OTC News Archive

Top 10 cleantech universities in the U.S. for 2010

Shawn Lesser of Sustainable World Capital goes inside the labs to find the best examples of collaboration between academics, businesses, and investors

Shawn Lesser, Cleantech Group LLC
January 4, 2010

Where are the cutting-edge companies that transform the industries of cleantech going to come from? Odds are that it will be from one of the top cleantech universities.

While many dotcom companies were started by students out of their dorm rooms or basements, don’t look for a similar trend in the cleantech world. You need a lot more than a desktop and a good Internet-based idea. You need specialized resources that you usually can find at a university.

Venture capital firms now have to keep tabs on chemical and engineering labs at some of the best U.S. universities as potential sources of new companies.

A few months ago, I ranked the best U.S. states for cleantech, as well as the top 10 cleantech countries. In my latest rankings, I sought to identify the 10 U.S. academic institutions best suited to take advantage of this trend. I looked whether there exists—and to what degree—a pipeline of collaboration of businesses, universities, state initiatives, investors and research dollars. The mix has to be just right to accomplish the end goal of a commercially viable product.

Here are the top 10 cleantech universities in 2010, in my estimation:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT is a true cleantech spinoff machine. The Cambridge, Mass.-based institution is also home to the MIT Clean Energy Prize, the premier student clean energy innovation and venture creation competition in the country. The annual $200,000 prize is awarded to the top student energy venture in the country. In 2009, 113 teams entered from 40 universities around the country. MIT Clean Energy Prize has helped launch several energy ventures, including FloDesign, FastCap Systems, Levant Power, Husk Insulation, and Covalent Solar. Another reason for the top ranking has been the establishment of the MIT Energy Initiative in September 2006, as an institute-wide initiative designed to help transform the global energy system to meet the needs of the future and to help build a bridge to that future by improving today’s energy systems. Notable cleantech spinouts include: A123 Systems, FastCap Systems, Levant Power, Trophos Energy, Promethean Power, 1366 Technologies, Sun Catalytix, and Agrivida.
  2. University of California at Berkeley One of UC Berkeley’s goals is to connect students and the business community to the high-level research done at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and on-campus labs. Berkeley is home to several partnerships with big players in the industry. The most important ones are the Energy and Biosciences Institute—a partnership of UC Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, and the University of Illinois, funded by BP with $500 million over ten years (see BP funds biofuel research with $500M)—and the Bio Energy Institute, which is a partnership of three national labs and three research universities in the San Francisco Bay Area, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy with $125 million over five years. Finally, the proximity to Silicon Valley and the East Bay Cleantech Corridor gives students the opportunity to get in touch with the entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and consulting companies that are driving the growth of the new energy sector. Notable cleantech spinoffs: Amyris Biotechnologies, Adura Technologies, Seeo, Aurora Biofuels, and Progressive Cooling Solutions.
  3. The University of Texas at Austin The University of Texas at Austin is a historical leader in energy innovation, R&D, and teaching. With abundant oil and gas on its own lands, and deep connections to the energy industry, UT has directly profited from its energy leadership and its graduates have populated the highest executive ranks of the world’s energy companies (CEO of ExxonMobil, CEO of ConocoPhillips, President of Shell are just a few examples). The good news is that UT is using its leadership of the conventional energy industry as a launching pad for continued leadership in the cleantech revolution. Those same oil and gas companies are investing aggressively into cleantech and they turn to UT for the expertise and people to make those innovations work. The inventor of the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, is a professor of mechanical engineering at UT. The university also is a leader in algae-based biofuels. UT is a part of a multimillion dollar DARPA-sponsored project to produce jet fuels from algae. UT Austin was also awarded $35 million in research on carbon sequestration by the Department of Energy. Notable cleantech spinouts include: ActaCell, Advanced Hydro, Graphene Energy, Organic Fuels, and Inspired Solar.
  4. Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif. Stanford University is on the cutting edge of clean technology. Stanford has developed an ambitious, long-range, $250 million initiative to sharply reduce the university’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The university also has established a $100 million research institute, the Precourt Institute for Energy, to focus on energy issues. More than $30 million in yearly funding is now spent on energy research at the university. Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) is the entrepreneurship center at Stanford’s School of Engineering. STVP is dedicated to accelerating high-technology entrepreneurship education and creating scholarly research on technology-based firms that, in turn, provides new insights for students, scholars and business leaders. Notable cleantech spinouts: Amprius, Nanostellar, Rolith, D.light Design, Driptech, and Veranda Solar.
