photo of Steve Stella

October 21, 2015
Posted by Steve Stella, Electric Power Research Institute

So that there's no confusion, there are no bands playing at SXSW-Eco… wrong conference.

The fifth installment of South-by-SouthWest – ECO (SXSW-Eco) just concluded in Austin, Texas, held October 5-8, 2015. Similar to its sister conference, SXSW – Music, Film, and Interactive, SXSW-Eco brought together an eclectic mix of people, as well as businesses and institutions and created a safe, accepting venue to have thought-provoking discussions and an opportunity to drive business, economic, and social change.

Entrepreneurs told us that they're continuing to do what they do best — push the boundaries. From space-based mining and sustainable transportation technologies, to the development of animal-based products without the need for animals (What?). There were thought-provoking presentations and conversations across a diverse array of needs and challenges.

The Incubatenergy™ network was well represented.

It was a competitive startup field with around 50 startups being offered a pitch slot from an applicant pool of more than 250. Panels of 4-5 judges made up of venture capitalists, angel investors, and potential customers listened to -concise 3-minute pitches, and then probed the ideas and concepts with questions in front of standing-room-only crowds. The company pitches were exciting, and the energy in the room was palpable.

Beyond novel product and service ideas, our incubator network offered many great lessons-learned across the complete value chain to anyone interested in listening. I think this is a testament to the community that has developed. No doubt there is competition, but at SXSW-Eco the environment is one of sharing. OregonBEST offered insights and strategies on how to engage and work with University partners, unlocking academia's interest, expertise, and capabilities to solve startups' complex problems. Greentown Labs introduced their model on how they approach and structure strategic customer engagements, as well as their lessons-learned on manufacturing (hint — engage early!). The Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) illustrated examples and offered suggestions to startups on how to move into the pilot phase, including some suggestions on deal structure, and the importance of getting your pilot customer to put "skin in the game"!

Finally, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was very engaged in a wide variety of discussions, interactions, and presentations over the week. Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Dr. David Danielson kicked things off with the DOE's views on advances in Geothermal Energy, Sustainable Hydropower, and Batteries (which was standing-room-only with a line out the door!). Head of ARPA-E, Dr. Ellen Williams, shared her thoughts on the program's direction, mission, and offered some recent successes in airborne wind turbines, radiative cooling systems for buildings, geothermal power, and grid-scale energy storage. There were many other open discussions on how the DOE already was supporting startups, and how it can continue to improve.