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DTE Energy turns Clean Energy Prize into start-up opportunities

DTE Energy didn't have immediate results in mind when it first proposed the Clean Energy Prize competition three years ago. The downtown-based utility was thinking long when it partnered with the University of Michigan to create a business plan contest focused on sustainability for local student entrepreneurs.

"We see the prize more as a way of helping these new technologies being developed in laboratories find a business focus," says John Austerberry, a spokesman for DTE Energy.

The impetus behind that idea is helping grow more local options for DTE Energy's venture capital arm, DTE Energy Ventures. The VC subsidiary focuses on investing in start-ups that have some sort of clean-tech angle. That could include technologies ranging from improving solar panels to a new way to harness wind power.

"We're looking for ways to encourage development of these technologies," Austerberry says. "And also to develop a culture of entrepreneurialism here and plan some seeds for these types of companies."

From that point of view, DTE Energy can already point to a couple of success stories from the winners of its $50,000 grand prize. This year's winner, University of Michigan-Dearborn spin-out CSquared Innovations, is developing lithium-ion battery technology that makes the manufacturing process more cost-effective. It hopes to commercialize the technology by 2012. U-M spin-out Algal Scientific, the first winner, is in the process of pilot testing its waste-water algae technology and expects to hit the open market next year as well.

Although both start-ups are promising, DTE Energy Ventures typically invests in mid-to-late-stage start-ups. That means the companies are still young but have a market proven technology with established revenues. Algal Scientific and CSquared Innovations aren't there yet, but they could be in the not-too-distant future.

Source: John Austerberry, a spokesman for DTE Energy
Writer: Jon Zemke
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