Cleantech’s Bumper Crop

December 12th, 2006

I have met a number of people in my career who I would consider extraordinarily bright inventors and visionaries. Many of these people had the even more-admirable quality of working toward social good by developing “clean” technologies, from alternative energy to waste-processing techniques. What always seemed to be lacking was the knowhow to build a company, and a product that others could and would buy.

I have seen a number of indicators that may be changing- “professional” managers seem to be taking notice of the sector and deciding to get involved, e.g. Martin Tobias, former CEO of tech company Loudeye, now at the helm of a nascent biodiesel company. More generally, one cleantech VC fund describes the step-up in managerial chops as a criterion leading to greater investor interest.

Of course, this reasoning is circular. What draws the Martin Tobias’s of the world, people experienced in building VC-backed businesses, to clean technology? Presumably it is the availability of VC investment dollars. More experienced company builders in the space make it easier for investors to get on board, which attracts more entrepreneurs, and it becomes a virtuous circle.

That’s the hope, at least, but what set the ball in motion? My guess is one part desire to do social good and four parts recognition that (a) society is approaching a crisis (how near or far away is anyone’s guess), and (b) that the people who can lead the rest of us toward the solution stand to make enormous fortunes.

I don’t mean for this to sound cynical. The technology ecosystem has been built on the ideas that new and better technology will benefit us all, and that investor and entrepreneurial risk-takers are sometimes handsomely rewarded for their efforts. The clean investing movement simply lets the technology ecosystem do what it does best, but for the ultimate benefit of real ecosystems everywhere.

Dissenters would argue- and I agree with this position in principle- that the *really* simple answer is just to consume less. Simple in theory and simple in practice are worlds apart, though. Humans seem to be an innately consumerist lot. Reduce/reuse/recycle is a terrific mantra, but not a complete solution.

Getting back to the point of the post, the influx of capital and entrepreneurial talent are fascinating to witness. I believe that the sector has only just germinated and has a huge amount of growth ahead before it comes into full flower. Look to this space to cover relevant trends and issues in the future as we see what kinds of flowers bloom.

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