A fusion of North Carolina cleantech companies are working to crack some of the toughest demands on the environment, from conserving power to reducing waste to purifying water.
While doing so, they’re proving they can thrive in an evolving and sometimes controversial industry.
The state has a history of harnessing innovation to tackle environmental problems, but this network of startups is doing something unique. Many have invented their own technology or business model to solve the toughest issues.
The concept of tech-infused sustainability is a relatively new phenomenon in North Carolina, but it’s one that’s shown payoff in recent years through job creation, revenue and a general boost to the state’s economy.
NC Sustainable Energy Association’s 2016 NC Clean Energy Industry Census credits the industry as “a major economic driver for the state,” with almost 1,000 firms, more than 34,000 full-time jobs and $6.4 billion in annual gross revenues.
The report adds that employment in clean energy companies increased 31 percent last year. That’s over 8,000 new jobs for North Carolinians statewide, uniquely spanning both rural and urban areas.
Though these companies’ combined 2016 revenue decreased slightly from 2015, the report says that’s likely due to firms not disclosing their sales in the latest survey.
Expanding landscape of NC’s cleantech/energy scene
North Carolina’s cleantech sector isn’t going it alone. New resources, organizations and networks are forming in the state to propel these companies to more growth. There’s Duke University’s Energy Week and the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, both centered in the Triangle. There’s also the annual North Carolina Energy Conference, coming up in April at NC State.
Charlotte is also home to a rising clean energy scene largely supported by ReVenture Park, the city’s first research and development hub for energy companies.
And inside the park is Power Resource Group, which supplies companies with assessment tools companies can use to see if an idea is worth pursuing, as well as project development services to facilitate launch if the ideas are solid.
In Asheville, hundreds of researchers work at downtown’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and a year-old incubator called The Collider brings together around 40 environmentally-focused corporations, organizations, academics and startups to further innovation in the field.
Universities within the state also house energy research centers to study clean solutions and support the industry’s leaders. NC State University, for instance, has two of them—FREEDM Systems Center and ASSIST.
Here are startup companies representing the state’s clean tech scene, broken up into five main sub-sectors of the energy market.
Raleigh’s Windlift is an engineering and computer programming company focusing on airborne wind energy, on and offshore. Its wind system allows unmanned aerial vehicles to harvest electricity anywhere there is wind, both onshore and offshore.
On land, the system’s airborne wind energy is either mobily transported by trailers or kept in place. The offshore system gathers wind through anchored buoys.
Windlift systems are designed to supply electricity to military outposts, but they can also be used for high-bandwidth communication and local security at those locations.
A prototype has been delivered to an expeditionary group in the U.S. Marine Corps, through a contract project funded by the federal Small Business Innovative Research program.
CEO Robert Creighton says the SBIR funding demonstrated the feasibility of the project, allowing WindLift to make progress in refining simulation models and testing for the system.
This year, Windlift received an extension on the initial SBIR funding to make its “Phase I” wind energy system portable so it can be lifted from a truck or helicopter and then anchored in the ground. The 15 kW system is designed to deploy from a seven foot trailer in 15 minutes.
Creighton hopes the project will continue as a Phase II $500,000 project funded by the SBIR starting in July, allowing Windlift to launch a full-sized demonstration prototype in 2018.
Durham-based Harvest Wave is an emerging company in the renewable energy sector with technology to capture energy from ocean waves and convert it into power, which can be supplied to homes around the world.
The startup envisions the system to be used in commercial-scale wave farm power stations. The goal is to eventually sign on global strategic partners in this arena to adopt the technology on a wide scale, through licensee arrangements.
Founder Stewart Bible says the team is awaiting federal research and development funding, and has an open proposal out with the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program (to be decided in May).
Harvest Wave will also submit a proposal to the Department of Energy this month, which will likely be accepted or rejected around August.
Clean water solutions
This Raleigh startup focuses on clean water solutions, with technology that removes waste and impurities from water by reducing it to dry solids. In addition to filling an environmental need, the company is committed to applying the product to populations in droughts, who don’t have access to clean water.
