Named for the year when the US got its start as an independent enterprise, 1776 is what is known as an accelerator. Like the more famous Y Combinator of Mountain View, California, such organizations prepare startups for their independence by offering them advice, financial capital, business contacts, and office space.
Located in Washington, DC, 1776 is not just about commerce. The startups under its wing fall into broad categories of education, health, energy, smart cities, and government and politics.
I got a sense of what kinds of startups are sprouting in the energy sector when I spent this past Tuesday afternoon at a semifinal session of the Challenge Cup. Organized by 1776 as part of its weeklong Challenge Festival, the Challenge Cup brings 64 startups—half from the US; half from the rest of the world—to compete for a total of $650 000 in prize money.
The session was called a semifinal because the competing startups had already won a previous round held in one of 16 cities—among them, Denver, Colorado; Cape Town, South Africa; Tel Aviv; Israel; Mumbai, India; and São Paolo, Brazil. A single representative from each startup had three strictly timed minutes to make a slide-assisted pitch. The judges, including 1776 cofounders Evan Burfield and Donna Harris, had three strictly timed minutes to ask questions.
Because I like surprises, I didn't consult the lineup of 16 energy semifinalists before the pitches began. I was indeed surprised. The first pitch was not about a cellphone app, which is what I was expecting, but about a company that applies electrocoagulation to clean wastewater. Based in Longmont, Colorado, Avivid Water Technology makes reactors that remove all but 1% of contaminants such as arsenic, benzene, and coal dust. Among its potential customers are uranium mines and oil companies that practice fracking.
In fact, only five of the 16 semifinalists create products that are wholly digital. The rest made up an interesting mixture. Longman Suntech Energy of Mumbai sells solar panels that its urban customers can put on their roofs and connect directly to their appliances. That way, said cofounder and pitchman Sujith Thannikkatt, Longman Suntech avoids connecting to "the world's worst electrical distribution system" and having to comply with utility regulations.
The largest products of any of the semifinalists are the wind turbines designed and built by Winflex, which is based in Moran, Israel. As the company's CEO Eliezer Kliatzkin explained, its wind turbines are significantly lighter than conventional turbines thanks to their inflatable circular braces.
Employees of Winflex stand in front of one of their lightweight wind turbines. CREDIT: Winflex
For me at least, the most interesting pitch from a physics point of view was Todd Davidson's. The company he leads, nCarbon, is a spinoff from the University of Texas at Austin. Its product is a porous, three-dimensional material based on graphene. When used as an electrode, it boosts the energy density of a supercapcitor by a factor of two.
Not being especially business-minded, I was interested by the judges' questions. As you might expect, they asked about margins, markets, and competitors. But they also asked about technological aspects. Davidson, for example, was questioned about nCarbon's seemingly modest factor-of-two improvement. "In the energy storage business, a factor of two is a huge deal," was his reply.
The judges had to pick two winners—one from the US; the other from abroad—that would go on to compete in the final against startups in three other sectors: education, health, and smart cities.
The US victor was Water Lens, whose portable chemical analysis kits enable oil companies to analyze the composition of the water that comes out of fracking wells. Although I can’t be sure, I’m guessing the judges liked the fact that Water Lens’s analyzers spare companies from having to send their samples out to labs for analysis and wait for the results. According to CEO Keith Cole, reducing that delay could save companies tens of thousands of dollars.
The non-US victor was PlugSurfing. Based in Berlin, Germany, the company makes a cellphone app that enables the drivers of electric vehicles to find charging stations and pay to use them. Cofounder Adam Woolway explained why such an app was needed. Although charging stations are relatively plentiful in Germany, they are operated by hundreds of different companies. According to Woolway, those companies are willing to give PlugSurfing a small cut of their transaction fees with the expectation that they'll get more business thanks to the app.
The word "physics" was uttered just once during the semifinals. Alex Smith, cofounder and chief product officer of myPower, pitched his company's smartphone chargers, which attach to people's belts and harvest the kinetic energy they generate when they exercise. Asked whether he could pack more energy into the charger's lithium ion batteries, he replied "unfortunately, we're limited by physics."