DENVER – In search of feedback and funding, “greentech” executives spent two days last week in Colorado making their best business pitches to feisty, American Idol-style judging panels composed of venture capitalists. More than 120 professional investors culled 34 finalists from 285 entrants. But there could only be one winner of the 2009 Clean Energy Venture Award.

Here is a look at some of this year's winners, stand outs and better luck next year's.

Hydrovolts Plans to 'Get out There, Get Big and Get Fast into Untapped Market'

Burt Hamner’s company, Hydrovolts, builds a small waterproof turbine engine that generates cheap electricity when placed in irrigation canals or other flowing waterways. The turbine should supply enough power to run the irrigation pumps that, in turn, maintain water flow in the canals.


Burt Hamner, CEO of Hydrovolts

The three-year-old Seattle startup got $500,000 in early-stage funding and is seeking $3.1 million more.

Though the Hydrovolts turbine may have much wider applications, the company is first targeting sales to the 400 irrigation districts in the western United States.

“The market is totally untapped,” Hamner told the VC panel. “We can generate huge amounts of hydropower in clean-water canals that require no dams or construction. They already have electricity along the canals to run the pumps. “

Hamner figures his turbine can cut electric bills in half for irrigation companies.

“Our intention is to get out there, get big and get fast,” he said.

Hydrovolts will be cash-flow positive by the second quarter of 2011, with $30 million in revenues in 2012, Hamner claimed.

The lead judge for Hamner’s pitch was John Occhipinti of the Woodside Fund in Redwood City, Calif.

“A very good job,” Occhipinti concluded. “You appear to do something very well in a focused environment. You were wise to say ‘I’m CEO now, but am willing to step aside.’ That’s a good thing to say. It’s always helpful to offer credibility about yourself.”

JPMorgan Chase’s Todd Munson was a panelist. “What a unique channel of distribution (Hydrovolts) has,” he said afterward. “As a big commercial lender, I need historical trends of profitability, and they don’t have that. But in 10 years, who knows? It could be a whole new market for us.”

Paraclete Energy Offers Interesting Concept, Falls Short on Substance

Jeff Norris, founder of  Salt Lake City-based Paraclete Energy, did not fare as well with the judges.

For 10 minutes he sought to explain how his company’s patented materials would produce low-cost solar panels at a manufacturing plant built with a much-needed $1.5 million.

“Your business is not clear to me,” began the lead judge, Ron Ondechek of Altira Group. “I need more clarity about the end product. How that business model plays out is not clear to me.

“It would be interesting to know how your revenue model – which you went over very quickly – works. You talked a lot about technology, but not enough about business.”

Lumiette’s Flat-Panel Lamps Last for 60,000 Hours

Noel Park is founder and CEO of Lumiette, a Cupertino, Calif., company that manufactures flat-panel lamps. The technology originally was developed 10 years ago for flat-panel LED televisions, but ultimately not used.

Gesturing to the chandeliers that hung over the Grand Hyatt ballroom, Park noted, “The lighting technology here in this room is 100 years old.”

Lumiette’s flat-panel lamps last for 60,000 hours, about five times as long as the currently popular CFL bulbs, which last about 12,000 hours. Ordinary incandescent light bulbs last about 2,000 hours.

Park said he envisions a $750 million market in the United States, $7 billion worldwide. Lumiette has used $4.2 million in early-stage financing to set up a manufacturing plant in Korea, and is seeking an additional $8 million. He said the company expects $7 million in revenues by 2012, $100 million in five years.

Panelists applauded his presentation, questioning him on intellectual property – there are 71 patents pending – competing technology and marketing strategy.

“I’m continually struck by the fact that the bar is raised every year in the quality of companies,” said one judge, Stephen Miller, founder of the CleanLaunch business incubator in Denver.

Ecovative's 'First Sustainable Alternative to Styrofoam' Wins Applause

“We grow materials to replace Styrofoam,” began Ecovative co-founder and CEO Eben Bayer.  “We offer the first sustainable alternative to Styrofoam, and it’s 100% compostable in your backyard.”


Eben Bayer takes a question after his
presentation

The three-year old company uses a patented fungus that is mulched in trays with low-grade agricultural waste, such as rice hulls or cotton hulls.

“It is grown indoors in the dark – not unlike mushrooms - in a completely fossil-fuel independent manner, “ Bayer said. “It offers the same packing protection and the same thermal properties as Styrofoam.”

In the past 12 months, Ecovative has garnered more than $1 million in grants and awards for its product, called MycoBond. The company is seeking $3.65 million in additional financing, some of which will be used to build an additional manufacturing facility in the Midwest, closer to more agriculture. Its current facility is in Long Island. And Bayer said negotiations are ongoing with a large furniture maker to ship its products using MycoBond as corner blocks, instead of Styrofoam.

“Our fungi is a proprietary organism,” Bayer said. “Think of it as a natural polymer, one level below a soft wood.”

The company’s long-term goal is to develop “grown” replacements for foams, plastics and other unsustainable synthetic materials.

Panelists broke out in applause once Bayer finished.

Rachel Sheinbein, of CMEA Capital in San Francisco, asked about the aesthetics of MycoBond -  its smell and color. “There are so many good selling points,” she said. Having a product with a good story helps.”

Lead judge Ann Partlow, of Earthrise Capital in New York City, said, “I’ve seen you present before, it gets better and more thoughtful. You’ve taken advice well. The manufacturing seems well thought-out and it’s a sound business plan.”

Styrofoam Killer Wins $10,000 Prize 

For the record, Ecovative Design took the top prize, but its $10,000 award is miniscule compared to the funding they seek.

A runner-up was Vancouver-based Exro Technologies for its clean-energy electrical generator for wind turbines. A second runner-up was Evolutionary Genomics, a Lafayette, Colo.,-based firm that patented a  technology to identify the key genes in biofuel plants and algae, isolating traits such as biomass, stalk sugar, grain yield and oil content.

'What’ll be Next Year's Ethanol?'

Speaking of biofuel, one energy source was conspicuous in its absence this year. 

 “I spoke to a guy who's been coming for five years. ‘Ethanol has completely disappeared’ he said. What’ll be next year's ethanol?, ” said CleanLaunch’s Fiona Schlachter.

“Sure, I’ve heard a couple whacko ideas,” said Bilal Zuberi of General Catalyst Partners in Cambridge, Mass.

“One about black holes generating power – the science was not quite clear. But I’ve seen a lot of exciting stuff. Some is immediately commercial, some are five years out. But you can get a good sense of where we’re headed.”

Some finalists for the 2009 Clean Energy Venture Award:

Coolerado
A five-year-old Denver company with 40 employees that uses a proprietary technology to cool air in a way that is twice as energy-efficient as conventional air conditioning. They already have installed more than 500 units in the United States and 15 other countries. Their package units cool 1,200 to 4,000square feet, reducing air conditioning costs by as much as 90%.

Green Pacific Biologicals
A San Francisco seed-stage company with three employees that has a patent on a technology for nuclear-genetic engineering of algae for better biofuel production.

HOMErgent
A Sparks, Nev., company with four employees that develops off-grid portable shelters called Flexayurts, that set up “like tents, live like homes and independently provide all utilities without a grid or eco-footprint.“ They can be used for disaster response, global development or remote resource exploration.

Rivertop Renewables
The two-year-old Missoula, Mont., company has nine employees. The company produces green chemicals from renewable feedstocks that can be used in products ranging from detergents to biodegradable baby diapers.

(Rob Reuteman is a freelance journalist based in Denver, where he was business editor of the Rocky Mountain News.)