The startup’s target customers are U.S. oil and gas producers, who regularly inject waste from their current systems into the ground—a cost effective and yet controversial process.
SeaChange’s technology offers them an alternative solution, with a system that reduces produced water to dry solids and clean water vapor. This process is completed in mobile treatment systems at well sites, which saves the cost and environmental damage that can result from wastewater transport and well disposal.
The startup is a graduate of the NC IDEA Foundation-powered Groundwork Labs, and it won an NC IDEA grant in 2015. In November of last year, it was one of 18 worldwide startups to attend the 1776 and Dubai Electricity and Water Authority Future Utility Cup, a global pitch competition.
Full-scale systems will be available later this year.
This clean water startup, located in Charlotte and Wilmington, has created a machine that extracts the power from ocean waves to clean seawater for island and coastal communities that lack access to drinkable water.
The process is done through floating buoys placed over ocean waves, which then use reverse-osmosis to emit clean seawater. The gallons stay in a tank until they’re ready to be taken to shore.
Last year, the startup organized an Indiegogo campaign to raise enough cash to test the buoy prototypes. They ultimately raised $15,440 from 265 backers, 62 percent of the original $25,000 goal. The pilot program is ongoing, with updates regularly posted on SAROS’ Twitter.
Morehead City-based Planktos enables researchers to follow where, when and how river water moves downstream, measuring quality through message-in-a-bottle technology.
In route, Planktos’ “HydroSphere” device sends researchers real-time GPS data via text message, as well as measurements like the water’s pH and oxygen levels, temperature, depth and acceleration.
The product has proven useful on the Mississippi, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers—all of which are “big rivers with big problems” that HydroSphere is helping solve, Planktos founder Scott Ensign told me in December after the startup was awarded was awarded an NC IDEA grant to help build future iterations of the product.
“In addition to solving a problem for scientists, we were also solving a major problem for all water quality researchers: the need for more data along the length of entire rivers to gain a comprehensive picture of the sources and processes leading to water pollution,” Ensign added.
Energy efficiency & monitoring
The energy efficiency industry accounts for more than 2.2 million jobs, full and part-time, according to the most recent U.S. Energy and Employment Report, conducted throughout 2016. North Carolina represents 3.7 percent of all energy efficiency jobs in the U.S., with 80,971 employed.
The sector is also ripe for small businesses—70 percent of efficiency jobs are found in businesses with teams fewer than 10 people, according to a 2016 study by E4TheFuture and Environmental Entrepreneurs.
Though most of these employees work in efficient lighting firms or traditional HVAC companies, it’s worth recognizing that up-and-coming startups are operating well within an employment-rich industry.
This Durham company has been around 10 years, providing businesses such as restaurant and retail chains with technology that helps them save on the cost of energy consumption.
The software analyzes electricity use over time, providing customers with actionable ways to reduce utility use in their businesses.
In 2016, PlotWatt received a grant from major energy investor Energy Excelerator to offset the cost of installation fees in 400 chain restaurants.
The startup serves customers in 35 states, including Canada and Puerto Rico.
PlotWatt declined to be interviewed for this story.
With its energy router technology, Raleigh-based GridBridge helps customers manage their appliance/utility voltage and improve the reliability and efficiency of their energy resources.
It’s offered to utility service providers, which in turn benefits individual consumers using those services.
Service providers use the router for several functions—they can easily store and generate renewable energy, increase network efficiency, optimize electric flow distribution and increase overall reliability, all at the same time.
GridBridge has won grants from the National Science Foundation and funding from NASA—its technology could power future spacecraft.
With offices in Chapel Hill and Houston, Smart Office Energy Solutions has an Internet of Things-operated energy savings solution to help offices reduce their energy bills, by means of smart clouds and wireless monitors.
The technology measures the energy efficiency of individual employees, and publishes the results among peers to encourage workers to turn off lights, shut off monitors and adopt energy-saving habits.
The system also extends to the buildings themselves, measuring energy waste and providing insights on how to reduce the problem.
