CTONE Kickoff offers startups the chance to pitch ideas, network, and build ties with the accelerator.
A crowded semi-circle of entrepreneurs has formed. The buzz of conversation in the room is a mixture of competitive drive and camaraderie. Several people have volunteered to pitch their idea for a clean technology business – and the clock is ticking.
The entrepreneurs pitching share the goal of starting new companies that improve the environment. From finding new ways to generate renewable electricity to making homes and businesses more energy efficient, they share an ambition to make the future cleaner and more sustainable. Over 150 cleantech innovators and professionals with an interest in the industry have gathered at the Cleantech Open Northeast (CTONE) Annual Kickoff to learn how CTONE can help them launch their businesses. Now, eight entrepreneurs and potential CTONE applicants will have one minute to introduce their project to their peers and the mentors, volunteers, staff, and alumni of CTONE.
Tonight is a small but important stepping stone. If they succeed, they might win the impromptu pitch competition and drum up a little interest in their idea among their peers. More importantly, they could impress decision makers at CTONE and improve their chances of acceptance to the accelerator program in May. For those who do, CTONE offers training, visibility, and connections to veteran professionals who help develop and market new businesses. The long-term goal for entrepreneurs looking to make an impact is to position themselves to excel after entering the program, which culminates in a regional competition with awards of over $90,000 in cash prizes and in-kind services.
8 pitch contestants lined up waiting for the voting polls to close. Photos by Jonathan Lantz.
Tonight’s industry attendees include Jeff Peterson, Program Manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), one of CTONE’s largest supporters, which promotes the adoption of new energy technologies in New York State, as well as Robinson Hernandez, Executive Director at Grand Central Tech’s the Urban Tech Hub, which is hosting CTONE’s Kickoff and provides free office space and support for new start-ups during their first year. “It’s fascinating to see how much development, how much care, how much interest there is in clean tech,” Hernandez tells the entrepreneurs. “We’re just really excited to be a part of the community.” Grand Central Tech plays an important role in CTONE, housing alumni from the accelerator such as BlocPower.
Also present are CTONE alumni who share their positive experiences with new applicants. These include Jerritt Gluck of Bonded Energy Solutions, Rob Steir of Frontline Waste, Chris Sewell of CleanTech Methods, Marisol Rodriguez of SHAREnergy, and Neil Sharma of SolarKal.
“The process of working with mentors and really examining what you fundamentally want to offer to the world is a humbling experience,” Steir tells prospective applicants. “If you can leverage the people in this community … then you’re far better off than when you started.”
Gluck offers advice about how to approach this task. A 2015 graduate, he met a mentor through CTONE that is still working with him as a business partner. According to Gluck, mentors look for specific companies that they want to advise before making the decision to volunteer significant time and effort to CTONE. In their first conversation, the mentor made it clear that Gluck’s company was the reason he was interested in getting involved with the program. “[He said] If you’re not going to have me as one of your mentors then I’m not going to participate,” Gluck explains. “So it’s really a match.” To create a similar bond with key stakeholders, he suggests that applicants define their own approach to CTONE. The first step, according to Gluck, is for applicants to examine their start-ups before entering and decide how to leverage the benefits CTONE offers.
In contrast to Gluck’s emphasis on planning, Sewell is ready to dive in and get the action rolling. “Who here’s going to pitch tonight?” he asks his audience immediately. Counting the hands that go up, he adds, “Three?”
Neil Sharma of SolarKal (2016 Cleantech Open Alumni) networking after the alumni lightning talks. Photos by Jonathan Lanz.
It turns out to be eight pitches, touting everything from cleaner boiler room technology to real-time data alerts for city officials. Spectators vote on their phones. When the dust settles, the winner is Patrick Connorton, Co-Founder and COO of Reefill. Designed to offer cold, filtered tap water at bottle refill stations in locations displayed on a smartphone application, Reefill seems to resonate with the environmentally conscious crowd.
As the competition wraps up, the entrepreneurs return to networking. The only change is that many of them now cluster around their colleagues who took a risk and pitched a product. But the long-term test of these companies will be whether their pitches are effective in the real world of business. Helping them succeed in that arena is the purpose of CTONE.
By Elise Baker on in Northeast