Before Tesla: 10 Hawaiian startups building an amazing alternative energy ecosystem
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Japanese women on the beach in Oahu, taking selfies with an iPhone and a Selfiestick (Colleen Proppe / Contributor / Getty Images Israel)

Hawaii has been supportive of energy startups for years, making it ample proving grounds for Tesla’s latest experiment

Hawaii is a small ecosystem for technology, but the opening of Tesla’s newest solar center is bringing overdue attention to the state’s bustling alternative energy sector and thus to a growing list of new energy startups taking advantage of local resources both for business and pleasure. Leading that drive is local accelerator Energy Excelerator (EEx), which has invested in about 40 startups from across the United States. The plurality of them are Hawaiian, and not solely based out of Honolulu (the capital and certainly largest city of the eight islands).

The entire ecosystem is growing thanks to other institutions like pan-industry Blue Startups, which has had eight cohorts of companies thus far. A select few have had the chance to go through both programs. Many have expanded their operations by opening offices in Silicon Valley, a near-certain inevitability for scaling technology outfits around the world.

Challenges are definitely ahead though. The new White House budget proposal would eliminate ARPA-E, a Department of Energy division responsible for allocating millions to fledgling startups and research programs across the US. Private venture capital and industry titans like Tesla (and SolarCity) will find themselves with disproportionate responsibility for driving new kinds of energy forward for the future economy. Hawaii is positioned to help with that.

These are just 10 of the companies turning Hawaii into a new capital for alternative energy:

1. Volta

Volta charging station outside Whole Foods (courtesy)

Independent electric car charging network Volta is one of the big reasons Tesla has arrived. Volta has set up an impressive EV-charging network and is arguably the most recognizable and most-likely to exit company that has emerged from the Hawaiian islands. They have already set up their own stations across the United States with particular emphasis on Chicago, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, San Diego, and of course home-base Hawaii.

Founder and CEO Scott Mercer is a true car enthusiast. His bio recounts how he restored and sold a 1967 Jaguar XKE to get the bootstrap money to launch Volta. He has gotten himself on the 40 Under 40 by Pacific Business News and 20 for the Next 20 by Hawaii Business.

Volta charging station map (courtesy)

Somehow, they have managed to offer their charging services for free into 2017. They use an ad-based model, meaning you just have to put up with the commercials to get a charge. The difference with Tesla is that Volta’s network is open to all brands, not just Tesla drivers. They have raised $12.5 million as of late 2015 with backers like 500 Startups, SQN Capital, and Three Bridges Ventures.

“We face competitors selling emerging media advertising to sustainably minded brands. Where Volta really stands out is offering brands the opportunity to do more than a simply put their name on something that delivers a ‘green’ message,” a company rep communicated to VentureBeat in 2015. “Volta advertisers are providing a real service to communities by powering drivers to a more sustainable future.”

Volta charging station (courtesy)

2. Smart Yields

This Honolulu company has an app and desktop program that predicts changing environmental conditions and alerts farmers to plan accordingly. They recently raised another $420,000 in seed funding (bringing their total haul to $520,000) and joined the Energy Excelerator’s newest cohort. They are also a veteran of the Blue Startups accelerator.

“We’re extremely humbled that we’ve been able to raise these additional funds and close out our seed round,” Vincent Kimura, Smart Yields’ chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Our pace of fundraising and growing team is a testament to the broad and wide-ranging support we’re seeing for our mission. … Here at home, as Hawaii bolsters its local food production, technology will play a critical part in helping our state achieve a more sustainable future.”

Their most interesting focus might be on disseminating their know-how to STEM education, as Smart Yields Co-Founder and Head of Education Lizzy Schiller said last month, “School farms are excellent, hands-on learning laboratories that inspire kids to explore the environment and think about sustainability.”

SmartYields Intro from Smart Yields on Vimeo.

3. Ibis Networks

Ibis is an energy management platform geared toward the needs of large companies trying to manage their utility bills. Their main customers are building managers. Founded by CEO Michael Pfeffer, Ibis recently raised another $2.5 million in December 2016. Their sole investor listed in Crunchbase is Keiretsu Capital, though the company claims to have several anonymous funders.

They have expanded to Silicon Valley with an office in Santa Clara, California and another location in Washington state according to their website. They have a strategic partnership with Honeywell that they claim helped them expand their “national sales footprint.” They also come out of the local Energy Excelerator.

