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GE funds energy start-ups in smart grid contest

General Electric and VC partners to invest $55 million in 12 start-ups while GE to make $10 million to students to encourage training in electric power engineering.

Having scoured the globe via the Internet for promising power grid technologies, General Electric today said it and its partners will invest $55 million to into 12 energy-focuses start-ups.

At a press conference in New York, CEO Jeffrey Immelt said that GE will also give out five $100,000 grants to scientists with less mature technology ideas. In another initiative, it will make $10 million available starting next year in a new University Challenge to spur more expertise and research in grid-related technologies, such as power electronics and materials science.

In July, GE announced that it and four venture-capital companies-- Emerald Technology Partners, Foundation Capital, Rockport Capital, and Kleiner, Perkinsk, Caufield & Byers--will invest $200 million in companies with ideas to make the grid more efficient and reliable. This initial investment, made up of $45 million from GE and the rest from venture capital companies--will be followed by more later, Immelt said.

Many of the companies chosen for the investment fall into the category of "software and sensing," Immelt said. Sentient Energy and FMC-Tech make a set of sensors to better manage energy flow and spot problems on the grid. Others were SynapSense, which makes energy-monitoring equipment for data centers, and Scientific Conservation which monitors building energy.

On the energy efficiency side, GE and partners invested in Opower, a company which generates energy efficiency recommendations for consumers, and Soladigm, a company which makes windows that automatically tint to lower energy use.

They also invested in SustainX, a company which designed a system of storing energy for utilities using compressed air in tanks, and in ClimateWell, which is making a solar-powered air conditioner for consumers.

Having an investment from GE will help these small companies get to market quicker, which is particularly difficult in the energy industry, said Tom Noonan, the CEO of JouleX, which makes energy management software for data centers.

To give an idea of the money required to commercialize energy products, Immelt said that the money Google raised before it went public is equal to what is required to build one solar power plant.

In all, GE's panel of judges evaluated about 3,800 energy-related proposals from 150 countries. The $100,000 grants went to more risky ideas, including Capstone Metering which makes a water meter powered by flowing water and inflatable wind turbine blades from a company called Winflex.

There were also "Consumer Innovation" awards of $10,000 given out to people who gained a lot of votes online during the contest, which included Clarian Technologies, which is making a "plug and play" solar power system designed for relatively small solar systems. Solar Roadways, which envisions power-generating roads made from solar panels, received $50,000 for getting the most votes among people participating in the online discussion around the grid challenge.

In terms of its venture-grade investments, GE has built a database of potential companies and plans to continue investing the rest of the $200 million between now and the end of next year, said Beth Comstock, GE's chief marketing officer.

One of the big differences between the traditional venture capital model and working with GE is that the due diligence process is more rigorous because GE experts were tapped to evaluate very technical contest submissions, said Steve Vassallo from Foundation Capital.

Looking forward, GE will seek to keep the community of entrepreneurs and scientists it gathered online engaged. The company is also planning to develop a referral system to match companies in different stages of development with the appropriate source of funding and research, such as universities and angel investment groups, Comstock said.

Updated at 11:00 a.m. PT with additional comments. Updated at 8:55 a.m. PT on November 17 with correction to company name JouleX.