Published on WRAL Tech Wire: Part III of a three-part series on the Research Triangle Region’s Cleantech Cluster.
What do you get when you combine swine manure with heat and pressure?
A team from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University gets “PiGrid,” glue that holds asphalt together better and more cheaply than petroleum-based products on the market today. PiGrid also captures harmful greenhouse gases in the process, gives hog farmers an eco-friendly way to dispose of waste and offers a new industry opportunity for farmers and rural entrepreneurs.
Bioadhesive Alliance Inc., the A&T team that invented it, took top honors and a $100,000 grand prize for their innovation at the 2013 ACC Clean Energy Challenge held at N.C. State University in Raleigh in April. They also won the chance to compete at the U.S. Department of Energy-hosted National Clean Business Plan Finals in Washington, D.C. in June.
The Research Triangle Region, meanwhile, gets a new cleantech venture – the latest addition to a rapidly expanding cluster of companies that are creating the world’s sustainable future.
Cleantech refers to products, services and processes that use renewable materials and energy sources, reduce the use of natural resources, and cut or eliminate emissions and waste. Business opportunity exists for companies who work in each of those areas, as well as where they intersect.
Regional innovators and entrepreneurs, startups and major multinationals all are taking full advantage, driving the region’s cleantech cluster growth and developing sustainable solutions to meet the world’s resource needs. And the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster is behind them with a set of strategies to connect, support and market the cluster to the world.
A May cleantech cluster networking event, for instance, featured three companies that are pioneering energy management products and services for consumer products and industrial application.
Joulebug, a regional startup offering a free mobile app for smartphones, challenges users to “Save Energy and Have Fun Doing It.” The app combines mobile gaming, social media and educational tools that reward users with points and badges for saving energy and taking sustainable everyday actions.
DNA group, a hardware company born in the region 25 years ago supplying switches, electronic and mechanical components and subassemblies for original equipment manufacturers, now develops state-of-the-art devices and software applications that enable remote, networked management of power systems for home automation as well as power management for consumer goods, lawn and garden, marine, transportation and industrial markets.
Umicore, a Belgium-based global materials technology company with a U.S. headquarters in Raleigh, is experiencing most of its growth from cleantech recycling technologies that optimize the use of natural resources and reduce environmental impact. The company develops materials and components for passenger cars, rechargeable batteries for hybrids and electric cars, and materials used in photovoltaic technologies, making it a key player in the region’s emerging smart transportation and solar industries.
Also featured was Wireless Research Center of North Carolina, a nonprofit created by the Town of Wake Forest in 2011 with Golden LEAF Foundation funding. It works to accelerate the industry’s growth in the region by helping companies test and develop consumer products that have wireless components.
The region’s cleantech cluster roots run deep, to the mid-1950s, when Westinghouse relocated its electric meter manufacturing division from New Jersey to Raleigh. In the decades to come, acquisitions brought to the region other industry leaders that continue operations today.
Westinghouse sold its power transmission and distribution business to ABB, bringing the power distribution and automation giant to the region. ABB sold its metering business to Elster, a major metering industry leader. Sensus spun out from Invensys and entered the market through strategic acquisitions, including American Micro Detection Systems Inc. and Telemetric. Itron bought Utility Translation Systems Inc., a global leader in software-based energy measurement and management that utility companies use to meter large commercial and industrial customers. Siemens, global leader in generation, transmission and distribution of power, entered the region with Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Co., building a plant Siemens ultimately acquired. Global energy management specialist Schneider Electric entered the market with its acquisition of Square D.
While these global power leaders arrived and built regional operations, world-leading technology companies were being born and locating as well. They include IBM, one of the first companies to locate in The Research Triangle Park, locally grown SAS and technology leaders Cisco and EMC. The marriage of hardware and software enabled technological advances in power generation, distribution and management as well as new products, processes and services. Add energy innovators, like homegrown LED lighting leader Cree, and the result is a cluster that is transforming the energy industry and the way consumers live, work and play.
Companies large and small now make up the region’s cleantech ecosystem. Large companies attract and train people who may innovate internally, then leave and start their own companies. Smaller companies develop new products and services and become a strategic buy for larger ones or a marketing partner for entering global markets. Universities add to the mix, commercializing their discoveries to create university spin-outs and talent – scientists, engineers, MBAs and others – who drive innovation in regional companies.
Cleantech is an area of opportunity with vast upside potential. With innovation leaders like these and a nearly 60-year head start, the Research Triangle Region is uniquely positioned to not only compete but win.
By Lee Anne Nance, Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Research Triangle Regional Partnership and Managing Director, Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster