Meet the Energy Department's Tech Startup Bets

For more than 30 years, the federal government has set aside a small portion of its R&D spending to fund small businesses working on new technologies. The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced the names of 17 companies—selected from a pool of 70 that received earlier funding—that are getting Small Business Innovation Research grants of about $1 million each to develop energy-efficient and renewable-energy technology. Those recipients include Pixelligent Technologies, a Baltimore company trying to improve automotive lubricants, and Brittmore Group, a San Jose company using robotics to lower the costs of solar panel installation.

The SBIR grants are a good way of “supporting small businesses and driving American leadership in clean energy innovation,” said David Danielson, an assistant secretary for the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, in an e-mailed statement. The Energy Department, which has sometimes struggled to partner with small businesses, also funds innovative small companies through its Office of Science. A look at the grants offers a good primer on early-stage technologies that are coming down the pike. Here’s a selection:

Vehicles. Six companies developing technology for energy-efficient vehicles won DOE grants. Among them: Mainstream Engineering, based in Rockledge, Fla., which is developing hybrid-electric turbochargers that reduce fuel consumption and improve handling in cars and trucks; and NexTech Materials, a Lewis Center, Ohio, company working on a sensor to detect nitrogen oxide emissions in diesel exhaust.

Buildings. Sheetak, an Austin (Tex.)-based company, won a DOE grant for its proposal to build water heaters that reduce the amount of power needed without increasing costs. Oakland (Calif.)-based Heliotrope Technologies, whose Chief Executive Officer, Mike Clary, is a former “executive in residence” at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, got government funding to develop “smart” windows that reduce energy consumption.

Wind and water. Wetzel Engineering, based in Lawrence, Kan., received a grant to build up to 100-meter-long rotor blades for wind turbines that can be transported by ground and assembled in the field. Amjet Turbine Systems, based in Keokuk, Iowa, says its hydroelectric turbines will generate low-cost, clean power and create 300 jobs in the next five years.

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