(Another) call to action for the NW

Here’s an op-ed that I penned with Dan Rosen that appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune. If you haven’t joined Business Leaders for Climate Solutions, you should.

For a long time, “green” in Washington state has stood for Granny Smith and pine trees. With the Legislature’s passage last session of the Climate Action and Green Jobs bill, the state took a big step in creating a future based on the new green – a vibrant economy based on clean technology (cleantech), the green consumer and green exports.

Gov. Chris Gregoire deserves congratulations for requesting and championing the bill. But we all still have more work to do. The window for establishing leadership in the cleantech economy is fast closing. The opportunity to have a strong voice in shaping federal climate policy is closing fast, too. According to the Cleantech Network, while the total amount of venture capital invested in clean technology grew explosively in the last year, the Northwest accounted for just four percent of the total. The Northwest’s share was $261 million out of a national total of $6.4 billion, barely placing it in the top 10 regions. And that’s not just Washington state, but Oregon and British Columbia as well.

 

Discount the investment in the local biodiesel company Imperium Renewables in 2007, and Washington easily trails the Vancouver, B.C., cleantech cluster and is arguably far behind Oregon, where business leadership has articulated a much clearer vision for establishing an industrial base around the theme of sustainability. California and the Northeast have taken significant leads, and places like Austin, Texas, and Chicago are mobilizing civic leadership around this sector.

 

 

 

 

As members of Business Leaders for Climate Solutions, we are proud to have supported the Climate Actions and Green Jobs bill. We were joined by 32 other state business leaders, representing cleantech entrepreneurs, investors, energy consultants, service providers or simply business people passionate about sustainability.

 

 

 

 

But if the Evergreen State is going to emerge from the ongoing cleantech boom with a significant piece of the green that is being created, the broader business community must rapidly and definitively elevate its game.This is not a niche issue; the challenge of using energy more efficiently and developing sustainable products and services affects every sector of the economy and will provide both opportunities for leadership and tremendous risks for the laggards. A recent survey found 61 percent of business executives around the world expect climate change solutions to boost company profits. That’s why the major corporations that provide Washington’s economic backbone and their executive leadership need to bring their vitally important participation to the table: It’s of great economic interest to all of us.

 

 

 

Washington state arguably has several characteristics that will help us as we strive for a piece of the green economy. Our assets include: unrivaled branding as a center of “green” ideas; a consumer base that is highly sophisticated and demands truly sustainable products and services; and strong trade and economic ties with China and the Far East, which is fast emerging as a leading consumer of cleantech products and services. We applaud Sen. Maria Cantwell’s efforts to make Seattle the center for the dialogue with

China about these issues.We also have a vibrant green building-and-design industry, which is one of the key pillars of the green economy. And we have the potential to become a power in providing integrated design solutions that will be needed to reduce energy usage worldwide, including “green software” and smart-grid applications. 

 

 

Along with these strengths, we need to find sustainable and verifiable ways to leverage our vast forestry and agricultural resources as sources of renewable fuels and carbon sinks as regional and international markets take root.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But key pieces are missing. Specifically, for Washington to compete and lead in the cleantech economy, the business community must demand and achieve three things:

• Legislation next year that commits Olympia to put a price on carbon through a regional cap-and-trade system, along with complementary policies that promote clean energy, sustainable development, transportation and land use, energy efficiency and training for the green-collar workforce;

• Pressure on the federal government for strong climate policy that achieves reductions in global warming pollution that is science-based and beneficial to the economy;

• And we need a business community that is focused on and organized around the vision of making the region an international leader in the coming cleantech transformation.

We have a chance to truly be Evergreen. Now let’s seize it.

Cleantech vs. Recession – Who Wins?

Software as a service (SaaS) has already been declared by Forbes as a recession-averse part of the tech sector, citing the fact that it weathered an earlier downturn in 2000-2002. Cleantech barely existed as a category in 2002, so we don’t have historical performance to go on. Would consumers and businesses continue to spend on green? Would investment remain hot? Would many of the positive environmental gains made in the past several years stall or even reverse?

Those are some of the questions posed informally to companies that I work with. The conclusion? Cleantech, like nearly every other sector, would take a hit, particularly the companies still in need of funding, but it would also find distinct opportunities – in particular efficiency plays (some are already calling 2008 the year of energy efficiency given that energy costs are at record-breaking highs and that the most significant energy-efficiency legislation in three decades was recently enacted.

