A $2.5 million cash prize is on the line as this year’s 76West Clean Energy Competition enters its fourth and final round of judging.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), a New York state program that promotes energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources, runs the 76West competition, which focuses on growing entrepreneurs and attracting resources from the United States and around the world to build clean energy businesses and bring jobs to the Southern Tier region.

SUNY Business Education of the Southern Tier (BEST) is a Binghamton networking organization that supports ongoing exchange of professional knowledge and experience throughout the Southern Tier to bring innovation to the community. On Thursday, the organization held a panel at the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator (KSTI) to discuss the competition and the effect the businesses could have on the Southern Tier and the clean energy ecosystem. Rena Scroggins, competition manager for 76West and a discussion panelist, said in the past four years, the competition has received more than 650 applicants, bringing innovative ideas and projects to the cause.

“I run a program that actually comes down from the governor’s office, managed by NYSERDA, and on the ground they have different programs all over — and this one is meant for economic development and clean energy for the Southern Tier,” Scroggins said. “The program provides mentorship and connections to companies, where we’ll get applicants who have never made something and really wouldn’t know the process.”

Perry Kuehn, owner of K-Tooling, a subcontract manufacturer and a discussion panelist, said his company covers a wide spectrum of industries and has experience working with startups that are new to the process.

“When we find ourselves partnered with a company … many individuals in these types of scenarios, they’re starting up and they have an idea, but they don’t know how to take it from the garage where they’re piecing it together with cardboard and plywood,” Kuehn said. “They say, ‘Okay, I have this idea, this prototype, but now what do I do? How do I get it to the point that it can be a marketable item and fulfill out goals?’ We assist them by playing a role in that system.”

Of the 19 semifinalists, two startup companies are currently housed in the KSTI’s Clean Energy department in Downtown Binghamton. Syndem, LLC, is working to develop technology for seamless integration of renewable resources, which can be applied to industrial sectors such as wind and solar energy, as well as home appliances such as televisions and air conditioning. The other company, Heat Inverse, works with cooling technology that aims to help manufacturers to increase their efficiency inexpensively by using thin film materials that get cold with no energy input or wasted heat.

According to NYSERDA’s website, to be eligible for the 76West competition, an applicant must be an established business entity that meets two or more of their specific criteria: has been established fewer than seven years from date of formal organization, has its first product or service in testing or pilot production, has pre-revenue or early revenue and has a leadership team and investors working toward commercialization and profitability.

The panel of judges will base award decisions on the businesses’ clean energy impact, customer value, business model viability, technical viability, team quality and Southern Tier job creation. The prize money will be split among the top six semifinalists, with a $1 million grand prize, one $500,000 award and four $250,000 awards. These awards will be payable in increments based on the businesses’ specific milestone accomplishments. In addition to the cash prize, competition organizers will seek to provide specialized support based on the winners’ business goals.

Michael Jagielski, chief operating officer of Micatu, Inc., the 2016 grand prize winner of the competition and a discussion panelist, said the prize money is not simply a grant. Rather, it is a loan to pay back under favorable terms fitted to the specific business.

“They’re not giving away anything for free — you have to meet your goals and hit timelines,” Jagielski said. “This isn’t the place to just take money and bury it — they won’t even allow that. You have to show measurable results. It’s a really well-run program.”

Michael Wiley, a well site engineer for ExxonMobil and an online MBA student at Colorado State University, said he has attended SUNY BEST events in the past, but was particularly interested in the 76West competition.

“I liked the panel setup they had at this one, as it was a very diverse panel,” Wiley said. “Mike [Jagielski] gave some good info on the 76West and the NYSERDA benefits.”

To conclude the competition, a final judging panel will hear presentations, ask questions and recommend winners, taking into account business interactions and input from previous judging panels from earlier rounds. Final decisions will rest with NYSERDA, and the winners will be announced on Sept. 25.