The Top Fifty Green Start-ups

Venture capital firms have invested almost $20 billion into hundreds of greentech startups since 2005. Very few of these firms will actually make it. At Greentech Media, we put our energy reporters and analysts to the task of picking fifty VC startups in greentech that have at least a fighting chance of succeeding as VC-funded startups and making an impact on our energy-intensive lives.

Methodology: We spread the names of 500 VC-funded firms on the Greentech Media dance floor and cut the head off of a chicken. Wherever the chicken landed - that was a winner. We stopped when we ran out of chickens.

Solar

Brightsource Energy: Big-name investors, a large war chest, a partnership with construction-giant Bechtel, and contracts with large utilities in California, BrightSource plans on building some of the biggest solar thermal plants in the world. Solar thermal? You collect heat from the sun on mirrors and boil water. The Romans could have done it. Now the challenge is getting past further environmental objections to its first 396-megawatt power plant.

Chromasun: Air conditioning accounts for fifty percent of the demand for power during peak periods in California, according to Peter Le Lievre, founder of Chromasun. It's an enormous problem. Chromasun uses mirrors to gather heat. The heat is used to boil a liquid with a refrigerant. The refrigerant boils off and, voila, you have solar air conditioning.

Enphase Energy: This well-funded microinverter innovator has shipped more than 120,000 units for residential and continues to grow. Microinverter? It connects solar panels to homes. Boring, maybe, but a $2 billion market.

eSolar: Fifteen months ago, eSolar was on the ropes. It desperately sought funds to build solar thermal power plants. It then switched strategies and decided to license its technology and sell equipment, leaving the actual building of the power plants to others. Since then, it's signed deals that will lead to gigawatts worth of its solar technology planted in China, India, Africa and the Middle East. Funding from Google, India's Acme Group, Oak Investment Partners and NRG Energy.

Innovalight: It has ink that can create electricity from the sun. Instead of trying to make and sell panels on its own, it licenses the technology to other companies. This could be one of the last novel, "new" type of solar cells to make it out for a while.

Nanosolar: CIGS--or copper, indium, gallium, selenide--solar cells are cheaper than regular solar cells but produce almost as much power. Too bad getting them to cooperate is tougher than organizing a Van Halen reunion. Nanosolar started in 2002 and received an early amount of money from Larry and Sergey at Google. Allegedly, the company is in mass production.

Petra Solar: Not so much a new technology as a new way to install things. Petra Solar and its more than $50 million in VC funds is exploiting an untapped sales channel - solar panels on utility and power poles.

SolarCity: The first company to exploit software to cut the cost of installing solar panels in a big way. One of California's largest installers is expanding nationwide.

Solyndra: Another CIGS company, but with a way out panel. It's tubular shaped. Critics say it won't work, but investors have put nearly a billion into it. The federal government has also given it loans. It hopes to go public soon.

Suniva: Think regular crystalline solar cells on steroids. It has raised $125 million.

SunRun: SunRun sells "home solar as a monthly service." They own the panels, but buy power from them. The company has seen 8 to 10 times growth over last year.

Smart Grid and EV Infrastructure

Arcadian Networks: Arcadian Networks designs and delivers wireless communication networks to connect utilities to all of their equipment in the field. The key here is that Arcadian can provision channels to reduce interference. Better Place: You other love 'em or hate 'em. The company wants to build charging stations for electric cars. And instead of forcing car owners to own the battery, they will own it and swap it out whenever you want it. But is it too weird for consumers and car makers. Investors have put over $500 million into it. The first networks go live in Israel and Denmark next year.

CPower: Demand response is one of the big growth areas of smart grid. Demand response companies curb your air conditioners and pool pumps during hot days when the utilities need power. They can also curb the heater if your power bills are high. Two demand response companies--EnerNoc and Comverge--have already gone public.

Coulomb: Electric charging stations. Like Better Place, but you own your own battery.

EcoLogic Analytics: Radios for the smart grid. A few big utilities have already adopted it. You will never know it's there but it will cut your power bills.

eMeter: It created an application that can absorb data from millions of meters and determine what exactly is going on out there.

