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Corrections below

The Cleantech Open has helped more than 100 startup companies find their footing since it launched in California three years ago.  Now the business competition is expanding in some interesting ways.

Earlier this year it added regional events in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains. This fall it also launched a global “ideas competition,” open to anyone with a rough clean-tech concept, with or without a business plan. The winner gets marketing support, legal advising, and other help turning an idea into a business, all valued at $100,000. One big quirk: the ideas part of the competition is only open to 16 participating countries, and the list doesn’t include the United States.

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Business competition

Here’s how the contest works (skip below if you’re only interested in the ideas contest):

  • Young companies submit business plans for things such as electric vehicle charging stations, batteries, and low-cost organic solar cells. The list of semifinalists gives a sense of the renewable energy, efficiency, transportation, smart power, and other sorts of businesses involved.
  • Twelve semifinalists are selected for each region (this happened in June). Correction: About 70 semifinalists, from all regions, were selected, a spokesperson said.
  • Each semifinalist is paired with more experienced business folks for an intensive mentoring program, a signature feature of the Open. They craft business plans, meet with marketing, finance, and sustainability professionals, and attend a weekend “clean-tech accelerator.”

“Even if you don’t win, you leave this thing with a completely different attitude,” says Cleantech Open spokesperson Tim Cox. “And maybe your idea has gone from version 1.0 to version 5.0 in five months.”

  • Regional winners will be announced this fall. Three winners from each region (correction: California will have six winners) will receive $50,000 in cash and business-development services ($100,000 for the California winners).
  • One national winner, selected by an expert panel and announced at a November 17 gala, receives $100,000 in cash and $150,000 in services.

Gala announcementThere’s a certain logic to holding startup contests like this. The competition mimics the open market, but the drama is heightened, making it a bit more of a spectator sport. And the coaching from mentors could help some of these companies reach the big leagues more quickly, at least in theory.

Ideas competition

The Global Cleantech Open Ideas Competition is Cleantech’s new ideas contest. Registration closes October 15, so there’s still a bit of time to enter by answering five questions that lead to a “success paragraph,” or an elevator pitch.

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One winner will advance from each of 16 countries: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Ghana, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Africa. At the November 17 Clean Tech awards gala, entrepreneurs, sponsors, corporations, academics, and others will vote via text message for a winner, who gets $100,000 in business support.

We’ll see what comes out of it. The recent Reburbia competition by Dwell magazine and Inhabit generated a lot more novelty than substance, especially if you find novelty in concepts that propose to violate basic laws of physics.

Writes Adam Stein:

I gather that the purpose of such exercises is to stretch the imagination a bit, not to put forth strictly practical proposals. The problem here is that entries in the Reburbia competition aren’t imaginative. They’re either totally loopy (turn your parked car into a power plant), totally trivial (put median strips to better use), or totally reductive (replace the local Wal-Mart with a biofuel factory).

Fact is, solutions to climate change are mostly boring and don’t require much imagination. That’s a good thing. For example, making more extensive use of our existing natural gas-fired power plants would do a lot to lower carbon emissions. Waste heat capture is proven technology that could greatly reduce fossil fuel use. Both of these really boring solutions to climate change can be deployed at low cost and massive scale in the near term.

Patently silly ideas will be screened out of the Cleantech Open events, says spokesperson Tim Cox. Remaining ideas might not be imaginative in the sense of suburban airships. But potentially lucrative products also have a way of attracting interest.