If we think back to the dot-com shakeout, while the losses were staggering for many, the collapse separated the wheat from the chaff. Current blue-chips like Amazon, Ebay and Expedia all proved that they were more than just clever ideas and marketing gimmicks and used a tough business environment to propel themselves. If a recession hits, it is likely to have a similar outcome for cleantech, a market ripe for a shakeout.  Who will be the winners and the losers? Here are some comments to consider:

From David Rosenberg, CEO of Hycrete, whose product makes concrete waterproof in an environmentally-friendly, cost-saving way:

“The answer is yes and no. All of construction is effected by a recession and we are already starting to see some projects getting delayed and cancelled and financing getting tighter. On the positive side, a slow down often allows greater time to investigate and improve construction practices – like green.  On the negative side, where budgets are slimmer and profits are less, greater upfront costs associated with green construction get harder to justify – of course this is not a Hycrete problem as we are better, faster, and less expensive.”.

From Matt Heinz, senior director of marketing at Verdiem, a developer of power management software for PC networks:

“The polar ice caps don’t care too much about recessions. Less flippantly, I think in the not-too-distant future, sustainability will be a fundamental, ‘table stakes’ part of doing business for global enterprises. Reducing the impact companies have on the world around them will soon become non-negotiable, and a requirement for doing business with customers (commercial and consumer) that expect them to act responsibly.

“Today, that isn’t the case – at least not yet. While several businesses have blazed a trail with significant corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives, not enough of those efforts have paid off – either in increased sales or decreased operational costs. Unless such initiatives demonstrate a consistent ability to provide value to the organization, they’ll be close to the chopping block in leaner times.

“That said, technologies are emerging that allow companies to ‘go green’ and save green at the same time. And if this kind of savings is both real and verifiable, it’s the kind of thing that will get prioritized higher in lean times.”

From CEO Michael Ford of Choose Renewables, a source for consumer information and products on renewable energy content and commerce:

“It’s tough to make a broad projection regarding cleantech because there are so many facets. In general I think the entire space will perform better than most other segments – but I doubt it’s entirely recession proof.  I think energy efficiency / fuel efficiency will actually see a significant bump from recessionary times. And maybe even the biofuels movement, though I personally think the overall philosophy around ethanol in particular is questionable. However, I think some of the more expensive pure play renewables (solar, small scale wind, fuels cells, hydrogen, etc…) will suffer a bit – but still grow. I think big wind is going to keep going no matter what – unless Congress continues to screw up with the PTC.”

Michael Meehan, CEO of Carbonetworks, software platform that helps companies create effective carbon emissions strategies:

“Cleantech as a whole will definitely feel the crunch, but it’s a two-sided coin – how clients’ requirements will likely change, and what will happen to vendors as a result.

“The market is still immature and spans a lot of industries. ‘Niche-fication‘ (as Will put it in his blog) is only starting to occur. Especially in technology markets, niches can provide some insurance against recessive markets because the need for the service/technology is clearly defined and the incumbents are often well established. Cleantech is still a bit nebulous and a recession will have a direct effect on many areas of the cleantech spectrum: funding sources for startups, increased cost of outsourced services (e.g., int’l support, sales), and decreased demand for point products. That’s one side of the coin: increased competition, consolidation, and likely a more protectionist industry as the US/CAN dollar weakens against the Euro, inhibiting growth in an emerging market.

“The other side of the coin (the clients) will hasten this process as their expectations and requirements change out of necessity. Faced with increased demands on potentially shrinking budgets, companies will be forced to place more stringent diligence on technology investments, and cleantech is no exception. But there’s a somewhat unique opportunity for cleantech in this: the key here for vendors is to increase the focus on cost savings, process efficiencies, or uncovering opportunities that will help lower operational costs for these companies. That’s where the defining line will be for successful cleantech vendors and those that simply react to the market as it tightens up. Unlike other supply/demand markets such as manufacturing or distribution, cleantech has an edge because it can become strategic by helping companies be more competitive through improving their bottom line. This of course is our strategy at Carbonetworks, but it is also true of Verdiem, GreatPoint Energy, IT virtualization technologies, and other innovators who help companies do more with less and diversify. That’s the other side of the coin: rather than fighting over decreasing market share, successful cleantech companies will instead seek to increase the clients’ competitive position through cost reductions and diversification. Recession may be the impetus for this cleantech market shift, but it will be the clients under pressure that will drive it to consolidation. Whether that’s good or bad depends on where you sit, but cleantech is definitely not immune to market recession.”