Proximetry: Something like a hybrid of eMeter and Arcadian. Dynamic networking and visualization software. Again, you will never know it's there, but it will impact you. Silver Spring Networks: Started by a father and son company, Silver Springs makes radios to connect homes to utilities. It had a near death experience a few years ago, but lately it has landed deals with PG&E and others. An initial public offering may occur soon.

SmartSynch: A start-up out of Mississippi? Yes. It has equipment that does the same things that the equipment that Silver Spring does, but SmartSynch uses the existing cellular networks. The Tennessee Valley Authority selected SmartSynch to serve as the communications backbone in its renewable program.

Tendril Networks: Home area networks. Tendril wants to hook up your fridge, dryer and other appliances to networks to reduce power consumption. They have a stylish home console that tells you how much power you're using. Trilliant: Another competitor to Silver Spring and SmartSynch. For these companies, life is like Top Chef: Utilities audition them all and then give the winner multimillion dollar contracts.

Green Buildings, Lighting

Adura Technologies: Approximately 85 percent of commercial office buildings in the U.S. are illuminated inside with fluorescent tube lights. In the vast majority of cases, these bulbs can't be dimmed or turned off remotely. Only around 1 percent of lights in California office buildings are networked. Adura has created a wireless mesh system that effectively flips the lights off when you're not around and dims them when the sun is out. In a recent test conducted by PG&E, Adura managed to cut the power delivered to lights by 72 percent.

Bridgelux: Bridgelux is focused on lowering the cost of LED-based solid-state lighting to a penny per lumen -- a disruptive price achieved through clever packaging and innovating in the expitaxial processes of building the phosphor-coated film. Early this year, new CEO and ex-Seagate CEO, Bill Watkins took over the reins.

Optimum Energy: Buildings consume 40 percent of the energy in the U.S. and 76 percent of the electricity. Optimum makes software that dynamically controls the chillers - the enormous machines that cool water for air conditioning systems in skyscrapers. According to the company, there are more than 150,000 buildings that can use their product and if the software was used in each one, 75 gigawatts could be taken off the grid. Adobe has installed it.

Recurve: Formerly Sustainable Spaces. They do energy efficiency retrofits. Recurve is assembling a dynamic software package that will allow contractors large and small around the world cut down the time, cost and errors in conducting retrofits. A lot of the employees come from Google--you can't say that about other construction companies. In fact, a number of large contractors are testing it out now. Co-founder Matt Golden is also one of the driving forces behind the $6 billion Cash for Caulkers program recently introduced by Obama.

Redwood Systems: Redwood replaces lighting wires and regular light bulbs with Ethernet cables and LEDs. Suddenly, you have a network in your ceiling that every light, smoke detector and other device can link into.

Serious Materials: Drywall is made by cooking rock at high temperature. Serious replaces that with a process like instant pudding: you just put chemicals in a pan and they gel. It also makes windows that insulate buildings. It won the contract to put windows into the Empire State Building.

Biofuels and Biochemicals

Amyris: Spun out of UC Berkeley, Amyris has genetically modified microbes that eat sugar and secrete medicine that could be used to fight malaria. Tweak the genes a bit and it secretes fuel. It has a deal to start making ethanol in Brazil. LS9: The company's scientists have engineered a strain of e coli with a genome that can convert sugars into a fatty acid methyl ester which is chemically equivalent to California Clean diesel. It's a completely unnatural act but could lead to $45 a barrel biodiesel. It is working with Procter and Gamble on green chemicals and Chevron on fuel. Another highlight: one of the founders is noted UC Berkeley scientist Chris Somerville.

Sapphire Energy: A genetically modified algae. The algae feeds on carbon dioxide and sunlight in ponds and makes a hydrocarbon. A totally unnatural act, and Sapphire isn't there yet, but if it works it could be worth a fortune. But it's a big if. Bill Gates' VC firm invested in it.

Solazyme: To date, the most successful algae firm by far. It feeds algae sugar and then ferments them in beer brewing kettles. The algae can then be made into fuel, food additives and make up supplements. Started by two guys who met on the first day of college (they were roommates), Solazyme has landed deals with Unilever, Chevron and the Department of Defense. Look out for it.

