Will the Next Big Thing Be Green?

Posted on October 19, 2012


Baumgartner’s World Record Jump

Earlier this week, much of the world witnessed an amazing human and technological feat when Felix Baumgartner – an Austrian Skydiver, daredevil and Base jumper – broke the sound barrier at Mach 1.24 (834 m.p.h) during his skydiving freefall from an altitude of over 128,000 feet (~24 miles) [see video]. Sixty-five years earlier on the same day (Oct. 14th), test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier in an experimental X-1 jet at an altitude of 45,000 feet (~ 8 miles). Baumgartner’s superhuman feat would not be possible without a number of technological innovations. Since no scientist knew what the human body was capable of until Felix’s jump, the Red Bull-sponsored event may have done more to stretch the imagination of what’s possible than any other privately sponsored challenge.


In advance of the jump from the edge of space, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) launched their next Grand Challenge last week to help stretch inventors’ imaginations that would lead to the next breakthrough in science and technology. (You can click here for a copy of the RFI; the entries are due January 1, 2013.) While the Apollo program and mapping the human genome are cited as examples of such significant breakthroughs, Felix’s world record-setting feat may eventually be positioned in an awe-inspiring Grand Challenge category. Yet as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy joins forces with DARPA to sponsor the challenge, will the Next Big Thing be green (i.e., an eco-impacting invention)?

With U.S. VC investments rising 30% year-over-year in the Cleantech industry to $6.6 Billion in 2011, the category now represents a record 23% of all VC investments across the country (source: Cleantech Group). Cleantech competitions and conferences are also fueling the momentum to find the Next Big Thing.  Two of the most recognizable events that continue fostering Cleantech creativity include SXSW Eco and the Cleantech Open.


SXSW Eco recently announced the winner of the first StartUp Showcase that was derived from the Clean Energy Venture Summit and co-sponsored by the Austin Technology Incubator and Austin Energy.  Planet Reuse won the overall competition while Nexus eWater and NuMat Technologies had honorable mentions as Finalists. Each of the firm’s eco technology is focused on solving large scale challenges:

  • Planet Reuse simplifies the purchasing of reclaimed building materials by matching the types of materials with the buyers (designers, builders and owners) to save money on projects, serve LEED certification objectives and  sustain the planet. As much as 40% of the buried content in U.S. landfills consists of construction materials.
  • Nexus eWater (based in Australia) has commercialized the world’s first residential grey water and heat recycler. Grey water is wastewater generated by washing people and their clothes. It accounts for nearly half of the water used in a typical home and, while relatively clean, it accounts for about 70% of domestic wastewater. Grey water has the additional benefit of being warm and represents valuable water and heat resources being flushed away. Within the United States, heating, treating and transporting water accounts for about 15% of the carbon footprint of the United States.
  • NuMat Technologies has been a finalist or won every Cleantech competition it has entered.  As a spinout from Northwestern University, NuMat designs and synthesizes a new class of materials to help gas be stored more efficiently and effectively.

One of the most significant venues driving the way to find the Next Big Thing in Cleantech is the Cleantech Open Accelerator and Competition, the largest of its kind in the world. The Cleantech Open charter is to find, fund and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges. Since its inception in 2006, the Cleantech Open has awarded over $5 million in cash and services to support cleantech growth companies. The 581 participating companies in the Cleantech Open’s accelerator programs have raised more than $660 million in external capital.

Here is a sampling of a few of the Finalists that will be competing in the National Competition based in Silicon Valley on November 2nd and 3rd:

  • RideScout (Austin, TX) provides a mobile application for car-pooling and ride-sharing. The app connects riders with a range of transportation service providers by matching a user’s rider preferences such as cost, time and convenience to recommend a “best ride” from all transportation options available. Depending on the city, some of the options include public buses, taxis, subways, and trains in addition to social-enabled options for car-pooling or ride-sharing with friends, friends of friends, and shared-car arrangements (e.g., integrated with a user’s network of Facebook friends).
  • GR Green (Burnaby, BC) designed a patented process to produce ecological synthetic roofing and siding products from limestone waste and recycled milk bottles and grocery bags. The roofing and siding solutions are nearly carbon-neutral and can be completely recycled at the end of their 50+ years of use, making them certifiable under the “Cradle to Cradle” standard.
  • Molon Labe Designs (Breckenridge, CO), a finalist in the Transportation category, has designed a new airline seat that can help airlines cut loading and unloading time in half. The firm’s innovative “slider seat” slides away from the aisle, expanding the aisle space from 19 inches to 43 inches and allowing faster boarding in adjacent rows. After boarding on each row is completed, the aisle seat is slid back into position.

While the above eco solutions may eventually be implemented on a larger scale with sufficient funding and go-to-market execution, at least one publication has created a list of the “Top 7 Challenges We Want to See Next;” click here for the Popular Science article (in the spirit of the Grand Challenge). At least two of their proposed challenges would have an impact on sustainability:

  1. The Nikola Tesla Memorial Grand Challenge: Transmit energy over more than 200 miles wirelessly and without losing electricity.
  2. The Teleportation Grand Challenge: Transport an object (more than a couple of photons) from one point to another over an incredible distance with a high-level of accuracy.

What Next Big Thing would you like to see invented?

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© 2012 by Ed Valdez. All rights reserved.

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Posted in: Eco Leader