Grand-Prize Winner & Clean Technology & Renewable Energy Division Winner

Grand-Prize Winner & Clean Technology & Renewable Energy Division Winner

Doug Ruth founded EarthClean with a lofty goal: to change the way the world fights fires. With a team of Minnesota scientists, the company is beginning to impress fire professionals with its certified biodegradable and nontoxic gel, which puts out blazes faster, greener, and more effectively than current methods. 

Most firefighters use a combination of water, Class-A foam, and toxic retardants to extinguish fires. Problem is, water contends with gravity and falls quickly to Earth. Foam and water can leave fires smoldering, causing them to rekindle hours after the flames get suppressed. And retardants, used mainly to fight wildfires, are under attack from environmentalists and scientists concerned about the effects of dumping chemicals on large swaths of land and water. 

EarthClean’s fire fighter, called TetraKnockOut or TetraKO, comes in powder concentrate form. When added to water, it turns into a nontoxic gel similar to hand sanitizer, containing 99.5 percent water and the rest corn starch and a secret ingredient. On top of being environmentally friendly, it also works: TetraKO quenches fires up to 10 times faster than traditional means, according to Ruth, CEO of the Minneapolis-based company. And those fast extinguishes can ultimately save firefighters’ lives—and billions of dollars each year in structural damage from water and fire. 

“Every fire department where we’ve demoed the product or attended a live burn sees the technology and is absolutely amazed,” says Ruth, a veteran IT and software entrepreneur. “We think it’s going to spread like wildfire.”

TetraKO is placed directly in fire truck equipment, firefighting planes, or handheld containers. When sprayed out of hoses, it puts out fires while also acting as a fire-protection barrier by sticking to walls and ceilings. When TetraKO is exposed to heat, the gel turns into steam, which quickly suppresses flames and greatly reduces the chance that the fire will rekindle. 

The scientists and engineers behind TetraKO—two from H.B. Fuller and one from 3M, plus a volunteer firefighter—spent six years developing the product. Ruth purchased the technology and incorporated EarthClean in March 2009 with guidance from its fire operations advisory board. 

The company recently closed a $1 million round of financing from private investors and plans to seek more capital for expansion. Operating in the $333 million domestic fire-protection market, Ruth projects nearly $400,000 in revenue for EarthClean’s first year of sales after its TetraKO goes to market in fall 2010. He’s expecting sales to accelerate to $4 million in the second year because word about effective new techniques tends to spread quickly through the tight-knit fire community. 

Ruth says he wanted to launch EarthClean because TetraKO is a ground-breaking product that will drastically improve firefighting, while also slashing costs for manpower, equipment, and resources. 

“This product is so effective at providing safety to firefighters,” he says. “When I realized that it could provide better fire protection for forests and it’s a clean technology, I knew I had to bring it to market.” 

The green aspect of TetraKO is another strong selling point, says Ruth. EarthClean had TetraKO independently certified as nontoxic and biodegradable by several labs—a timely move after a federal judge in Montana ordered the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service last summer to study how wildlife and fish are impacted by fire retardants, which contain harmful ammonia oxide and phosphorous. The agencies also must develop restrictions on retardants, about 20 million to 30 million gallons of which are used annually to fight wildfires. If they get banned, Ruth says, EarthClean will seek to replenish the firefighting arsenal with TetraKO. 

“As some of the fire chiefs told me, there hasn’t been this type of innovation in fire products in 40 years,” says Ruth. “This is something that can go into a truck, aid firefighters’ safety, save buildings, and it’s clean technology. That’s pretty dramatic.”

Division Finalists


Silent Power

It’s hard not to love renewable energy sources like the sun and wind, except when they produce too much juice in off times and not enough during peak usage. Silent Power is removing that downside with its renewable energy storage products, which help utilities and their customers capture renewable power and store it for future use.

Silent Power’s OnDemand appliance allows utilities to meet customers’ needs during the busiest times of the day while giving consumers a back-up power source when the electrical grid goes down. The size of a small refrigerator, the appliance uses a high-capacity battery to store renewable energy generated throughout the day. When usage soars, utilities turn on multiple devices to transfer that saved energy onto the grid. 

Baxter-based Silent Power has started winning utility customers in both California and Oregon—six during the first nine months of 2010. The company recently nabbed a $560,000 Minnesota state renewable energy grant to expand distribution nationwide. CEO Todd Headlee forecasts $3 million in revenue next year, hitting $20 million by 2013 as utilities across North America adopt OnDemand. The company also will go from 18 to 50 employees next year.

“Clean tech and renewable energy is the next dot-com, and I think this one will be more long-lived than the prior bubble,” says Headlee. “This is an opportunity to get in on the front-end of what I think will be a very large industry.”



With nearly 170 million pounds of garbage hitting landfills each year, Olaf Lee and Scott Hughes became convinced that they could remove more recyclables and organic waste from trash. They developed technology and a company, Visiam, to keep useful material out of landfills.

Lee, an engineer, developed an 8-foot by 24-foot thermal vessel akin to a pressure cooker, which uses heat and rotation to sort trash straight off the garbage truck. In the process, the trash’s volume gets reduced by 65 percent, and organic material ranging from vegetable peels to dinner napkins gets turned into pulp. Recyclables like cans and plastic bags exit through a trommel tube with holes. 

White Bear Lake’s Visiam spent five years developing the thermal vessel, and the product is just about to hit the market. Potential customers include waste haulers, cities, and landfill owners across the country and the world. Hughes, the company’s chief operating officer, says the product will be an attractive buy because the system quickly pays for itself: Organic waste generated from the processing system can be sold to make biofuel or ethanol, recyclables can be sold, and customers save money by transporting less garbage to fewer places. 

“You can be green all you want in your technology, but unless you are green from a financial standpoint, no one is going care,” says Hughes. “This is a cost-effective way to handle and solve the problem of too much useful garbage going into landfills each year.”