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Blog Archive: May 2010

Micromidas Wins $3.6 Million – An Interview with CEO John Bissell

Posted by Katie Payer at 3:15 PM, 05/03/2010

Micromidas, the 2009 Air Water & Waste category winner and a runner-up for the national prize, recently scored $3.6 million in a Series A funding round. The Davis, California-based company converts carbon from wastewater into strong bioplastics. While the company participated in the 2009 competition, they steadily progressed with their technology and building out their company. With this new funding from Alex Millar and other angel investors that represent the plastics and packaging industry, the company is keeping very busy. I caught a few moments with CEO John Bissell to ask him about how things are going.


Katie Roberts: How did this funding opportunity come about?

John Bissell: We were approached by our investors out of the blue. It wasn’t through our extended network. It was basically a marketing driven find -- they found us through various articles written about us and by talking to people. They heard about what we do and contacted me directly. I’ve put in a lot of work to build a network in Silicon Valley and it surprised me that they weren’t part of our network. That’s rare though; obviously the network still matters.

KR: What's the biggest thing you've learned about trying to get funding, as a startup?

JB: Every investor is different. Frequently investors are thought of as just the venture capitalist side, taking an equity slice. They’re thought of as having all the same expectations. If you have a pitch, then you create it to be whatever a generic VC would want to see. But individual VCs have different strategies for their 5 and 10 year funds. They have different expectations, different domain expertise, [and] different ways of working with their partners. So you need to have an understanding of the strategy of the investor. You can hone the pitch perfectly for what they’re looking for. It’s all about that one conversation. Getting that hook really matters.

KR: What advice would you offer to other companies that are startups looking for funding?

JB: It’s really easy to forget about everything else when you’re raising money. My family always says that having money is like breathing -- when you have it you don’t notice it, but when it starts to get short, it’s the only thing you ever think about. When you’re a startup raising money it feels like that’s the only thing that matters. In reality it’s not. I was personally raising money full time for six months. I didn’t do anything else. If my team had frozen for any time during that period then we wouldn’t have made it. We wouldn’t have been able to keep going as a company. But we would be way behind if we hadn’t been able to raise money. So having at least one a partner [beyond yourself] is critical. You need one person to run and develop the business with the technology. And you need one person raising money, because it’s a full time job.

KR: What's next for Micromidas, with this funding? Any interesting plans for the next few months?

JB: We just put a kilo scale unit online that’s 50 to 100 liter. It demonstrated the process, which was exciting and we got really good results. In the next two months we should have a pilot scale unit up and operating. That’s our core focus right now.

KR: Are you hiring anyone with that new funding?

JB: We are hiring! We just gave out and signed five offer letters in the last two weeks, and we’re going to sign three more in the next month. We’re hiring at a relatively rapid pace. We were looking at our headcount and determining that we had to fill 8-12 slots, and that meant we had to find seven people not currently in our network. That just sounded so brutal. It takes time to find talent. And it matters not just how good the person is and what their experience is, but how they fit into the team. We were really lucky because four [people] popped up with exactly [the skills] we were looking for, so that was really great.

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ZERE Selected As $150,000 Grant Finalist

Posted by Katie Payer at 2:00 PM, 05/11/2010

Congratulations to ZERE, a Cleantech Open 2009 semifinalist and runner up in the renewables category.

ZERE was just chosen as one of 5 (out of roughly 45) early stage clean energy teams to present on May 18th to NIREC (Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization) for 1 - 2 grants to be awarded in June. The total value of the potential grant award is up to $150,000 ($100K cash + 50K EIR services) to be used to achieve pre-commercialization goals.

This follows having completed Phase I research with Stanford in 2008 - 09 using a CEC ESIG PIER grant of $95,000 that ZERE was awarded. At Stanford, they were able to prove their technology of zero-emission-renewable-energy (ZERE) production, using biomass waste in a fuel reactor with a solid state reaction that produces energy and no green house gas emissions. Their goal is to partner with biomass waste producers to install and run independent energy generation plants fueled by the partner's biomass waste (e.g. urban waste, forestry waste, etc.).

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Cleantech Open Alumni Success Story: ElectraDrive

Posted by Katie Payer at 11:25 AM, 05/12/2010

Winner of the 2008 California Clean Tech Open Transportation category, ElectraDrive is developing a family of plug & play electric drivetrains to expand the availability of electric-drive options to the vehicles that need them most: pickups, vans, SUVs and large sedans

Founded in 2008, ElectraDrive is a company that aims to provide value to truck fleet managers who use their technology to:

1. Reduce costs

2. Meet emissions targets

3. Extend life of service vehicles

Aiming their pilot rollout to Alameda County, the company views state and local government customers who manage light and medium trucks as their initial customers.

Their involvement with Cleantech Open stemmed from a meeting with Jim Robbins organized through the company’s attorneys Cooley Godward in the summer of 2008. Jim, who was at that time the executive director of the Environmental Business Cluster, persuaded CEO Fraser Murison Smith and his co-founder Ray Jenks to enter the competition. Though there was some initial reluctance on the part of the founders, in that competing in the Cleantech Open would distract from launching the business itself, “it wound up being the way we launched our business” according to Mr. Smith. “The Cleantech Open was tremendous value for $250 because we got the equivalent of an MBA crammed into about 8 weeks, without the accompanying student debt. It's a great way to learn how to start a business, irrespective of how well you do in the competition.”

Following their competition win, the company is enjoying increased prestige as it approaches potential investors for funding of future product development. Though CEO Murison Smith cautions that life post-Cleantech Open can sometimes be difficult for alumni companies, he also suggests that support for alumni companies to raise funds, and possibly further business plan mentoring could be helpful. One approach that shows some promise is the spider investment network the ETDC is setting up to bring investors and early stage companies in clean transportation together to provide seed capital to the member companies while spreading the risk to the investors. ElectraDrive is targeting corporate and public investors, suggesting that such untapped funding sources may be additional funding sources beyond traditional Angel/VC funding routes.