4. TerViva

TerViva, an abbreviation and portmanteau of “terra” and “viva” (or living Earth), is the monicker for a company that makes a business out of producing crops on traditionally “unproductive agricultural land.” The idea is to make better use of land and create more natural solutions to diet and energy supplementation in the economy. Their first crop is the legume-producing and soy-like Pongamia tree, whose oil is described as “excellent for biofuel” and its seeds perfect for animal feed. TerViva claims the crop is eight times more productive than soybeans.

In the near-term they are setting up a 25,000-tree orchard on Hawaii’s main island Oahu.

5. in2lytics

in2lytics is to utility data what zip drives are to collections of photos. They better organize and store data, making data storage lighter and keeping tabs on utilities easier for their three utility clients and even a Marine Corps base located in Hawaii.

“in2lytics offers a software platform capable of integrating disparate time-series data, along with visual analytics tools to help electric companies improve their energy efficiency, stop energy loss and theft, prevent equipment failures, and plan for and manage distributed and renewable energy resources,” the company describes itself to Energy Exceleration.

IN2LYTICS X1 from Pixel Engine Studio on Vimeo.

6. Pono Home

Pono makes automated recommendations to homeowners looking for ways to make their water and energy use more efficient by auditing how you use these utilities. They recently worked with Hawaii Energy to help 500 low-income and elderly residents make improvements in how they spend their money. Renters also were a particular target of the project. The primary objective was to replace older forms of technology — say, incandescent light bulbs — with more energy-efficient ones. But educating homeowners (or renters) on best practices was part of the deal.

“The program is expected to produce annual electricity savings in excess of $165,000 per year, or about $300 per participating home,” CEO Scott Cooney summarized recently in CleanTechnica. “Overall, 12,252 efficiency products were installed, including over 10,000 LED bulbs, 1,695 water efficiency products, and 382 advanced power strips.”

7. Carbon Lighthouse

Carbon Lighthouse founders

Using a sensor network, the company’s software can optimize energy use in office buildings and factories. They claim to deliver utility savings “10x more cost-effectively than traditional methods offered”: them’s fighting words. Sensors are installed on roofs to cover solar power and in utility rooms, an arrangement they have made with over 400 buildings in the United States since the company’s founding in 2010.

The Social Entrepreneurs Fund has given them an undisclosed amount of money to work with clients like Hilton Hotels and even Tesla, estimating they saved the company $1,716,300 in a case study featured on Carbon Lighthouse’s website. The company is led by CEO Brenden Millstein and VP Sales Eric Brown.

8. Prota Culture

Out of the Hawaiian town of Waimanalo, they’re led by Founder & CEO, Robert Olivier, Head of Product Design Katharina Unger, and Head of Sales & Marketing Karl Warkomski.

Sustainable food is the name of the game, specifically for animals in this case. An insect-based production system is supposed to generate basic ingredients for biodiesel and animal feeds from organic waste. The idea is to reduce the global footprint of landfills and make use of the useless.

“Given enough food waste, one commercial BioPod™ produces as much protein from insects as an entire acre of land in California planted with soy. With these portable units, Prota Culture could disrupt a 50 million dollar food waste disposal market on Oahu while providing cheap, locally produced animal feed for poultry, fish and pigs making Hawai’i more self-reliant,” the company claims.

9. Kunoa Company

Based in Kapolei, they’re led by CEO Jack Beuttell and COO Bobby Farias.

Kunoa wants to streamline agricultural management in Hawaii by turning the local beef industry into an energy-efficient and better scaled operation. Managing energy use, water, crops, and the like, Kunoa is getting tis business started by experimenting with ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels at Hawaiian food processing facilities. That project got off the ground in November 2016 with the company’s leasing of Oahu’s only slaughter house.

“The vision for this facility is to renovate it, rehabilitate it for our purposes as a beef company. Also make that facility open to the livestock community throughout the state of Hawaii,” Kunoa partner Jack Beuttell recently told Hawaii News Now. “We’ve entered a new phase in the marketplace where consumers are more conscious of the food that they’re shopping for. They’re looking for products that are more natural, that are hormone- and antibiotic-free. That are sourced here in Hawaii.”

10. Geli

Geli is ambitious, hoping to install “solar-plus-storage” across Hawaii. They boast that their software can assess the viability of installing energy storage systems according to site, to automate energy systems, and integrate with other energy programs.

Co-founded by President Ryan Wartena and CTO Cris Wagner back in 2010, they’ve raised about $8 million from the likes of Shaell Technology Ventures, Abdel Banda, and Molly Voorhees among many others.

Geli ESyst – Uploading Energy Data from Geli on Vimeo.

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