Photo: WinFlexFour months ago, General Electric fired up the imaginations of would-be entrepreneurs tooling away in garages everywhere when it offered up $200 million as part of an “Ecomagination Challenge” to crowdsource smart grid and renewable energy ideas.
On Tuesday, the global conglomerate announced the first set of winners, a dozen startups that collectively will secure $55 million in investment from GE and two venture firms collaborating with the company, Foundation Capital and RockPort Capital Partners.
The winners hail from everywhere from Silicon Valley to Sweden. Most are developing technology for the smart grid.
Others are focused on smart buildings. ClimateWell of Stockholm is making heating and cooling systems designed to operate not on electricity, but on solar-heated hot water. Soladigm of Milpitas, Calif., meanwhile, manufactures windows that incorporate electronics that allow them to darken — keeping buildings cool during sunny summer months. In winter, they lighten to trap the sun’s heat.
The payoff for these companies goes far beyond the cash. Given GE’s involvement in just about every aspect of the electricity distribution system as well as its smart home efforts, the global behemoth is a huge market for their services.
“We are working with these new partners to accelerate the development and deployment of these concepts on a scale that will help drive a cleaner, more efficient, and economically viable grid,” Jeff Immelt, GE’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The partnerships formed through this Challenge represent a new way of doing business at GE as we continue to expand our broad digital energy offering in the growing power grid market.”
GE also named five Innovation Challenge award winners that will each score $100,000. Among the most intriguing startups is Capstone Metering, a Texas company developing a smart water meter, and WinFlex of Israel, which is developing an inflatable wind turbine.
GE and its venture capital partners received nearly 4,000 entries in the contest.
“This is perhaps the largest participation in an open innovation challenge a company has ever generated,” GE executive Beth Comstock said on a conference call Tuesday.
Another executive noted that the company received many ideas from individuals, which will prove valuable to GE.
“It gives us insight into how consumers are thinking about energy and energy efficiency,” he noted.