Charlotte-Based Joules Accelerator Boosts Cleantech Startups

Clean energy breakthroughs can come from anywhere in the world; in the United States, the clean energy innovation ecosystem is robust and getting stronger, encompassing both regional and nationwide support systems for entrepreneurs and startups.

Typically, clean energy innovation ecosystems can be described as having three main phases on the path to commercialization, with progress typically facilitated by various organizations: research (powered by universities and labs), development (hosted by incubators and accelerators), and deployment (made possible through funding and corporate partnerships).

In February, Joules, a Charlotte-based nonprofit accelerator, opened the application process for the catalyst program Cohort 3, in partnership with Duke Energy and the city of Charlotte.

Following the successes of Cohort 1 and 2, Cohort 3 seeks energy and clean technology-focused applications, with a focus on solving problems for indoor agriculture, electric vehicle infrastructure, and artificial intelligence.

Joules Executive Director Bob Irvin told Dice that the Catalyst program identifies, advises, and connects high-potential “cleantech” startups with utilities and their partners.

“We bring in six to seven companies and figure out what sectors our partners—in this case Duke and the city—are interested in, and we work to connect these partners with startups,” Irvin said.

Since its founding in 2013, the Joules Accelerator has evolved and grown from a purely Charlotte-focused incubator to become a major energy accelerator.

The program lasts 90 days and is focused on providing connections for startups so that they can identify business development opportunities with Duke Energy, the city of Charlotte, SAS, Southern Company, and other partners throughout the Carolinas and Southeast, Irvin explained.

Joules, which does not take equity in startups, does not charge for the application or participation in the program, and companies selected to participate in the program have all expenses covered during the events.

The program looks for companies that are post-revenue and pre-Series A, have a working product that addresses some need of one or more of the accelerator’s corporate partners (or the city of Charlotte), and can travel to Charlotte to hold meetings at the beginning and end of the 90-day process.

During those 90 days, Joules hosts occasional webinars that help startups better understand the process of working with and selling to utilities and their partners.

Following the program, Joules will stay in touch with companies, and provide assistance whenever and wherever possible. Irvin said a “win” for Joules is when a cohort company gets a pilot or some other working agreement with a utility, a city, or one of their partners.

For Cohort 2, five out of six companies received a pilot with one or both of the utilities, and the sixth company is in talks with the utilities to move forward with a possible pilot. “Energy is an industry that’s being disrupted because entrepreneurs are coming in with ideas from other industries that are ready-made for the energy space, but the space is currently dominated by monopolies—the utilities,” Irvin said. “Innovation wasn’t exactly critical in the last 40 to 50 years, so the challenge is how to get the utility to participate, instead of halt, these innovations.”

He explained that companies such as Duke want to keep ahead of that disruption; Joules, though small, is another source of fresh ideas for the city: “You gotta wake up the crowd, you gotta keeping pushing and show people you’re creating jobs and show those potential workers—especially Millennials—that you’re socially responsible and socially oriented.”

For the 2018 program, Irvin is boosting the organization’s efforts to attract more cleantech companies out of the area by partnering with the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster to help introduce local clean energy startups to the accelerator before applications close.

One of the local startups that recently worked with Joules is Atom Power, which last year secured an equity investment from Siemens, a large producer of energy-efficient technologies.

Founded in 2014, Atom Power has created one of the first commercially viable solid-state circuit breakers for commercial and industrial building markets. In addition to being dynamic and intelligent, they also make electricity safer by preventing arc flash hazards, a serious electrical risk associated with the release of energy caused by an electrical arc.

“The Joules organization was pretty new when we started Atom in 2014—their goal was to try and draw attention to Charlotte’s energy-focused startups, and naturally gravitated towards that,” CEO Ryan Kennedy said.

Kennedy added that Atom Power leaned on Joules a lot in the early days for help in creating a network between the company and some of the bigger players such as Duke and Southern Energy.

“Anytime there’s a presentation or an event that Joules does that involves cleantech or energy, they do very well at bringing partners in and showing them what’s going on in the regional energy center,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy also noted the presence of what’s known as the Research Triangle, anchored by North Carolina State University, Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the cities of Raleigh and Durham and the town of Chapel Hill, as evidence that there are bright minds looking develop innovative ideas in green energy.

“There are a lot of resources here that would lend themselves to people an companies trying to do something different,” Kennedy said. “To be perfectly candid, there’s not much of a cleantech startup scene here. There are only a handful of companies that have started up directly in the energy space, and that’s something that Joules is trying to change and shift that dynamic.”