Young entrepreneurs tackling hard problems and billion dollar markets took top prizes at the First Look West (FLoW) regional finals competition with technologies that recover waste energy from energy servers powered by fuel cells, mobile phone apps for tracking home energy use and devices for improving solar panel efficiencies.  At an awards celebration held at the University of Southern California on May 7, Pyro-E, Chai Energy and Dragonfly shared $160,000 in prize money and start-up packages that include face time with top investors and legal support.  

In addition Rare Earth Separation took home the inaugural $5,000 Transformational Idea Award with an innovation of industrial and military importance. Sponsored by Draper University, the entrepreneurial educational program founded by venture capitalist Tim Draper , the TIA rewards ground-breaking pre-commercial research.

FLoW represents the Western Region of the DOE's National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition (NCEBPC). The awards event was the culmination of a six month competitive process searching for the untapped clean energy innovation that lies in American university labs. The winning teams from six regions across the country will now participate in the National Competition in Washington D.C., June 11June 13, 2013.

This year's winners are:

First Place, $100,000: Pyro-E: Pyro-E, led by Berkeley students, is developing a solid-state heat engine for waste heat harvesting that is 10-times more powerful and lower in cost than existing devices. Pyro-E is looking to tap into the $32 billion US market for such waste heat recovery from fuel cell and diesel stationary generators; industrial furnaces and gas pipelines; and gasoline automobile and hybrids. In the transportation sector alone in 2012 the thermal waste from ~300 million vehicles accounted for 27% of the overall U.S. energy use. Pyro-E has established a joint-development venture with fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy, Inc. (BE) to co-create the latest generation Bloom Box™.

Second Place, $40,000: Chai Energy, under a team from the California Institute of Technology, is developing a mobile phone app for monitoring energy usage in the home, appliance by appliance and in real time. As much as 50% of the energy used in the average American home is wasted, leading to overpaying as much as $700 a year. Chai's technology leverages utility smart meters to deliver a seamless mobile experience. Today there are 20 million compatible smart meters in the US, installed in homes that collectively waste $8 billion in electricity every year.  By 2020 there are expected to be 900 million smart meters internationally. Working with Southern California Edison, as a key partner, Chai is establishing a 100 home pilot with the goal of launching the product later this year. 

Third Place, $20,000: Dragonfly Systems, a five-person Stanford Team, is developing an electronic device that when attached to solar modules will eliminate the 3-5% power loss that happens when lone under-performing panels limit the energy production of nearby units. This "mismatch" keeps solar power too expensive for many markets. Dragonfly will target commercial and utility-scale installations which are expected to more than double to 36GW by 2017. Dragonfly will sell these power devices to module manufacturers and system installers, a potential market of $1.8 billion.

Transformational Idea Award, $5,000: Rare Earth Separation

Rare Earth elements are used ubiquitously in manufacture, from cell phones and energy efficient lighting to cracking catalysts for oil refining, and ultra-light materials used in aerospace. UC Berkeley's Rare Earth Separation presented an innovative concept for separating rare earth elements that should generate less waste, be more selective across all the rare earth elements, and require much cheaper processing facilities. 

FLoW is the largest clean energy business plan competition for university students in the western United States   FLoW is a consortium of universities running the western region of the Department of Energy's $2 million National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition (NCEBPC) for university students.  NCEBPC was launched under Startup America, the White House campaign to inspire and promote entrepreneurship.