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NREL Growth Forum: gathering connects companies with investors

Some of the nation's top clean energy entrepreneurs will gather Oct. 19-21 in Denver to pitch their business concepts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's 23rd Industry Growth Forum.

The event at the Denver Marriott City Center allows attending investors and corporations to get a sneak peek at the latest technologies in clean and renewable energy for possible future investments or acquisitions.

In the past seven years, about half of the 202 participating companies at the growth forum have gone on to raise a combined $3.4 billion since first presenting. Playing matchmaker are NREL scientists, eager to spur advances in the field.

"We use the forum as a platform to build relationships between the companies and investors," said Marty Murphy, the forum's chairman and NREL's Commercialization and Technology Transfer Manager for Enterprise Development Programs. "A while back, we realized that a lot of good technology wasn't getting commercialized."

Murphy said the first growth forums began in the mid-1990s as small gatherings of about 25 people several times a year across the United States. Since 2002, the event has been annual, attracting more than 500 people in 2009.

Three years ago, NREL decided to keep the annual growth forum in Colorado, and state organizations such as the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association, the Governor's Energy Office and the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. have helped sponsor and organize the event.

And while there are usually several finalists from Colorado's growing renewable energy industry - Boulder-based TerraLUX and Lafayette-based Evolutionary Genomics presented last year - the event focuses on fielding investors and companies nationwide.

More than 200 companies submitted applications at $250 apiece to NREL in the early summer for a chance at being one of this year's 30-plus forum presenters in October. Investors - which range from small venture capital firms to large corporations such as Honda, Bosch and Chevron - spend up to $1500 to attend. Corporate sponsors help fund and support the event with anywhere from $2,500 to $30,000 contributions.

NREL's Industry Growth Forum is one of the better respected by investors, partially because they are heavily involved in choosing which companies present. About 130 investors are on the selection committee, and investors lead the question-and-answer sessions after each company presentation at the event.

Investors also appreciate NREL's support, said investor David Gold with Access Venture Partners in Westminster. "It makes the event truly national in focus," he said. "With NREL's involvement, more companies are willing to apply and present."

Gold said Access Venture Partners will be looking for new investments at this year's forum, despite the down economy.

For finalists, the growth forum is much more than those three days in October. They're chosen in early September, and then receive free coaching and mentoring from NREL on how best to prepare for the event. And new just last year, finalists can set up 10-minute, one-on-one meetings with investors to talk in a more private setting.

Steve Hane, president and chief executive officer at Golden-based solar technology company Ampulse, presented at the forum in 2008 - garnering the best early seed entrepreneur award that year and some valuable connections.

"Right out of the chute, it gave me exposure to three dozen venture capitalists and investors, and while none of those directly funded our series A round, I was able to make connections within their network that led to our series A," Hane said. "It also gave us connections for our upcoming series B round."

Ampulse, which is improving solar photovoltaic technology by merging the energy efficiencies of single-crystal silicon with the low-cost of thin-film manufacturing techniques, received $8 million for its series A round, and hopes to get under way with its series B round in April 2011.

Hane said the other key aspect of the growth forum is the event's focus on the clean technology industry.

"At some of these other conferences, you're dealing with all types of other industries," he said. "Here, there's a much more qualified audience in cleantech. 
It's an audience that gets each other."

The NREL Industry Growth Forum culminates with several cash and in-kind service prizes. This year, the forum's deemed best venture will receive $10,000 cash and in-kind services from the event's founding sponsor, California-based legal firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, along with in-kind commercialization services from NREL. Two outstanding presentation award winners will each receive $5,000 in cash from Wilson and in-kind services from NREL.
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David Clucas

David Clucas is a freelance writer in the Denver, Boulder and Northern Colorado metro areas. For six years, he covered real estate and banking for the Boulder County Business Report, winning state and national awards for his reporting. He is graduate of DePauw University and can be reached at clucas.work@gmail.com

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