Generating Products, Not Just Ideas, to Get Off the Fossil-Fuel Diet

Here’s what becoming a smarter city means to me. Philadelphia just launched a small program to help city companies develop a market for their technologies to improve energy efficiency.The $430,000 program will award grants of between $50,000 and $150,000 to companies with more than a great idea. This money is aimed at getting products off the lab bench and installed into a setting where the entrepreneurs can prove their technologies can walk their talk.

How, you might ask, can a city that needed to attract $600,000 in private- sector funds before it could open its public pools this weekend afford to push such a program? It all goes back to the federal stimulus package and Mayor Nutter’s ambitious Greenworks Philadelphia plan to remake how the city consumes energy, handles trash, and nurtures green space. The money for the new Greenworks Pilot Energy Technology program comes from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act block grant funding. The energy-tech program is an experiment to support local companies that have been working on products to cash in on the current mania to try anything that’s not fossil-fuel-related.

The thinking: Help a company get its new product up and running with a customer. If the demonstration project works, the company shows it off to other potential customers. New orders come in, production ramps up, and jobs are created.

One of the city’s priorities for the Philadelphia Navy Yard is as a hub for “clean energy” research and commerce. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which has its operations at the Navy Yard, will evaluate the proposals from companies seeking funding. Deadline for applications is July 31.

Ben Franklin’s technical review of the applications is expected to last until mid-September. Then, it will forward recommendations on who should get funding to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. by the end of September. Grants are expected to be awarded by PIDC at the end of October.

Realistically, only three to eight companies will get grants. But this is the kind of shovel-ready project I can get behind, because it emphasizes products, not concepts that exist only as drawings on cocktail napkins. And if it smacks of government’s trying to pick winners, well, no more so than what the Ben Franklin economic-development program has tried to do over its 27-year history.

In backing successes and failures, Ben Franklin has provided small amounts of necessary funding to technology companies when they’ve been too “green” to interest venture capital firms.

Now that green is one of the hotter trends in venture investing, the city’s pilot energy-tech program could help some grant recipients get noticed in the increasingly crowded “cleantech” field.

For more information about the program, go to http://www .sep-energy.org/gpet/gpet.htm

By Mike Armstrong

Inquirer Columnist

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