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Posted: October 01, 2009

Cote’s Colorado: Here comes the sun

Clean Tech Open competitor sees the world taking a new shine to solar

Mike Cote

You can hear the enthusiasm in Bill Lowstuter's voice and see it sparkle in his eyes as he describes how much power his Golden company's solar panels produce and how much carbon dioxide they offset.

Maybe that's because he's waited a long, long time for his moment in the sun. His contribution to the "new energy" economy, the SunTrac Solar panel, is as old as disco balls, bell bottoms and a White House occupied by Jimmy Carter.

"I originally designed this panel back in 1978 and built the first panel back then. And then it kind of got put on the shelf," said Lowstuter, whose company is competing in the Clean Tech Open. "My wife had a lot of patience and perseverance to allow me to move that around to nine different houses over the last 30 years."

The SunTrac Solar panel heats water to 250 degrees and is being marketed for industrial and commercial applications.

"It makes a difference by allowing those customers to dramatically reduce their energy consumption costs and also their carbon footprint," Lowstuter said during an interview at the Denver law offices of Faegre & Benson, a sponsor of the Clean Tech Open.

The nonprofit competition, established in California in 2006, made its debut in the Rocky Mountain region this year and attracted 64 contestants.

To say Lowstuter's time has finally come is an understatement that cuts across three decades of innovation, dedication and frustration. Renewed interest in alternative energy is leading entrepreneurs and researchers to dust off ideas abandoned in the era of cheap, plentiful oil and lip service to the environment.

Now that the federal government is encouraging such efforts through recovery-fueled incentives, investors are lining up to back startups that would have been lucky to get a phone call returned, never mind a round of venture capital. The Clean Tech Open is designed to help emerging companies bring their products to market by providing them fast-paced training, publicity and time in front of VCs and angel investors.

The Rocky Mountain edition of the contest includes Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and early-stage companies in six categories: renewable energy, transportation, smart power, energy efficiency, green building and air/water/waste management.

Three regional winners from the 12 semifinalists will each receive $50,000 in cash and services and compete in November with finalists from the Pacific Northwest and California for a grand prize of $250,000 in cash and services.
The contestants traveled to Silicon Valley for an intense four-day crash course in business development, from financial structures to marketing and public relations. They resumed the program in Denver with weekly symposiums.

"Those 12 semifinalists have just had a two-month MBA," said Dick Franklin, co-chair of the Clean Tech Open for the Rocky Mountain region. "These people are engineers. They're geniuses in their own right." But they've had little experience with commercializing their products, positioning their brand or protecting their intellectual property, he said.

Among the benefits for the finalists is the opportunity to get free space to set up their businesses through Clean Launch, a Denver-based startup incubator, said president Stephen Miller, who co-founded the Clean Tech Open's Rocky Mountain edition.

"There's also the opportunity to extend the mentoring relationship from the Clean Tech Open into the incubator," he said.

Lowstuter, like his fellow competitors, has his eye on the thousands in cash and services, but he's already benefiting from the mentoring and the crash-course programs.

"It's been quite an immersion. I liken it to drinking out of a fire hose," he said during a break from seminars. "It has really helped to promote and strengthen us as a business."

Where Lowstuter needed help was with the marketing - he's had the SunTrac Solar technology part down for quite awhile.

"I figured now is the time to bring it out and start marketing it again - because I honestly don't have another 30 years to wait."

On ColoradoBiz TV: Watch interviews with Bill Lowstuter, Dick Franklin, Stephen Miller and other Clean Tech Open participants at cobizmag.com on the Planet-Profit Report channel.

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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