By Mona Mirmortazavi, Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade
Colorado’s reputation as the Silicon Valley of the Rocky Mountains has expanded almost as quickly as its advanced industry (AI) companies. The state has remained vigilant in supporting AI companies since the introduction of the Advanced Industries Accelerator (AI) grants in 2013, providing innovative startups with funding that has transformed research and development, the path to commercialization and the ecosystem for Advanced Industries. For many in the cleantech industry, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) has helped them achieve great strides in innovation.
The Advanced Industries grants were introduced as part of Colorado Blueprint in an attempt to energize the local economy and attract new capital and jobs to Colorado. The AI awards focus on commercialization of technologies, while building and aligning the assets and services necessary. Seven Advanced Industries are included in this program: energy and natural resources, advanced manufacturing, aerospace, bioscience, electronics, engineering and technology and information.
The AI grants are provided in three categories: Proof of Concept, Early-Stage Capital and Retention and Infrastructure, to assist at every level of development.
Cleantech, a subsection of energy and natural resources, particularly thrives under the AI grant program; in 2015, the Clean Technology Discovery Evaluation Grant Program was absorbed by AIA, combining forces to bring the best support to Colorado cleantech companies. As of 2016, 25 of the Advanced Industries allocations have been awarded to cleantech companies for over $6.1 million in investment, supporting cleantech’s $4.6 billion statewide economic impact.
One of these thriving companies is Solid Power. Born in a lab at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2013, Solid Power created a solid-state rechargeable battery that is safer and more powerful than liquid lithium-ion batteries.
This results in greater run time per charge for mobile electronic devices and a greater driving range per charge for electric vehicles, all while producing improved safety and reliability. In 2014, Solid Power received an early-stage AIA grant from OEDIT of $250,000, an amount that they claim was transformative to their continued success. “The early funds were instrumental in positioning the company for sustainability and commercial viability as validated by the numerous industry partnerships and investments into the company since then,” said Doug Campbell, CEO of Solid Power. “The AI grants really help small companies like ours get over some of the hurdles of trying to move out of the lab and into early product development.”
RavenWindow, another thriving Colorado cleantech business, manufactures a solar-intuitive window that automatically tints based on heat and sunlight using thermochromic filters. When implemented, this innovation significantly reduces energy costs by up to 30 percent on utility bills, and is a fraction of the cost of electronic-transitioning glass. In 2013, RavenWindow was given a $250,000 early-stage AI grant and recognized by OEDIT as a Colorado Company to Watch. Thanks to the award, RavenWindow was able to validate its product and leverage a $20 million private investment in 2014, completely transforming their production. Today, they have a 50,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Denver, supplying increasing demand across North America.
Early-stage cleantech company OptiEnz Sensors received a grant of $150,000 in 2015 and a second grant of $100,000 in 2017 to fund their innovative biosensor technology. While continuous sensors exist for pressure, temperature, and other process conditions, none exist for organic chemicals in water. Instead, the current process is to take samples, send them to a laboratory, and wait for the results—a time consuming and expensive process. OptiEnz Sensors has created a biosensor that makes continuous measurements of organic chemical concentrations in water and aqueous solutions, including sugars, alcohols, solvents, and hydrocarbons. This reduces the amount of energy and materials used, improve yields, and reduces the risk of process and regulatory violations. The company is currently in pre-production and undergoing product trials to monitor liquids for biopharmaceuticals, biofuels, and industrial chemical manufacturers.
“Half of the company’s funding came through grants from the State of Colorado and the National Science Foundation,” said Steve Witt, CEO of OptiEnz Sensors. “This early stage funding has been critical for moving the company from R&D to manufacturing prototypes.”
Other AIA grant recipients include EcoVapor, a mobile, standalone field unit that captures more than 99 percent of oxygen from flash gas vapors emitted from crude oil reaching the surface. EcoVapor then sells the gas to the marketplace to reduce harmful emissions and produce additional revenue for oil and gas producers. In 2014, OEDIT provided an early stage AI grant of $250,000, which was used to build and deploy their modules on oil and gas sites in Colorado, and they have captured other grants and capital since.
This support for the state’s cleantech industry has been transformative for Colorado startups and innovators and has directly benefited the Colorado economy. Since 2013, direct employment in cleantech has increased to about 26,270 jobs, and indirect employment has increased to 86,100 jobs, making cleantech fourth in Colorado employment concentration; that’s a rate of about 8.5 percent employment growth in one year, and 22.4 percent employment growth over five. This strong job growth has led to a $4.6 billion impact on Colorado’s economy.
Cleantech in Colorado is expanding at a remarkable rate, not only on the corporate level, but on an economic level as well—thanks in part to OEDIT’s Advanced Industries Accelerator grants. These grants have stimulated the cleantech industry to expand and, for some recipients, they have transformed the company as a whole, and for others it has provided an invaluable stepping stone to success. Cleantech’s future in Colorado has never looked so bright.