 15 VERGE Accelerate competitors has been my responsibility. Nervous, even more so, because I wanted to see each of them shine (and not just from our slick LED stage lights) — because I believe so passionately in all of their missions.

The 30-minute VERGE Accelerate segments on both days of last week’s VERGE Boston program whizzed by like a fast-paced pitch competition — which is exactly what it was: 15 pitches across two days, each entrepreneur given 2.5 minutes to make the most persuasive case for why his or her vision has the potential to solve a critical sustainability challenge at scale. With a splash of "American Idol"-esque entertainment and engagement, the winners were decided by a vote of the audience — in person and online — in what was an arguably more serious and purpose-driven show than your typical dance-off. Our program partners at the New England Clean Energy Council were instrumental in providing a pool of compelling competitors.

As I stood backstage, amidst the scramble of getting our venture capital judges mic’d and ensuring I was about to pronounce everyone’s names correctly, I had something of a breakthrough — a moment of recognition that this is exactly why I do what I do. That this is what being a silo-busting cross-pollinator feels like (yes, thank you, buzzwords). Leveraging platforms and the power of convening to accelerate adoption of visionary and practical solutions is what we’re all about.

The range of our contesting companies’ businesses and solution-sets was impressive — from those such as Practically Green and FirstFuel, with relatively established customer bases and revenue streams, to others as nascent as Crowd Comfort, one of the winning concepts coming out of the Cleanweb Hackathon on which we partnered with Greentown Labs and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center in April. From products as tangible as Altaeros Energies’ high-altitude wind turbines and 7AC Technologies’ cutting-edge HVAC solutions, to the less tangible but equally impressive data and resource management tools, it was a superb showcase of entrepreneurship at the nexus of energy, information, building and transportation technologies.

Our VC judges, who sat on stage during the pitches, offered a fresh dose of perspective — and yes, dramatic effect — by sharing their insights and analysis on the best pitches, while our audience (including those tuned in online from every continent except Antarctica) had the opportunity to cast their votes.

The winners: XL Hybrids and Lufa Farms, both of which have potential to disrupt markets with their efficiency and optimization-driven solutions. You can watch their respective pitches in the videos below.

XL Hybrid’s president and founder Tod Hynes delivered a winning pitch Monday by speaking to the problems and opportunities that inspire the work he and his MIT grad co-founders are spearheading. Together, they are on a mission to reduce fuel consumption for commercial fleets and lower the cost of ownership for customers by optimizing electric-drive technology at scale. Their aftermarket hybrid-electric system has game-changing potential for commercial fleets — so keep your eyes on the road they’re forging.

Lufa Farms’ corporate development manager James Rathmell delivered the winning pitch of Tuesday’s competition not only because of his mouth-watering slides, but also the delicious vision behind his company’s work to cover cities with rooftop farms. The concept is simple: to grow food sustainably right where people live. After successfully building the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse in Vancouver, Lufa is on a mission to change the way cities eat, and seems to have developed a model to nourish that seed of an idea into some real fruition. 

Of all the many aspects of our global series of VERGE events, I’m not shy to admit that VERGE Accelerate is the piece about which I’m most excited. It’s rich with the “unprecedented opportunities” that come from convening this “new ecosystem of players” we speak of so much — and not in a theoretical way, as the very real companies on our stage made crystal clear.

As VERGE travels around the world, Accelerate will be coming with us. Yes, this means more presentations to gather and names to pronounce correctly. More important, it means more terrific companies gaining exposure in front of an audience uniquely positioned to accelerate these companies’ progress.

I couldn't be more sweaty-palm nervous — or more hopeful about the future.

Photos from VERGE Boston by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group