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A lightweight, customized economy, designed by you

Humans design systems that suit our purposes, that create wealth, and that make life better. We seek and test ideas; then adopt the ones that best fit our needs. When resources seemed limitless, the best ideas often involved extracting resources to feed the new technologies. That's how our modern economies evolved. But those circumstances are changing. Growing uncertainty about availability and access to key resources is forcing us to design new systems and business models to meet our needs. [...]

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Securing investment at the water-energy nexus

What is it like to be a renewable energy start-up in New York City, 2013? We visited the headquarters of Rentricity Inc. at the WeWork coworking space in SoHo last week to find out.

In the hip-yet-sophisticated collection of offices, conference rooms, and common areas on the 6th floor of a converted warehouse, glass-walled units buzzed with industrious entrepreneurs along a hallway that opened onto a central kitchen/socializing area stocked with ample amenities: fresh-brewed coffee, pineapple-infused water and yes, a keg in continuous operation. In a bright conference room by the elevator, we sat with members of the Rentricity team: President Frank Zammataro, Research Associate April Lecato, and their intern, Anna, beneath a modern-art montage urging us to “Do/What/You/Love.” 

Certainly an apt exhortation for Rentricity’s President and co-founder. A former Wall Street-er with no background in electrical or mechanical engineering, Frank is truly a self-made and self-taught technologist. Displaced in the aftermath of 9/11, he started to fixate on the water towers perched atop the Manhattan buildings visible from his new downtown office. Can we tap into the potential energy of all this water just sitting on the city’s roofs and use it to power emergency evacuation devices? “It won’t work” was the verdict from a cadre of engineering professors at RPI to whom he presented his first drawings: a wheel in a pipe that harnessed energy from water flowing down through these systems. Undaunted, he dove deeper into water systems and in the summer of 2002 surfaced with a technology to collect renewable energy from water flowing in pipes and vaults.  Seven years and numerous state and business grants later, he moved into business full-time.  

Fast forward to 2013: business is moving swiftly—the company has four times as many projects in the pipeline this year over last, and is building a solid portfolio of case studies, relationships and partnerships. But revenue and reputation alone are not enough to fund the ambitious growth Mr. Zammataro has in his crosshairs. He wants to hire—the best-of-the-best—to expand operations beyond their current NYC digs, to increase capacity on all fronts. But scaling requires funding and renewable energy took a significant hit in 2012. The well-publicized failure of several cleantech projects and uncertainty in the sector has left many venture capitalists gun shy.  

So how does a start-up like Rentricity convince investors to get on board? How do they drum up interest and excitement about innovations that deal with the totally un-sexy business of systems infrastructure? Does Rentricity need an evangelist to take on the cause of infrastructure reform and innovation, someone to speak up for smart, efficient infrastructure that harnesses existing power within the system? 

Maybe, but Rentricity appears to be in a better position than many innovators who have been lumped into the cleantech category. The company is at what’s been called the energy-water nexus. Businesses and economies rely very much on these two closely linked critical resources. While Rentricity’s technology involves generating clean energy, it also has the potential to enable smarter water management and water conservation. Importantly, it also takes advantage of existing infrastructure. And it’s not trying to compete in a crowded field of attractive products, like cars or gee-whiz solar collectors. In light of comments from panelists at a recent cleantech investment event, Rentricity appears to be in an enviable position.

Look for a profile of Rentricity’s technology from dMASS soon.

 

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Resource Fix: When is it time to invest in new methods & materials?

Lightweighting is an effective strategy for saving resources while maintaining or enhancing performance. Lighter airplanes and vehicles, for example, use less fuel. Lighter, thinner food packaging requires fewer materials to make. Lighter products save fuel during shipping. But developing new techniques or materials for lightweighting requires investment and risk. How do business leaders decide when that investment makes sense? How do the prospects of rising resource constraints and higher fuel prices factor into the decision? Is developing a new application for a material, one that might perform as well as conventional materials while using fewer resources, worth the risk? The decision makers at GE seem to think so. The company is developing new techniques for composite materials, building parts by hand in a slow, labor-intensive process and learning along the way. Its competitors are focusing on new engine designs rather than new materials. If GE succeeds, it will have an edge over the competition not only because its planes will be lighter and are projected to have lower maintenance costs, but also because it will have developed important lightweighting expertise for other applications. In what other industries do you see similar stories playing out – where some companies are opting to make current technologies as efficient as possible while others are developing new methods and materials? [contact-form 2 "ResourceFix Tip Contact Form"]

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