The company has raised more than $1 million in seed and venture funding.
This two-year-old Greensboro startup helps cities determine the carbon offset of their trees, and points them to opportunities to sell carbon credits to corporate buyers promoting local communities and sustainable brands.
In 2015, Urban Offsets won an NC IDEA grant to launch its service software. Founder Shawn Gagne says the startup generated a lot of traction out of that win. It closed a $300,000 seed round last October with Cary investor and serial entrepreneur David Gardner.
Urban Offsets recently teamed up with TreesCharlotte for a project to plant trees in the city, which creates carbon credits to sell to higher education institutions as a sort of community investment.
Gagne says his team “has proven community carbon projects can be monetized,” placing 10,000 trees across six cities in two states. They’ve sold offsets to four universities—Duke, Elon, Davidson and, just a few weeks ago, Arizona State University.
Raleigh-based CompostNow collects food scraps from residents and businesses throughout the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Apex) as well as Asheville.
The startup provides bins for these entities, and stops by every week to collect waste in exchange for a new, clean bin. Through this cycle, CompostNow members earn compost, which can be delivered to them when they need it for individual or community gardens.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, concrete is the second-most consumed substance on earth, next to water. The concrete construction industry has an impactful ecological footprint. Using natural resources such as limestone, sand, fuel oil and electricity, it’s the second industry most responsible for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, right behind power generation.
But RTP-based bioMASON aims to change that, with a unique, “brick growing” technology that turns microorganisms into cement to be used in construction.
Funding from the likes of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and Acorn Innovestments help the startup grow the bricks from its production facility. And eventually, the bioMASON team plans to expand production and secure a license to allow people to grow bricks from their own homes.
North Carolina is home to a growing solar innovation market. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the state ranks second in the U.S. for its high number of installations in 2015 and Q2 2016.
The association adds that North Carolina’s solar investments totaled $462.4 million in 2016, and it ranks fourth in growth projections, as researchers expect solar installations to increase over the next five years.
But even though these companies are innovating, the market isn’t always ready for the tech.
Early in the game (early 2000s), solar energy companies were able to sign on big venture capital investments, only to fail or pursue low-sum acquisitions.
The lack of returns made investors wary of solar companies. That’s why many startups in the field had to shut down despite developing competitive and seemingly effective products. Durham-headquartered Semprius, for instance, raised more than $40 million in venture capital only to head into massive debt toward the end of 2016, scoring no new investments.
Nevertheless, others have shown great vitality in the market by designing products to fit new needs. The two companies below are an example of that.
This company’s debut product increases in-home solar efficiency, with a utility energy breaker box that integrates solar energy into electrical power from utilities, solar panels, batteries, generators and wind power.
Power sources are then automatically switched to each breaker circuit, based on the availability of utility and solar power.
The system allows homeowners to consume less utility power and in turn reduce their electric bills, while keeping the battery charged for solar-generated power available at night or for emergencies when the power goes out.
The Wrightsville Beach startup took on a new CEO in January to help it secure approval to implement the system at residential sites, which would lead to initial sales and revenue. It has raised $1.5 million through two private placement offerings in 2015 and 2016.
A large-scale solar effort is demonstrated in Chapel Hill’s Strata Solar, which builds and installs rooftop solar panels for manufacturers, retailers, distributors, institutions and churches throughout the U.S.
Before the solar units are installed, Strata supplies clients with an initial assessment to understand their needs, as well as project management and site evaluation.
Then the company creates a custom design for the client and installs the unit at the site. Afterwards, Strata monitors the system’s performance and provides periodic cleaning and maintenance on-site, as needed.
Founded in 2008, Strata has built more than 100 solar farms in North Carolina.
The cleantech scene is constantly shifting, as new technologies surface and businesses learn how to apply them to the environment.
The dynamic nature of this industry is amplified by political and regulatory actions that could take place in the coming years after the recent election. We are taking a hard look at the funding/political landscape in a follow up piece.
Sara Kiley Watson contributed.