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At new cleantech incubator, first start-up gets ready to leave the nest

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 12, 2010 07:22 AM

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You've heard of incubators, which provide space for numerous young companies under one roof, with shared copiers and communal coffee. But what about a "syncubator"?

cefc.jpg
That's the term coined by the founders of the new Clean Energy Fusion Center in Waltham: an incubator where synergies develop, since all the start-ups housed there are pursuing opportunities in related sectors, like wind power, solar panels, or smart grid software. The CEFC is managed by a group of executives who participated in last year's Clean Energy Fellowship Program with the New England Clean Energy Council, including Lorraine Wheeler, Mike O'Neill, and Doug Levin. (The fellowship program aims to give executives from other industries an immersion course in the science and business of energy.) They set up shop last August, and are holding their official opening party later this month. 

But already, the first start-up incubated in the CEFC is getting ready to leave the nest: 7Solar Technologies, which has Evergreen Solar co-founder Jack Hanoka as part of its founding team. 

(In the photo up top are Levin, previously founder of Black Duck Software; Wheeler, a founder of Actual Software and Zeemote; and Imran Qidwai, a veteran of Digital Equipment and Lotus Development.)

I dropped by the CEFC for lunch yesterday, and found the denizens to be pretty realistic about the state of the cleantech economy. Many venture capitalists have dialed back their investments, focusing on their existing portfolio companies and waiting for a liquidity event or two. Levin talked about the "cradle of death" that can kill early-stage energy technologies because sufficient funding isn't available to commercialize them -- and the "valley of death" facing older companies that need to build big, expensive generation facilities to demonstrate that they can produce clean power at a reasonable cost. (I suppose that between the cradle and the valley, there must be an adolescence where these companies simply gobble up lots of capital.)

Many of the CEFC's fourteen residents are building more capital-efficient businesses in software and services, which they say will have lower (or no) funding needs. Wheeler, for instance, is developing new software that will enable renewable power sources like wind turbines and solar arrays to more easily plug into the power grid. (Her company, Qado Energy, doesn't yet have a Web site.) Qidwai and Paul Sereiko are starting a consultancy to help real estate developers and building owners find financing to add renewable power sources to their projects, and manage the installation; their first customer is a private school in western Mass.

Furthest along is 7Solar Technologies, founded by Peter van der Meulen, a veteran of Brooks Automation and Varian Ion Implant Systems. They're designing a solar panel system that will either be able to produce electricity, or to heat a water and glycol solution that can be used to power a building's air conditioning, van der Meulen explains. "It's a combination of solar panels and an air conditioner, running with software controls," he says. "We look at weather forecasts, the price of buying energy from the grid, and the building's energy use, and we decide what the optimal use of the panels is -- for electricity to run things like lights, or for hot water to run the air conditioner." 

7Solar has acquired some photovoltaic manufacturing equipment from Schott Solar, a German company that last year shut down a facility in Billerica. By the end of January, 7Solar has plans to occupy its own office space in Woburn. (So far, the seven-person company has been self-funded, but may start talking with outside investors soon.)

The CEFC is essentially getting its office space for free, thanks to a connection Nick d'Arbeloff, head of the New England Clean Energy Council, helped make with T3 Advisors, a real estate consulting firm, and Boston Properties, the building's owner. (The residents pay utilities and some other incidentals.) Levin says they're looking for other energy-related start-ups to fill several empty cubicles.

There are already several clusters of cleantech activity around Massachusetts, including the new Wind Technology Testing Center in Charlestown; the New Bedford area, where Ze-gen, GreatPoint Energy, and Konarka are building pilot and production facilities; and Kendall Square's Cambridge Innovation Center, where GreatPoint Ventures is based. (The Fraunhofer Institute is also exploring the establishment of a new space in Cambridge to house fledgling energy start-ups, according to d'Arbeloff at the Clean Energy Council.)

The folks at the new Fusion Center aim to create one more, in Waltham.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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