NW Needs a Cleaner Vision

In the same way the Northwest has imagined and innovated its way to success with endeavors now synonymous with the region – be it coffeesoftwareoutdoor gearaerospace or microchips – our region can help write the operating instructions for what might be the most important opportunity for the next two generations – cleantech.   The time is now, not to walk but to fly. The land grab has started as different regions – inside the US and out – move to stake their claim as the leaders of the cleantech revolution. The companies and people of the Northwest are uniquely positioned to be among the leaders. The intellectual capital is here. The political will is here. The consumer culture and public sentiment needed to support a cleantech economy are also here.  Tech heavyweights like the San Francisco Bay Area are already way ahead, investing heavily in starting clean technology companies and churning out patents from their universities.   Yet here in the Northwest, local venture-capital money is still trickling into cleantech - Chrysalix and Yaletown in BC are the notable exceptions. Entrepreneurial enthusiasm has been relatively muted. Where is the Bill Gates, the Jeff Bezos, the Paul Allen, the Howard Schultz of cleantech? Cleantech is ripe for great, local visionaries. It is also ripe for another key component of success: a clearly identifiable brand. What does the Northwest stand for? Where does it have a competitive advantage in cleantech that is sustainable over the long haul? What can we get excited about as a community and rally around? The jury is still out, but here is an attempt to crystallize the focus of our region and my candidates for where the Northwest has a real chance to stake a claim, not as “the” world leader, but as “a” legitimate leader with the proof to back it up: The Frontrunners

The Maybes

  • Consumer Cleantech – We have some of the best consumer brands in the world, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot create more in cleantech, whether it’s a consumer-facing biofuels brand (SeQuential or Propel), a family-friendly home energy saving software or a venture capital firm like Maveron that takes its consumer knowledge and puts it to work in the cleantech space. But top talent is being drawn to the Bay, so we need to incubate locally and aggressively.
  • Smart Grid – The Northwest appeared to have an edge here several years ago, with relatively progressive utilities and Itron dominating the metering market, but does it anymore? Not so sure. Other regions have caught up and probably passed us.
  • Renewable Energy Gateway to China – Senator Maria Cantwell certainly would like to see that happen, and efforts are underway to organize a bilateral forum in Seattle of top business leaders to advise the US-China inter-government Strategic Economic Dialogue. The Northwest also exports a lot of engineering knowledge, environmental consulting, green building and design toChina.
  • Power Storage – Between fuel cells in British Columbia and a national lab in Idaho that knows power storage, there is some critical mass here, but can we recover from the disappointment of Ballard?

Green Software Emerging in Northwest

Will software and associated services be one of the Northwest’s claims to leadership in cleantech? Microsoft appears to be preparing to unveil a meaningful platform to address its role in green IT (probably sometime this fall), something it sorely needs to do to catch up with the likes of GoogleIBM and Sun. It makes sense that the Northwest has a significant role to play, being a hub of the computing and Internet revolutions. In Seattle, two companies stand out for me: V2Green, which is a “smart charging” – a value-add service that controls when an electric vehicle charges or not - and a vehicle to grid (V2G) software company, and Verdiem, an enterprise-focused power management solution for PCs and monitors. While a fair amount of attention (and capital) has been paid to Verdiem, V2Green is little known. But they occupy a great space, have a very strong team and appear to have little if any direct competition. Even Google likes the V2G space, according to the director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google.org, Dan Reicher, a sign that V2Green is ripe to pick up some great strategic partners. V2G is one of the cornerstones of the electric economy (see a nice perspective by the late Nobel laureate, Richard Smalley, who outlined what he called the Terrawatt Challenge). The electric economy concept is gaining momentum as the most viable way to address the future of clean power and transportation through a combination of renewable energy inputs into the grid and a world of PHEVs that have the ability to store electricity from or return electricity to the grid in a two-way relationship. Several progressive utilities have been working on V2G, most notably Austin Energy and PG&E. V2Green was founded by ex-Microsoft exec Dave Kaplan and is off to a promising start. They expect to announce field trials with major utilities in the coming months, in which V2Green will develop a first generation hardware/software solution that includes an in-car box, wireless modem and server. One of the challenges will be whether the utilities and the car manufacturers like GM, not known for being the most limber of institutions, will be able to come together to deliver on the promise that V2G holds, instead of adopting half measures that are in effect “kitchen timers” for cars that lack intelligence. The COO and president of V2Green,John Clark, believes that the OEMs will start to make their cars grid-aware, and large-scale deployment of V2G could happen as early as 2010. In the meantime, other promising software companies are also appearing in the Northwest. Look out for Carbonetworks and Sokets, two other favorites of mine.