Hackers and incubators: the future of clean tech?

#HackCitySF CleanWeb hackathon November 9-11

“Reducing tons with zeros and ones.” This is the slogan of a gathering of hackers, designers, and business minds called CleanWeb, which launched a little over one year ago in San Francisco. Having hosted dozens of “hackathons” around the country (and the world) over the past year, CleanWeb is once again returning to San Francisco to host the #HackCitySF CleanWeb hackathon ahead of the VERGE conference. The idea is to get great minds together to apply web and mobile technologies to clean tech challenges in energy, water, waste, and other sustainability-related areas. This upcoming weekend’s hackathon will offer great opportunities to build new apps, data visualizations, and product ideas with some high-level sponsors, including GM, OnStar, and Johnson Controls.

Lately, many investors in clean tech have been scratching their heads asking why clean energy is not achieving exponential growth rates like the mobile internet sector. Sure, solar technologies are maturing rapidly and being deployed widely, but it still accounts for only a fraction of a percent of our global electricity production. CleanWeb believes the answer to higher growth rates for the sector lies at the intersection of mobile, social, and data. Specifically, they want to use the resource cloud and big data to establish new frontiers in clean tech.

  • Resource cloud: less ownership and more efficient consumption enabled by social and mobile connectivity (think Zipcar and AirBnB)
  • Big data: using information to capture massive efficiency and optimization opportunities (think OPower)
  • New frontiers: new business models and applications of IT (think Nest Labs)
The best way to create these ideas is to get all the right minds in the room at a hackathon. I saw this in action back at a Sungevity -sponsored hackathon focused on solar held in June 2012, when my friend Tyler Tringas and friends developed an electric vehicle + solar panel (EV+PV) sales application called SunRide. I had to get in on these hackathons, and so I headed to one at South by Southwest Eco, as told in a previous post. I plan on participating this weekend as well, and all coders, designers, and business minds should come on out!

So, once an idea has been “hacked”, what happens next? Some ideas go straight to the graveyard if the idea doesn’t have business legs. Others go to landing page purgatory, great ideas that have no team to continue contributing. If you’ve got a great idea and a great team, then it’s time to incubate. That’s the modus operandi of Greenstart, a clean tech incubator and design studio located in San Francisco. They take up and coming companies and invest $115,000 in cash for a period of three months, at which point they pitch to larger investors at an event called Demo Day, one of which took place just last week. Mayor Ed Lee was in attendance, and said that “innovation is as infectious as Giants fever!” He highlighted a new initiative called CleantechSF, through which¬†entrepreneurs can test out their new technologies on city assets like street lights, buildings, buses, and parking.

Four companies at Demo Day then got up to pitch their products, which had been incubating for the past couple of months. Root3 implements no-hassle energy software for on-site power plants at larger commercial and industrial facilities like airports, campuses, and manufacturers. Kiwi looks at the intersection of simple yet high-value solar installations, arguing that companies like SolarCity are simple but capture most of the value and just pass on some savings to the customer. People Power is creating the “internet of things” by making all devices smart and connected. Finally, Liquid looks to create a liquid economy with the idea being that you can rent out anything you own (bikes, cameras, tools, etc.). Liquid won the audience award at TechCrunch, and definitely seemed like it was the most likely of the four to have been hatched at a hackathon given its emphasis on social media and the resource cloud.

Discuss in the comments section! Is hacking the new wave for clean tech? Are social, mobile, and web technologies really going to change our energy and sustainability landscapes, and if so, how quickly?