General Electric announced the second round of winners of its Ecomagination Challenge: Powering Your Home on Thursday. The 10 winners of the home energy technology competition will receive a collective $63 million.
As with the first challenge, many of the 10 winners were in the software realm because, as GE’s CEO Jeff Immelt noted during the initial announcement, those have a lower capital cost to bring to market than hardware. The money will also come with the opportunity for commercial partnerships. “It’s about providing access and scale,” said Beth Comstock, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for GE.
Oddly enough, the subject was the home, but many of the companies selected have core products that are for the commercial sector, although that is likely to change with the blessing, and financial backing, of General Electric and its partners. The winners are:
- Ember, Boston, MA. A product of MIT, Ember has been around for more than a decade making ZigBee wireless chips. It has already sold 10 million ZigBee chips, mostly for smart grid applications. This pick by GE is no surprise, since the company has already staked a claim in ZigBee over Wi-Fi for home networking.
- GMZ Energy, Waltham, MA. Another MIT spinoff got some GE love Thursday morning. GMZ Energy can turn waste heat into power, specifically for use in air conditioning, heat pumping and solar thermal energy conversion -- which is where GE’s interest in the company seems to lie.
- Hara, San Mateo, CA. This enterprise software company has a platform that monitors the consumption of water, gas and electricity. Hara already has some heavy hitters, including Apple and News Corp., as customers. We’re not sure how this fits into “Powering Your Home” since it is more of a commercial service, but we’re going to stay tuned.
- Nuventix, Austin, TX (building efficiency). This Georgia Tech spinoff provides active thermal management for electronics but its main thrust is in LED lighting by reducing the excess heat that is produced by the LED. The firm uses turbulent pulses of air to cool LEDs and other electronic components. A company exec from Nuventix described it to Greentech Media this way: "Picture a loudspeaker with a flexible membrane instead of a paper cone. As that membrane is moved at 50 cycles per second inside an enclosure, you push air." But it's done with "no frictional parts" for "very high-reliability cooling." The company already has the attention of some major leaders in lighting, including Philips, so it's no surprise that GE is also interested in the technology.
- On-Ramp Wireless, San Diego, CA. Instead of mesh networks, On-Ramp Wireless is using a radio star topology network for smart grid applications. This networking company has been gaining traction lately and has just moved into voltage monitoring. Like Hara, we’re not sure how this specifically applies to the home, besides connecting to the smart meter, but we’re going to find out.
- Project Frog, San Francisco, CA. Project Frog, which is a clear contender for the run-off prize of best name, is a modular green builder that exploits the sun for indoor lighting and ambient air for cooling. Again, the focus has been institutional and commercial, especially schools and not homes, but the design could certainly carry over to apartment buildings.
- SunRun, San Francisco, CA. One of the only hardware companies on the list, SunRun is a residential solar power service firm. Instead of homeowners buying the panels outright, SunRun owns, installs and maintains the panels while homeowners pay a monthly rate for power while locking in an electric rate for 20 years. The company says it installs more than $1 million in residential PV every day.
- Viridity Energy, Conshohocken, PA. Viridity is probably best known as a demand response player, but its software is really about controlling microgrids to play in the power markets. The company is currently focused on institutions, such as the Brooklyn Army Terminal, to network solar and building automation systems, but the idea could potentially be scaled down to the home.
- VPhase, Manchester, U.K. The only winner hailing from outside of the U.S., VPhase is truly focused on the home. The company has developed a domestic voltage optimization device that is installed alongside your fuse box to ensure that your voltage comes in at a steady 220 volts (in the U.K.). The company says the reduction in voltage can save up to 17 percent in energy costs.
- WiTricity, Watertown, MA. Another MIT spinoff, WiTricity is working on the holy grail of wireless electricity. While the technology has issues at large distances, it could feasibly charge cell phones, laptops and maybe even electric vehicles. Its approach to market is to embed the technology directly into OEM products, which is where GE comes in.
In addition to the 10 winners, there were five other Innovation Award winners who will each receive $100,000 to further their technology. Here are GE’s synopses of those companies:
- E.quinox, London, U.K. E.quinox is a student-run initiative to bring cost-effective, renewable energy to developing countries through off-grid, stand-alone photovoltaic systems -- a system that uses solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity.
- PlotWatt, Durham, NC. PlotWatt develops smart meter software that analyzes data to identify energy usage of appliances and provide customized money-saving recommendations via a web dashboard, mobile applications, email and text message.
- Pythagoras Solar, San Mateo, CA. Pythagoras solar window technology simultaneously delivers energy efficiency and solar energy generation without sacrificing the appearance of a traditional window, enabling the design and construction of more sustainable, economically viable buildings.
- Suntulit, Freemont, CA. Suntulit’s air conditioning control system uses data such as room temperature and occupants of a room at any given time to learn user needs and offer ways to reduce utility bills by as much as 30 percent.
- Xergy, Georgetown, DE. Xergy’s new green compressors can be used in household cooling devices like refrigerators and air conditioning systems to reduce energy consumption by 65 percent.
If you’re still reading, there’s even more, so don't stop now. GE’s own products, including Brillion smart appliances and its Nucleus Energy Manager, will be available in select Best Buy stores in early 2012. Although GE historically sold through utilities, it has the marketing and branding to take its smart grid products directly to the market. The partnership between Best Buy and GE will also extend to fast track two of the Challenge winners, VPhase and Suntulit.
After the first round of winners, it was a little unclear how fast money would flow and how companies would benefit from the size, scale and expertise of GE. Today there was a little more clarity with the announcement of a new innovation group that received $20 million to scale and commercialize the technologies chosen in the Ecomagingation Challenge.
While the last two challenges have pulled in ideas from around the world, GE is going truly global for its next challenge. Round three will be -- where else? China.