  5. University of Michigan in Ann Arbor With research expenditures of over $1 billion and an innovation pipeline unparalleled among the nation’s public universities, the University of Michigan can rightly take its place among the leading Cleantech universities in the U.S. Student engagement in Cleantech Entrepreneurship is at an all-time high, driven by the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies in the Business School, the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering, and the student organization MPowered. The student-led Wolverine Venture Fund and the Frankel Commercialization Fund managed by the Zell Lurie Institute made recent investments in Environmental Operating Systems and Accio Energy. The Universities TechArb program is poised to leverage a rich entrepreneurial ecosystem to stake out a leadership position in the emerging green economy. Notable cleantech spinouts include: T/J Technologies (acquired), Sensicore (acquired), Sakti3, and Flexsys Wind Energy.
  6. University of Colorado at Boulder The University of Colorado at Boulder is viewed as being at the forefront of the sustainability and cleantech revolution. The university was recently recognized by Sierra Magazine as the No. 1 sustainable campus in the United States. CU Boulder has created a new joint energy institute with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The new institute, The Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI), partners leading researchers from CU-Boulder and NREL on cross discipline research across multiple areas. Currently there are 19 major corporations that sit on the RASEI leadership council, including such companies as Xcel Energy, ConocoPhilips, Toyota, SAIC, Good Energies, Wells Fargo, and Vestas. In addition, dozens of companies are involved in collaborative research with the university and its partners across several major cleantech initiatives. With more than $350 million of annual research funding, the University of Colorado at Boulder leads the Rocky Mountain region in world class research. Notable cleantech spinouts: Ion Engineering and OPX Biotechnologies.
  7. University of Wisconsin at Madison University of Wisconsin has been a leader in cleantech research for decades. The Solar Energy Lab, founded in 1954, is the oldest of its kind. More recently, the university has become a focal point for research in bio-energy and is home to one of three Department of Energy-funded Bioenergy Research Centers and the only one based at an academic institution. In 2009, the College of Engineering entered into a long-term partnership with Vestas. In May, the University of Wisconsin snagged 10 of 71 funding awards from the U.S. Department of Energy for advanced nuclear research, totaling more than $5 million. To coordinate the energy-related research and education, a group of professors came together in 2006 to create the Energy Institute. Focused on sustainability opportunities through “real world” design and engineering practices. Notable cleantech spinouts include: Virent Energy Systems and AquaMost.
  8. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY With world-class research in the physical sciences, engineering, and nanotechnology fields, Cornell is a natural spawning ground for cleantech. And Cornell is leading New York state’s task force to promote high-tech development through industry–higher education partnerships. Cornell’s campuswide Center for a Sustainable Future is unique in fostering innovative multi-disciplinary research into new energy sources, environmental and biodiversity initiatives, and economic development projects for global implementation of these programs. Notable cleantech spinouts include: Novomer and iFyber.
  9. Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Ga. Georgia Tech is one of the nation’s top research universities with over $500 million of sponsored research activity currently. The Advanced Technology Development Center is a nationally recognized science and technology incubator that helps Georgia entrepreneurs launch and build successful companies. Commercialization Services helps move innovations out of Georgia Tech laboratories and into the marketplace by assessing the commercial potential of research results and assisting in the development of new companies through the VentureLab program. VentureLab is currently advising a number of cleantech startup companies. Notable cleantech spinouts: Suniva, RideCell, and CoolClouds.
  10. Washington State University, Pullman, Wash. With legacy expertise in agriculture, power, and applied engineering, WSU’s Clean Technology program is rapidly growing in the cleantech-centric Pacific Northwest. Plant science is the engine behind the opening last year of the Bioproducts Science and Engineering Laboratory, Battelle’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratories and the recently funded Washington State Algae Alliance. One of the main objectives is the commercialization of aviation biofuels with partner Boeing Commercial Airlines. Notable cleantech spinouts: GoNano, Ajuga Biosciences, BioGasol, Schweitzer Engineering Labs, and Integrated Engineering Solutions.