Synthetic Genomics: Started by Craig Venter, the cantankerous scientist that cracked the human genome. Exxon put $300 million into the company.

Batteries, Fuel Cells, Energy Storage

Bloom Energy: Put in gas in one end, get electricity out the other. It's taken ten years and investors have put in $400 million, but Bloom has started shipping. Soon, the data on how well it works will start trickling out.

Deeya Energy: A few years ago, flow batteries were barely understood exotic pieces of equipment. Now at least five start-ups have received funding. Deeya was first. Flow batteries? The electrolyte flows in and out constantly, so the battery never gets un-charged. Utilities and cell phone carriers that need remote power will be the primary customers.

EEStor: This ultracapacitor aspirant makes the list by virtue of the hype and craziness that surrounds it. It says its device can drive an electric car can power an electric car 300 miles and the cars can get recharged in a few minutes. Dreamy? Yes, but is it real?

General Compression. The cheapest way to store energy is to shove air into caves, compress it, and then release it into a turbine when you need power. General Compression, along with SustainX and Isentropic Energy, want to change that by shoving the air into big tanks. You don't have to worry about finding massive caves.

Transportation

Coda Automotive: Later this year, Coda will attempt to market an all-electric, mid-priced sedan to American drivers. The car gets made in China and so does the battery, but a lot of the engineering comes from the U.S. A Chinese bank has agreed to lend $450 million to the battery venture. Investors include Hank "Give me $800 billion, no questions asked" Paulson. BYD counts Warren Buffet as an investor.

Fisker Automotive: The Fisker Karma is a plug-in hybrid that comes out later this year. It will cost around $90,000 but will be one of the most luxurious and powerful hybrids out there. Hendrik Fisker is a noted car designer who has worked with, among others, Aston Martin.

Tesla Motors: The little EV company that might. Tesla has shipped about 1,000 units of their speedy Roadster model, opened up retail outlets in the U.S. and Europe, The next step is building the all-electric sedan.

Other Energy -- Wind, Nuclear, Cleaner Coal, Geothermal

Laurus Energy: Think underground cigar lighter. Laurus digs a deep hole to apply heat to a buried vein of coal. The coal turns to gas. The gas comes up another vent and is run through a power plant. And a lot of that pollution from coal stays underground. The technology comes originally from the old Soviet Union. It is currently working with a Native American tribe in Alaska to build a UCG vein with a power plant.

NuScale: has a nuclear reactor that could fit in your game room but produce several megawatts of power. Put several together and you have a power plant. The key is that it could be cheaper than regular power plants. From Oregon state. Nordic Windpower: In Berkeley, California by way of Sweden. Nordic has a two-bladed wind turbine. It may not produce as much power as a three-blader but it costs less.

Potter Drilling: Geothermal provided 4.5 percent of California's power in 2007. Potter, founded by oil industry alums, has come up with a way to drill that's five times as fast and less costly. Google.org is one of its investors.

Ze-Gen: Ze-Gen dips organic landfill waste into molten iron and turns it into biogas. Cue the Ozzy.

Water

Oasys: This Yale start-up promotes forward osmosis to take the salt out of seawater. It is less energy intensive than the reverse osmosis technology throughout now in the industry.

Miox: It purifies water with salt. Clorox did this 100 years ago but Miox has made it more efficient. Water companies now won't have to truck chlorine all over the place.

Purfresh: If you drink bottled water or eat bagged organic lettuce, you've encountered Purfresh. The company, backed by Foundation Capital, kills microbes with ozinated water. Growers use it to keep food fresh on the way to store shelves and bottlers use it to sterilize plastic. Orders go up every time an e coli outbreak occurs. Like Serious Materials, Purfresh is expanding from its base to become a full-service water and food company.

Green IT

Hara: Software that tells you how much power your company consumes. impressive list of customers to date, including Coca Cola, News Corp., Akamai, Intuit, Brocade and Safeway.

Sandforce: The company has created a chip that makes it possible for search companies, banks and other companies with large datacenters to swap out storage systems made out of hard drives with drives made of flash memory. Sounds wonky, yes, but the last time we visited they were hiring like crazy.

  • Michael Kanellos

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.

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