Charlotte’s Joules Accelerator eyes energy tech startups

Applications are live for Charlotte’s Joules Accelerator, a free program that connects cleantech startups with corporate partners and equity-free grant opportunities.

The nonprofit-run accelerator focuses on climate and grid technologies supporting the global transition to clean energy. It’s a busy market, with investments trending upwards since the pandemic and billions in federal funding now available via the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Despite VC and growth equity deals slowing last year amid high interest rates and macroeconomic uncertainty, climate tech investments have maintained a steady 23% compound annual growth rate since 2020, per Sightline Climate data. The U.S. continues to lead cleantech deal-making. BloombergNEF counted 300 rounds last year, more than double that of the runner-up, China.

The 90-day Joules Accelerator aims to capitalize on this traction, eyeing pre-seed to Series A-stage startups developing products or services relevant to its partners. Prominent industry players like Duke Energy, Honeywell and GE Vernova directly support the program.

Joules targets companies that have raised $150,000 to $10 million through VC and angel investments or non-dilutive funding from grants and other partnerships. Ryan Rutledge, the organization’s vice president of strategy and innovation, says the selection committee seeks startups willing to engage with partners on commercialization efforts, which could include a pilot project, letter of intent, joint development agreement or any other means of bringing a technology to market between these two parties.

Charlotte’s Joules Accelerator links cleantech startups and utility providers seeking innovation

While the Joules Accelerator is physically based in Charlotte, programming is 95% remote to accommodate international participants. The selection committee gives preference to local and regional startups from the Carolinas, which account for about 16% of all cohorts. Diverse startups are also prioritized, with nearly half of founders from recent cohorts representing underserved populations in the STEM field.

Cohort 14 applications are due on July 26, and Joules will announce selectees in mid-August.

Map of Joules Accelerator startups. (Source: Joules)

It’s a competitive process. Each cycle, Joules typically receives 100 to 200 applications and then narrows down the top 25 to share with the selection committee, a volunteer group of C-suite executives and director/manager-level project leaders. Six to seven startups make the final pick.

Joules relies on feedback from partners who have some role in the decision-making behind piloting projects with startups. The last 13 cohorts have debuted dozens of technologies. “Around 70% of the startups that enter our program receive a pilot or other commercialization support from our network of corporate, utility, municipal, university or national lab partners,” Rutledge says.

The accelerator has graduated more than 90 startups across 13 cohorts since 2016. Rutledge says those companies went on to raise $1.5 billion in follow-on funding, and valuations increased $2.3 billion.

Joules Startups Secure Funding and Pilot Projects
After completing the three-month program, graduating startups can apply for the Joules Camp pilot grant to receive up to $20,000, depending on the size of the project. Rutledge says selection considers community compatibility, equity, corporate alignment and opportunities for student interns who assist with business development, marketing and strategy. Joules currently hosts four interns from UNC-Chapel Hill, Bucknell University and the University of California Berkeley.

The most recent awards—funded by the Duke Energy Foundation—went to Austin-based Yotta Energy ($20,000), which deployed a solar-plus-storage system at a Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department building, and Seattle’s Ribbit Network ($15,000), which donated 35 carbon dioxide sensors to the North East Carolina Preparatory School in Tarboro.

Joules Accelerator alum Ribbit Network markets open-source sensors that detect carbon dioxide in the air through a small laser. (Photo source: Ribbit Network)

Asked to name a recent success story among Joules alums, Rutledge pointed to Carla Pinzon, founder and CEO of solid-state transformer startup Expand Power. “When Carla joined us, it was very early days for the technology,” he recalls. “We connected Carla with several stakeholders and thought leaders who helped her consider product design, manufacturing, finance and other critical aspects for the development of hardware solutions in the Carolinas and beyond.”

In May, Joules tapped Pinzon to participate in a White House pitch event hosted by the Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions. Pinzon won third place and $10,000, along with recognition from the agency. Joules provided multiple letters of support and introductions to partner accelerators.


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