An ecosystem flourishes when good ideas, money to fund those ideas, and talent to fill those jobs all exist in the same place at the same time. In Chicago, the seeds for a clean energy ecosystem have been planted.

The Clean Energy Trust hosts the annual Clean Energy Challenge and Cleantech UP competitions, giving competition money to promising clean energy startups, while funds such as Energy Foundry and Impact Engine invest with sustainability in mind. 569,000 people in the Midwest are employed in “green” jobs, according to a recent study by Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs, and regional jobs in environment-friendly enterprises were expected to grow 4.8% in the last year, which would outpace employment growth overall.

And the good ideas, as evidenced by the below startups, are plentiful.

Here’s a look at 10 local startups making moves in the green tech and clean energy space. Could their progress signal the beginning of the ecosystem? Perhaps, at least, the roots.


This Northwestern spinout improves gas storage, separation and purification systems through metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), a nanoporous material that provides additional surface area for gasses to cling. This allows the material to soak up gas like a sponge, the startup says, which decreases the energy needed for compression. Their solution can be used to create cheaper, safer and higher capacity natural gas tanks. NuMat won $300,000 from the Clean Energy Trust Challenge in 2015, and raised $9 million in funding to date.

(Credit: Kickstarter/LuminAID)


This startup creates solar-powered, portable, inflatable lanterns. In addition to marketing the lights to campers, hikers and for use in an emergency (such as a power outage) the startup also donates lights to NGOs and nonprofits around the world to provide a safe alternative to kerosene lamps. Their tech has received high profile attention, including a $200,000 investment from Mark Cuban from a Shark Tank appearance, as well as $50,000 from the founder of Tom’s Shoes. They’ve also won over $200,00 in competition wins since 2011. LuminAID has seen 3X growth since Shark Tank, and just launched a new product on Kickstarter last month called the PackLite 2-in-1 Lantern and Phone Charger, which did $279,000 in sales.


This Galesburg, Ill. startup is focused on creating more efficient water heating systems. Their “tankless” water heaters heat water as it is needed, rather than on a consistent 24/7 basis, and learns a users’ habits to better predict when a user is likely to need hot water. In 2017, they launched the next generation of their products with touchscreens and an accompanying mobile app, which are also IoT and wifi-compatible. Intellihot also introduced telliBot, which they say is the world’s first smart condensate neutralizer that can convert any water heater or boiler into a smart device. The startup won $400,000  in the 2014 Clean Energy Trust Challenge, and have raised $2.5 million in venture funding to date.

Wattcoin Labs

Using blockchain technology, this startup out of University of Wisconsin Madison and Illinois Institute of Technology is creating a payment platform that drives renewable energy consumption and transfer. While there are several applications for their tech, they’re starting with payments for Chicago’s Veriown solar home systems in emerging markets, hoping to reduce dependency on kerosene and provide a payment solution for the unbanked. They’re rolling out 45,000 units across three states in India by late Q2 of this year.

Early Power Pad tests (Courtesy of Swarnav Pujari)
Early Power Pad tests (Courtesy of Swarnav Pujari)

Touch Light Innovations

This University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign student startup is aiming to use footsteps as a power source. Touch Light’s product, the Power Pad, is placed below carpets or floorboards, and harnesses energy from the force of a footstep using proprietary compounds that work similarly to piezoelectric materials (which create an electric current when pressure is applied). The device currently generates 10 watts of power per step, and they’re aiming to get it up to 100 watts with more development. They won $3,000 in last year’s Cozad New Venture Competition, and founder Swarnav Pujari participated in the 2016-17 Cleantech Open Business Accelerator, where he received the Emerging Technology Award.

SiNode Systems

This materials startup’s lithium-ion battery tech, based off Northwestern and Argonne National Lab research, utilizes a composite of silicon and graphene in a layered structure to create higher energy cell level energy density and faster charging in lithium ion batteries. This, in turn, will be used to create high energy batteries that can help keep electric cars running over longer distances. Earlier this year the startup won the Sustainable Practice Impact Award from VentureWell, and last summer they received a $4 million grant to further develop their tech from the United States Advanced Battery Consoritum (USABC)–made up of Ford, GM and Fiat-Chrysler. They’ve also expanded their customer base, exporting over 80 percent of products produced in their Bronzeville labs to customers in Asia.

Hazel Technologies

This food waste-fighting startup has developed proprietary technology that can extend the shelf life of fruits, vegetables and other perishables, through small ethylene inhibitors and vapor-stuffed sachets packed in produce crates to slow the aging process. The startup just raised an $800,000 seed round, and last year won $500,000 at the Clean Energy Trust competition. They also previously received a USDA Phase I SBIR grant for $100,000, as well as about $25,000 in funding from Venturewell, the Northwestern University Venture Challenge (NUVC), and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).


This startup is aiming to clean up the journey of the US’ most-traveled: truck drivers. They are building a network of compressed natural gas (CNG) stations, as a way to promote the use of CNG among long-haul trucking fleets, as CNG burns 30 percent less CO2, and costs is roughly half the price of diesel and gasoline. They’ve built 19 stations, and have an agreement with US Foods to build their 20th station. ampCNG harvests their natural gas from the manure of 13,000 dairy cows at Fair Oaks Dairy Farm in northwest Indiana.

BluSolar (Image courtesy Dane Lisser/Millikin University)


This Milikin University startup is using cryogenics (or the systematic molecular realignment of materials at very low temperatures) to increase the efficiency of solar cells. With wider adoption, they believe their method could lower the cost of electricity, make solar cells more affordable, and even allow industry to move away from subsidies. The startup won second place at the Cleantech UP competition this spring, and is now moving onto the national competition in June. They also recently received a $20,000 investment from the Iowa Startup Accelerator.


This Argonne National Lab-affiliated startup is aiming to improve water efficiency in cooling towers. They’ve created a water treatment that makes cooling towers (cooling systems for large-scale use, such as universities) more efficient through a separation technology (specifically Resin-Wafer Elecrodeionization–hence the name RWEDI). Their method would reduce the water use of a one-ton cooling tower by 4 million gallons of water per year. RWEDI Water won $250,000 from the University of Chicago Innovation Fund last December, won second place in the Global Midwest Alliance Innovation Competition presented by Polsinelli, and was accepted to compete in UChicago’s NVC later this spring. Next up, founder Jessica Linville is joining the Austin Technology Water Incubator in Austin, Texas.

Note: The story has been updated to correct the name of ISEN.