The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s (NYSERDA) mission is to “advance innovative energy solutions.” NYSERDA’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program fits that mission well by helping start-up firms speed up their growth and secure funding.
NYSERDA has established six “incubators” across New York State. Five of them are affiliated with a university that provides a variety of resources, including technical expertise and mentoring in all aspects of running a business. NYSERDA’s business-like approach requires incubators to meet pre-defined milestones. Start-ups receive funding based on a “pay for performance” standard with the goal of creating meaningful economic growth. Occupancy in the incubator is limited to three years. Prospective recipients must demonstrate that their clean energy concepts are sound and likely to be successful.
NYSERDA Program Manager Jeff Peterson observes that the path to commercialization for clean energy has potential pitfalls and requires readiness from both a technological and a business standpoint. The incubator program has evolved as NYSERDA has sought, as Peterson says, “to support the business, not just the product development.”
Accordingly, the incubator concept does more than just address the technical aspect of a nascent clean technology company. The program also offers assistance in manufacturing, marketing, financing, and networking, but it doesn’t work in isolation in helping to grow the number of successful clean energy start-up companies in the state. Distinct from the incubators, NYSERDA has established Proof-of-Concept Centers for connecting inventors and scientists to entrepreneurs and investors. An entrepreneur-in-residence program places experienced managers on temporary assignments in early-state companies that could benefit from executive-level assistance.
Bill Jones, director of the Venture Creations incubator at the Rochester Institute of Technology, credits NYSERDA funding for enabling incubator clients to focus on developing their clean energy products and technologies rather than on fundraising. After completing their R&D and pilot project stages, incubator-bred businesses can more easily achieve commercialization. Jones notes proudly that Venture Creations is “graduating really good clean energy companies.”
One of those companies, ClearCove Systems, has developed an innovative wastewater treatment system process that uses less energy and yields a sludge byproduct with a high energy content. Company President Gary Miller describes his company’s mission enthusiastically: “It’s not wastewater; it’s energy. When we talk about ourselves as a company we are a renewable energy company. We harvest the highest value fuel for energy creation that you can in wastewater.”
NYSERDA grants enabled ClearCove to demonstrate its technology. Bridging the gap from prototypes to commercial-scale installations is often a deal breaker for clean energy companies. After seeing the results of a demonstration project at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility, Chief Operator Daniel Ramer was sold: “I think I’m one of the people ready to become a guinea pig.”
NYSERDA’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program is proving the value of its business development strategy as early-stage companies compete to enter New York’s incubators. Informed selection of incubator sites and rigorous standards for incubator participants are advancing clean energy technologies that have potential to be deployed well beyond the state’s borders.
This blog post was written by Georgena Terry and Warren Leon, and was originally published in the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA)’s 2015 report “Clean Energy Champions: The Importance of State Policies and Programs.” This report provides the first-ever comprehensive look at the ways states are advancing clean energy and suggests how to further encourage clean energy growth. For more information about CESA, please visit www.cesa.org.
Quotes from Gary Miller and Daniel Ramer at ClearCove Systems are taken from a January 2015 article in the Rochester Business Journal, “Firm eyes shift in wastewater industry,” by Kerry Feltner.