Leveraging Upstate NY funding sources to spur next generation clean energy companies
The NEXUS-NY Clean Energy Accelerator has worked with dozens of emerging clean technologies – ranging from renewables and energy storage, to wind turbines – all of which have great potential. But with the continued decline of cleantech angel investments and venture capital, clean energy company founders frequently stress difficulty locating funding sources to commercialize their inventions.
Hear from some of our founders on Overcoming Hurdles on the Track of a Clean Energy Future
NEXUS-NY aims to assist clean energy companies with their proof-of-concept and go-to-market strategies. These fresh commercialization tactics include ensuring the availability of capital to help bring breakthrough cleantech to market. Whether in the form of solar panels, new kinds of batteries, or even environmentally-sustainable dog treats, providing new and more diverse approaches to finding funding sources for New York’s great cleantech companies is a NEXUS-NY priority.
“For the past four years, NEXUS-NY has been focused on providing the resources and know-how to catalyze commercialization of clean energy innovations discovered by New York researchers,” said Doug Buerkle, Executive Director of NEXUS-NY. “In that time, our clean energy seed accelerator has helped form 20 companies; half of which have gone on to raise roughly $20 million in additional funding. This is a testament to our program and the strong partnerships we have developed with equity investors such as Excell Partners.”
Upstate NY VC firm believes in partnerships to help commercialize innovative clean technologies
Excell Partners, Inc. is a seed stage venture fund that invests in emerging technology spinning out of Upstate NY universities and our regional communities. With a portfolio of nearly 50 companies and counting, Excell is playing an important role in accelerating the commercialization of game-changing new technologies, including cleantech.
“Rami (Katz) and I have known each other for years,” said Theresa Mazzullo, CEO of Excell Partners.“ He was working for High Tech Rochester and our paths would cross regularly. Our organizations have been strong collaborators from the start.”
High Tech Rochester (HTR) is a nonprofit with a mission to be a catalyst for entrepreneurship and innovation-based economic development. HTR provides a suite of services including technology commercialization for very early-stage opportunities, business incubation for high-growth startups and growth services for existing manufacturing companies seeking to improve their top and bottom-line performance. The NEXUS-NY clean energy proof-of-concept center (POCC) is one of the programs under the HTR umbrella.
“When NYSERDA came out with the POCC program, we knew it was something HTR wanted to pursue,” said Jim Senall, President of High Tech Rochester. “We were excited about the prospect of leveraging our previous lean startup experience, and applying that to very early stage opportunities, that were mostly physical sciences based, and not even actual companies yet. With partners like Excell Partners, we knew we could build a world class program, and we couldn’t be happier with the results so far!”
Excell Partners, Inc is a statewide brand. Whether the fund is interested in investing in companies out of Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, Excell’s leadership team first looks for venture development agencies like High Tech Rochester, and resource programs such as NEXUS-NY that are wrapped around the technology.
“Everything is about relationships. Life is about relationships. It’s that simple. We’ve known HTR for a long time. There’s a comfort level and mutual trust with all the people in the organization,” said Theresa. “Upstate and the Finger Lakes region have been operating on fumes for so long. I feel we’ve made great strides with very little resources, and this is because we try to see how we can help each other regularly. You don’t typically see this kind of relationship in other places. We’re proud of it,” added Theresa.
“We realize there are limited funding sources to go around, so we’re very thoughtful in how we approach each investment,” said Rami Katz, COO of Excell Partners. “It’s about partnering instead of going it alone.”
The collaboration between NEXUS-NY and Excell starts early with due diligence
Standing on the policy of how Excell and NEXUS-NY work together, Rami says the proof-of-concept center does a great job at sourcing and vetting early-stage clean energy technology from across the state.
“Before we decide to invest, Excell enacts a thorough due diligence process that includes five strategic steps. By design, and throughout our partnership, we have originated these steps into the NEXUS-NY application process. This helps us provide feedback on the promise of the young companies very early in the process, much earlier than most VCs.”
This collaboration allows for the team of coaches at NEXUS-NY to work closely with the companies and founders, while Excell provides an outside perspective. Each NEXUS-NY participant meets with Excell at least twice throughout the accelerator. These meetings, and Excell’s feedback, are structured to identify specific gaps that must be addressed in order for a specific company to improve its chances of obtaining venture funding.
“This process is what truly differentiates Excell Partners from other venture funds. The first meeting is what we consider a ‘friends and family session.’ We tell them to stand up straight, get rid of a slide from their pitch deck and slow down their presentation,” explained Theresa. “The second round includes pairing the teams with domain experts. These professionals help challenge the tech at a deeper level.”
To date, Excell Partners has invested in four NEXUS-NY portfolio companies
Excell Partners reviews approximately 1000 deals a year. This gives them an overall picture of what is available in New York State. About 150 of those applications are reviewed in depth, and roughly 50 are considered for investments.
“Our experience gives us a good feel for what makes a good opportunity. We make sure the market is large enough, there are resources in the founder’s community to help the company grow faster, and check if they have the right management team in place,” said Rami. “If we feel confident in these areas we look for elements in which we can help close the gap, and ultimately push the venture forward.”
Participants of the NEXUS-NY program receive up to $75,000 of equity-free direct financial support, which is largely supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).
NEXUS-NY portfolio companies Excell Partners has invested in include:
American Fuel Cell (Rochester) – Premier supplier of individually tailored Membrane Electrode Assemblies (MEA) for multiple Fuel Cell applications;
Conamix (Ithaca) – Commercializing new Cornell technology that has the potential to dramatically increase the performance of lithium ion batteries;
Full Circle Feed (Syracuse) – Healthy, environmentally-sustainable dog treats made from meats, vegetables, fruits and breads from restaurants that make more that can be served; and
Molecular Glasses (Rochester) – Develops organic semiconductors for OLED and organic electronic applications, which can be used to manufacture lower-cost and high-performance TVs, smartphones, tablets and lighting devices.
“We realize the amount of money we put in alone isn’t always sufficient. The company may need additional capital in 18-25 months. So we address this up front by leading the deal and committing to helping the company seek other funding sources or capital matches,” explained Rami. “This is why building strategic partnerships is so important to us, as seen in several successful co-investments with HTR, as well as other funds and venture development organizations across New York State.”
Recently Excell was selected by Empire State Development as the only fund manager for a pilot minority grant. Through this appointment, Excell was able to assist in getting Molecular Glasses certified as a M/WBE business, and eligible for matching funds from the state. “With Excell’s assistance, we were able to complete this process successfully,” said Mike Molaire, Founder and CEO of Molecular Glasses. Molecular Glasses was selected as one of five companies in the state to receive funding to spur M/WBE innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation.
“Our mission is to assist clean energy companies commercialize. Continuing to partner with local investors like Excell Partners, and connect our founders to more novel sources of funding such as Shell’s GameChanger program, is a strategy we stand by at NEXUS-NY,” added Buerkle.