As federal dollars dry up, Green Launching Pad looks to reinvent itself
Two years after it was launched, with fanfare and $1.5 million in federal stimulus money, the University of New Hampshire’s Green Launching Pad faces an unknown future as it works to create a new funding model.Since its inception in February 2010, 14 companies have received Green Launching Pad funding, and more than 450 people have attended GLP seminars and events aimed at teaching companies to commercialize their green products and services. Based in Durham at UNH, the program was designed to help entrepreneurs in the green energy sector take their companies to the next level of development by leveraging grant money and a wide range of UNH assistance.In its most recent round of funding, the GLP targeted three established manufacturing companies as part of its evolving portfolio.Venky Venkatachalam, project director of the Green Launching Pad and a UNH professor of decision sciences, said the focus on green manufacturing was deliberate because “it will help address economic and environmental concerns simultaneously through job creation and help stimulate the manufacturing sector through use of environmentally friendly materials, and a reduction in energy use in the manufacturing process and in unwanted by-products and waste.”Measuring the success of the two-year-old program comes with some caveats, in part because it’s hard to know what the final outcome of the companies will be and how many jobs will ultimately be created.When the Green Launching Pad was developed with a Department of Energy grant, proponents had ambitious goals for it — energy savings, emissions reductions and business and employment growth. These goals would be reached through commercialization of projects focused on energy efficiency, energy conservation, renewable energy or sustainable energy projects.”I would give us an A-minus,” said Venkatachalam, who admits to being biased but frank about his assessment. “There are a lot of things we have done very well and other things we could have done better.” The most difficult part of the job, Venkatachalam explained, was saying no to the scores of companies that applied for but didn’t get grants and the assistance. In the third and latest round, there were 18 businesses that submitted Green Launching Pad applications, but the GLP advisory board picked three existing manufacturing companies — Earthtec and LDI Corp., both in Portsmouth, and RAS-Tech in Brentwood.The launching pad aspect of the GLP has been a major success, Venkatachalam said, because all of the companies involved have reached new levels of development.”Job creation is one metric (of success). We believe the success comes from the strength of the portfolio and the number of projects these companies are taking part in,” he explained. “You have to be careful creating too many jobs and burning up cash too quickly. The real job creation potential will come in the two to five years.”‘Helped enormously’Revolution Energy is one of the GLP companies that seems poised for major growth. The five-year-old firm was among the first five companies to get GLP status and it recently moved from Dover to Portsmouth. Revolution Energy has evolved from a part-time venture among its partners to four full-time staff members with a likelihood of adding more in the coming months, said co-founder Michael Behrmann.To use an analogy, what makes Revolution Energy unique is not that it invented a new alternative energy mousetrap, but it created a new of financing alternative energy projects by using third-party financing and creative incentive leveraging.Since receiving a Launching Pad grant and UNH assistance, Behrmann said, the company has advanced from a successful pilot project at Exeter High School in the fall of 2010 — at the time, it was the largest solar array in the state — into a larger, sustainable business model to utilize green energy and help save clients significant amounts of money.”The initial grant money was an obvious help,” said Berhrmann during a recent visit to a 60-kilowatt solar project at East Kingston Elementary School that went online in June 2011.Revolution received two grants totaling $70,000, but Behrmann said the marketing, management and engineering assistance from UNH academics, researchers and interns was crucial in its business development over the past two years.”That assistance spoke even louder, and we figure it multiplied the grant money by a factor of 10,” he said. “We have been helped enormously to establish our branding and develop a strategic vision. Even the GLP designation has helped legitimize our business.””We offer funding plus-plus. We’ve found that it takes more than funding for these companies to grow and succeed,” Venkatachalam said. “A lot of them don’t know what to do with funding when what they need is accelerated business development.”For Revolution Energy, the development over the past two years has included major projects at Great Bay Community College, the Edge Sports Center in Bedford, Mass., and its largest project yet at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston.Behrmann said the project will be the first of its kind in the world by combining an innovative technology from Canada with Revolution’s own patent-pending solar hot air approach. The school will host a new and efficient solar hot air collector at four different locations on its property.The federal stimulus funding for the Green Launching Pad runs out April 30, but Venkatachalam said he is confident the organization will develop a new funding plan combining private investment and grants from the federal government from the commerce or energy departments.The Launching Pad already has strong brand recognition, he said, and benefits from a lean and entirely virtual administrative operation that consists of Venkatachalam at his UNH office.”Once we get private funding, we will do this in a slightly different way, but we plan to keep the support systems in place,” he said. “In the transition we may still do some grants, but we could also have direct investments. The important thing is to leverage our knowledge which is what the 21st century is going to be all about.”Gov. John Lynch remains a strong advocate for the program in part because it has succeeded in developing a sustainable model and tapped into an urgent demand by startup companies for assistance.”I remember the initial discussions taking place in my office. What we didn’t know was how big the demand would be from embryonic companies,” Lynch said. “I was really surprised.”In the initial round of funding, five companies were selected out of more than 70 applications.Like Venkatachalam, Lynch believes it could take four to five years before the success of the companies can be truly measured. But he is convinced the model has been successful and the GLP will evolve into a different form that will include more private investment.He said he plans to hold meetings with business leaders and investors in the coming weeks to help facilitate the GLP transformation.