Inside Wells Fargo's Incubator for 'Cleantech' Startups

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Many banks are trying to nurture innovative tech startups to transform their industry; Wells Fargo is also taking this approach to help any industry slash energy consumption.

The Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator is a five-year initiative that is co-administered by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Announced last year by the bank's philanthropic arm, it connects entrepreneurs to funding, technologies and experts — all needed to help startups tackle their daunting business journeys in an area where traditional venture capital financing has been drying up.

Mary Wenzel, head of environmental affairs at Wells Fargo, said there's a gap in funding between research and development and commercialization that holds back many clean-energy startup companies. The incubator, which announced its first batch of participating startups in April, is meant to help address this gap.

"This program is really designed to help a leading entrepreneur move quickly through that valley," said Wenzel.

The philanthropic initiative arrived ahead of the Obama administration's announcement in February of the Clean Energy Investment Initiative, a program that seeks to catalyze $2 billion of expanded private sector investment in cleantech initiatives. IN2, which was cited in the White House's announcement as an example of what that could look like, has been seeking out technologies that could slash the amount of energy buildings guzzle — an area that's ripe for change. According to the Department of Energy, roughly 40% of energy consumption in the U.S. came from commercial and residential buildings in 2013.

"The market opportunity for energy transformation is huge," said Robert G. O'Connor, a corporate partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

It's also smart business.

"The mandate has become more and more clear among big corporations that energy is increasingly a strategic asset," said O'Connor, whose firm works with Silicon Valley tech giants on their clean energy strategies.

Certainly, big banks have been upping their environmental work. Citigroup announced in February it's committing $100 billion over the next 10 years to helping reduce the effects of climate change. PNC, for another, is working to make its future headquarters building the greenest skyscraper in the world. And Bank of America is in the midst of a 10-year, $50 billion environmental business initiative, in addition to committing $75 billion through lending and other financing to reduce carbon emissions.

Wells Fargo's incubator, which is but one part of the San Francisco bank's promise to provide $100 million in grants and increased volunteerism to environmentally focused nonprofits, is seen as a unique way for the San Francisco bank to serve as an environmental steward.

"It's innovative," said O'Connor, who views the incubator as a continuation of Wells Fargo's ongoing work to champion clean energy initiatives.

And eventually, the startups' technologies could be used by the bank. Wells, after all, owns nearly 100 million square feet of real estate.

The inaugural 2015 IN2 incubator batch includes: Energy Storage Systems, a Portland, Ore., startup building an advanced flow battery that utilizes earth-abundant iron as its energy storage medium; LiquidCool Solutions, a Rochester, Minn., company that is developing two forms of total immersion electronics cooling technology for large-scale data centers; Smartershade, a Chicago startup innovating on shade technology to block sunlight; and Whisker Labs, an Oakland, Calif., company working to reduce total submetering costs for commercial buildings.

These startups can get up to $250,000 each in cash in addition to consultation and services to support their business dreams, which includes research and test support within NREL's facility in Golden, Colo., in addition to mentorship from Wells Fargo's experts. The startups have a chance to test their products within Wells Fargo's facilities if they are applicable and have been validated within NREL's facility. On the flip side, they could also get booted out of the program if they fail to hit certain milestones along the way.

"We're not looking to penalize anyone," said Richard Adams, director of the innovation and entrepreneurship center at NREL.

Rather, disqualifying an idea stops the startup from perpetuating something that's not working.

"You don't [want] entrepreneurs spinning their wheels thinking they have the next greatest thing only to find out it never gets funded or goes anywhere," said Adams, who says the program will help derisk the startups to potential investors by validating or invalidating their hypotheses.

Oren Schetrit, co-founder and chief executive of Whisker Labs, said access to a technical team, capital, and a large deployment channel are among the perks for his young company of five employees.

"It's helpful on many fronts, especially now when everyone acknowledges that in the venture community, [there's] not so much appetite for so-called green tech. It's a helpful boost to a young and early-stage company … to bridge a small gap that may exist in early financing rounds and even early demo opportunities."

Wells Fargo, which is seeking submissions for its next batch of incubator participants, is certain about one thing: the institution won't want for ideas.

"That is the least of our concerns frankly," Wenzel said.

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