Six startups each won $50,000 in cash and another $50,000 worth of services as part of the second annual California Clean Tech Open on Monday evening.

The Clean Tech Open is a business-plan competition with one of the largest prizes in the country. A group of California organizations launched the competition last year to spur more interest in developing greentech companies.

Winners included Lucid Design Group, NiLA, 1-Solar, BuildFast, Syncromatics and Microvi Biotech. Runners up included Federspiel Controls, Ahwahnee Technology, Tahoe Water Systems, Enverity Corp., Hum Cycles and EarthGuard.

"We've never seen this level of enthusiasm, this level of quality around," said Tim Woodward, a managing director at venture-capital firm Nth Power.

He said the "remarkable challenge" of meeting the world's energy and water needs can't be faced without innovation.

While California's energy-efficiency initiatives already have made the state a leader in energy conservation, the state will need to cut emissions per gross domestic product by about 50 percent to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, he said.

"We still need a tremendous amount of innovation if we are to meet that goal," he said.

The competition opened in May. Fifty finalists were selected based on three-page executive summaries, and winners were picked based on full 25-page business plans.

Contestants competed in six categories: renewables, transportation, energy efficiency, smart power, green building and air, water and waste. The "green building" category was new and the "air, water and waste" category was expanded from just "water" last year.

Rebeca Hwang, judging chair for the California Clean Tech Open, said the quality of the teams that entered this year was "substantially higher."

"This year, all of our winners really understood that innovation would come, not only on the technology side, but would be a combination of technology and an understanding of the market and the need to apply the right strategy in the short-term to make it happen," she said. "It was a combination of idealism and realism, and each team of winners has the right combination to succeed in the marketplace."

While they were still looking for clear commercialization strategies, the judges decided to take more risks this year and to consider both short- and long-term potential in their decisions, she said.

"Last year, we tried to bet on for-sure deals that we were sure will make it, even though maybe the breakthrough level of the companies wasn't the best," Hwang said. "This year, we were looking for a breakthrough, as well as certainty that they will make it."

David Rodgers, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, also emphasized the need for attention to the market and to policy, as well as to technology.

"Even though we're an organization focused on applied research and development and we're a bunch of nerds and geeks, we've known for some time that technology isn't all it's going to take to solve our energy problem," he said.

Sound business plans, functioning markets and sound policy also play roles in determining the success of the industry, he said.

On behalf of Alexander "Andy" Karsner, assistant secretary of the D.O.E., Rodgers invited winners to present their business plans to government commercialization managers on the agency's dime.

"I believe that you are the engines of our renewable-energy future," he said.

GreenVolts, a solar-concentrator company that won the renewables category last year, won the Alumni Award this year.

Co-founder Eric Romo said that while the cash certainly was nice, the services the startup received were extraordinary.

"But one of the most incredible things was the credibility," he said. "It put us on the map. At [the California Clean Tech Open], we became real."

Romo said the company signed an agreement to sell concentrated solar-electric power to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in June and closed a $10 -million Series-A round of funding Friday.

Speakers at the event indicated the need for greentech has only grown since GreenVolts won its award last year.

Jeff Byron, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission, said while he doesn't know which products will end up winning in the marketplace, innovation will be the key to increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases.

"The innovation we seek is exemplified here tonight," he said. "When entrepreneurs and investors come together, they always do one thing very well -- they surprise us."

Tags: cash, cleantech, contest, greenvolts, nthpower, winners