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Golden State green-tech contest warms up

The second California Clean Tech Open is inviting proposals.

The California Clean Tech Open kicked off its second competition with a sunny outlook at San Francisco's City Hall Tuesday night. In October the contest will award six fledgling green businesses with start-up starter kits worth $100,000 in cash, office space and professional services. Prize sponsors include AMD, Google, Lexus and Pacific Gas & Electric.

Last year 156 seedling companies entered the open, which is backed by nonprofit Acterra; twice as many contenders are anticipated for 2007. A new green building award joins five other categories: energy efficiency; renewables; smart power; transportation; and air, water and waste. Entries are due by the end of next month and finalists will be announced in July. Eighty-eight percent of last year's finalists surveyed remain in operation, and nine percent have raised funds independently.

Greenvolts of Berkeley, Calif., has come a long way since taking the renewable energy prize last year. The solar energy start-up counts $1.5 million in seed money and awards, an office in downtown San Francisco, a 2,500-square-foot factory, six patents pending, two contracts in the works with utilities and three exclusive licensing deals. CEO Bob Cart learned about the Clean Tech Open last June, threw together a "goofy prototype" in his garage and submitted his proposal in the nick of time for the deadline. Greenvolts' mirrored solar power system adjusts to the sun's movements and uses a tiny fraction of the material of most solar panels.

If the mantra for realtors is "location, location, location," maybe green entrepreneurs should chant "timing, timing, timing." The theme of early birds with big dreams getting attention and funds continued throughout the evening. But clean tech is also the most complicated business sector, said Raj Atluru, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

"Unless you have a fundamentally disruptive technology, find another marketplace," he said. Atluru receives a glut of proposals related to solar power and biofuels but sees fresh opportunities for businesses that focus on green building materials, energy storage and using waste for energy. He called clean tech the most passionate and fourth-largest sector receiving venture capital investment. Draper Fisher Jurvetson logged more than 1,000 clean-tech business plans last year, up from only 50 in 2002.

Many at the launch event credited California's carbon-reduction and energy-efficiency laws for nourishing the clean-technology sector.

"We didn't set out to be climate martyrs; we set out to be climate pioneers," said Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the National Resources Defense Council's energy program.

Brad Barton, the Department of Energy's first commercialization director for renewable energy, also applauded federal fuel-efficiency laws. But California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi brought darker clouds into the otherwise radiant picture.

"Where's payday?" he asked, adding that the most innovative businesses can't do a whit about dwindling natural resources and rising oceans as long as the government makes fossil fuels the center of its energy policies. "The president very much reminds me of this horse," Garamendi told me. "No matter how hard I kicked it and how hard I whipped it, it wouldn't move."

Garamendi called for powerful companies to get political and said he favors carbon cap-and-trade laws such as those in the European Union. Because he was taking four flights in two days to attend this event, audience members suggested that Garamendi buy carbon credits to atone for the air travel.

Other green-technology business competitions include Ignite Clean Energy at MIT and the Cleantech Innovation Challenge at the University of Colorado at Boulder.