CHARLOTTE – Eager to tap into the current cleantech innovation scene and to pair promising sustainability startups with major utility providers like Duke Energy, the Joules Accelerator is looking to further execute its mission with a fresh cohort starting in May.

The Charlotte-based nonprofit accelerator wants to reach early-stage energy and cleantech entrepreneurs—within the post-revenue, pre-series A stage—who have already launched a product and need market traction.

Each Joules Accelerator cohort has shared a distinct market focus, from AR, VR and IoT sensors for industrial applications to distributed energy resources and analytics.

And as applications for Cohort 3 roll in ahead of the April 14 deadline, Joules is seeking a new class of promising startups that have something to offer the Smart City concept, meeting a demand for technologies representing indoor agriculture, electric vehicle infrastructure and artificial intelligence. These markets are all areas of interest for Joules’ Cohort 3 partners—Duke Energy and the City of Charlotte.

The Joules Accelerator works by simultaneously serving both cleantech startups and utility partners. Over three months, participants will connect with executives from Duke Energy and other utilities, as well as venture capitalists, angel investors and industry networks in Charlotte and the Triangle. They will also be assigned a set of mentors and advisors who will help them define their goals and set a strategy for achieving them.

The program culminates in final meetings with executives at Duke Energy, and potentially other utilities, to plan a pilot project if the executives choose to accept startups’ proposals. This is the ultimate goal of the program. Of the six companies in the last cohort, five went on to land pilots with Duke Energy.

Joules Executive Director Bob Irvin says the accelerator is also providing an inroad for utility providers like Duke Energy to capitalize on the potential offered by new cleantech companies.

After holding executive roles at companies like Tennessee Valley Authority and NYSEG, and serving as Duke Energy’s VP of Strategy for over a decade, Irvin has seen firsthand what utilities can gain from understanding the benefits of breaking into disruptive tech.

“I’m an old Duke guy,” he told me. “I know how utilities work. They have a business model [that] is monopoly-based and their average age is 50-something. What I try to do is take some of the luck out of the business process for early stage cleantech companies and I try to take the luck out for Duke so they can see another source of deal flow.”

Increasingly, utilities are facing the need to get involved with innovation in distributed energy resource companies offering solutions in areas like solar energy and grid management. In 2016, corporate utility providers in North America and Europe invested more than $1 billion in distributed energy startups, a value that has tripled since 2010.

Irvin adds, “Utilities like Duke Energy help with the innovation of these startups because they know they need to participate in this market segment.”

Partnering with Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster

Joules’ portfolio only has a few Triangle-based portfolio startups, such as Durham’s PlotWatt. But for the 2018 program, Irvin is boosting his efforts to attract more cleantech companies out of the RTP area.

To achieve that objective, Joules is partnering with the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster to help introduce local clean energy startups to the accelerator before applications close in April.

RTCC Executive Director Susan Sanford says the organization believes the partnership will reap several benefits for the Triangle area, including the opportunity to meet with Duke Energy decision-makers and municipal advisors “who can help refine and pilot solutions.”

“Partnering with Joules is a great opportunity to showcase the Triangle region to Joules ‘graduates’ as a fantastic place to locate their cleantech company,” Sanford adds. “We also look forward to connecting the Joules cohort with cleantech business leaders in our region.”

North Carolina’s Cleantech Scene Still Nascent

Accounting for metrics in North Carolina alone, the accelerator’s portfolio companies have created 90 jobs and raised approximately $16 million in funding since Joules started in 2013.

Joules graduates that are headquartered outside North Carolina have raised even more investor dollars.

Notably, Austin-based AI computing analytics startup SparkCognition just closed a $56.5 million Series B round led by Verizon Ventures. In total, the Texas startup has raised more than $63 million since launching in 2013. Last year, it won major accolades including a 2017 Red Herring Top 100 Award and a spot on the the 2017 “Disruptor 50” by CNBC. The company has also upped its headcount to over 200 employees.

Irvin hopes North Carolina startups can reach the same milestones once they complete the program.

Many of Joules’ portfolio companies are not based in-state, but for Cohort 3, Irvin has set a goal for North Carolina startups to represent at least one-third of the upcoming class.

Irvin sees the accelerator’s partnership model as unique, and he hopes it can draw in young energy startups that need early support from a program like Joules at a time when cleantech accelerators and incubators in the Southeast are few, particularly in North Carolina.