For ElectraDrive, the market is enticing: Public fleets spend about $2 billion a year to procure light trucks, and commercial fleets spend about another $7 billion. Potential customers for ElectraDrive include fleets and commercial non-fleets, such as construction companies or dealerships. At present, there are few other credible market entrants. Other systems for medium- and heavy-duty vehicle applications will be developed by ElectraDrive in conjunction with established drivetrain partners in those sectors.

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Spotlight on Oregon BEST, a Pacific Northwest Cleantech Open Innovation Partner

Posted by Mary Sullivan at 2:35 PM, 05/14/2010

Oregon BEST (Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center) is an independent non-profit Signature Research Center that serves as an economic catalyst, connecting Oregon universities and state businesses to help commercialize research and innovation related to renewable energy and the sustainable built environment. The Oregon Legislature established Oregon BEST in 2007 through the encouragement and support of the Oregon Innovation Council. Partner universities include the Oregon Institute of Technology, Oregon State University, Portland State University, and the University of Oregon. Oregon BEST became a Cleantech Open Innovation Partner in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Region’s first year.

Oregon BEST (Oregon Built Environment & Sustainable Technologies Center) is an independent non-profit Signature Research Center that serves as an economic catalyst, connecting Oregon universities and state businesses to help commercialize research and innovation related to renewable energy and the sustainable built environment.

The Oregon Legislature established Oregon BEST in 2007 through the encouragement and support of the Oregon Innovation Council. Partner universities include the Oregon Institute of Technology, Oregon State University, Portland State University, and the University of Oregon. Oregon BEST became a Cleantech Open Innovation Partner in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Region’s first year.

Oregon BEST’s Member Faculty, numbering more than 170 individuals, are international experts in sustainable built environment and renewable energy research. Their university-based labs, test facilities, and research technicians are part of a shared-user network of research tools worth millions of dollars that are available to Oregon industry partners for collaborative research and development.

Projects currently operating out of Oregon universities with support of Oregon BEST include numerous Renewable Energy initiatives:

  • Through strategic investment of public funds that have attracted additional funding, Oregon BEST has established two shared-user solar research facilities that are helping Oregon solar energy firms compete globally and university researchers and students work at the cutting edge of solar innovation:
  • The Oregon Process Innovation Center (OPIC) for Sustainable Solar Cell Manufacturing at Oregon State University is helping revolutionize solar cell manufacturing, potentially helping manufacturers reduce costs by as much as 90 percent. This shared-user facility involves faculty and researchers from Oregon universities and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
  • The Photovoltaics Laboratory of the Oregon Support Network for Research and Innovation in Solar Energy (Oregon SuNRISE) offers shared instrumentation and testing to industrial and academic clients on a fee-for-use basis at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. These services provide a comprehensive suite of tools for the characterization of solar cells and solar cell materials.
  • A new technology using continuous flow microreactors is under study by engineers from Oregon State University and Yeungnam University in Korea. The technology, which involves thin-film absorbers for solar cells, could significantly reduce the cost of solar devices. This is one of the first demonstrations of this type of technology, which is safer, faster and more economical than previous chemical solution approaches.
  • In the area of wind energy, an increasingly important contributor to Oregon’s innovation sector, Portland State University is installing a large research wind tunnel. Oregon is home to major wind power providers and turbine manufactures, and the installation supports this important new business cluster with solid research capabilities.
  • Oregon is third in the nation in geothermal energy under development according to a Geothermal Energy Association report. Three years ago there was one geothermal project in the works for Oregon. Now the report lists 13 in varying phases of development. The Geo-Heat Center at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls is currently testing low-temperature geothermal technologies, and recently received more than $400,000 in funding from the U.S. Dept. of Energy for geothermal research.

On the Sustainable Built Environment side, projects currently operating with support of Oregon BEST include:

  • Investments by Oregon BEST have helped secure additional research funding for Oregon universities and established two shared-user research facilities aimed at helping Oregon firms innovate new products and technologies for the sustainable built environment:
  • At Portland State University, the new Green Building Research Laboratory attracted a $1 million federal appropriation. University researchers from across Oregon and beyond work in collaboration with industry partners to solve the fundamental and applied research needs of the green building industry.
  • At Oregon State University, a building materials focus has created the Green Building Materials Laboratory. Early initiatives include a process that turns relatively soft hybrid poplar wood into an extremely strong, durable wood product; a high intensity concrete mixer; and an accelerated pavement-testing machine.
  • Oregon BEST is leading development of the research agenda for the proposed Oregon Sustainability Center, which will be a living laboratory for sustainable built environment research.


And spanning both renewable energy and the sustainable built environment is a new commercialization project of Oregon BEST Researcher and UO architecture professor, Ihab Elzeyadi, who is looking for industry partners for his solar awning/light shelf. The awning generates electricity, but it also achieves temperature control through shading of windows and lighting improvement through reflection of lighting to interior ceilings. Elzeyadi says, “Generating energy is good, but saving it in the first place is better, and cheaper.”

Architectural Record magazine recently ranked the University of Oregon Architecture School in Eugene as the nation’s #1 school for sustainable design practices and principles.

For further information on Oregon BEST’s research, contact David Kenney, President & Executive Director, david.kenney (at) oregonbest.org; on commercialization, contact Susan Safford, Operations Director, susan.safford (at) oregonbest.org; on the sustainable built environment, contact Johanna Brickman, Program Manager, jo.brickman (at) oregonbest.org

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