Can Cleantech Entrepreneurship Save the World?
I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by cleantech entrepreneurs on a daily basis. Reimagining the grid, value-stacking energy storage, making solar easier, relocating wind energy, they do it all. These people have been on the front lines of the fight for a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable future longer than I’ve been alive. And here’s why I’m so impressed by them.
Cleantech entrepreneurs not only have to make a good product but they have to make them cheaper, more valuable, environmentally friendly, and earth shattering, figuratively speaking of course. They’re combating incumbent technologies that have policy support, lower prices, and ingrained infrastructure that make it difficult for any newcomers to disrupt or challenge the market. They also can’t get funding through regular means. Plenty of people have written why cleantech and our current funding models don’t mix but in short: higher capital, longer return times, few exit strategies, difficult environment and deeply rooted incumbents. However, we’re still holding cleantech startups to the same standards as an app to deliver coins for your laundry or a wearable device to shock yourself out of bad habits (these are real by the way).
Over the past decade or so, there have been visible shifts in the industry. Cleantech solutions are becoming more accessible and popular to both investors and customers. Angel and VC firms have begun to specialize in cleantech and focus on supporting necessary technology for the future giving access to capital that has pretty much stopped coming from regular investment groups(Clean Energy Venture Group, Element 8). Incubators and accelerators dedicated to sustainable and green technology have popped up all over the country and in great strength in Europe and a bit in Asia giving much needed collaboration and lab space and access to testing facilities, manufacturing assistance, and support communities (Greentown Labs, Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, Climate KIC). Trust funds and foundations are now pouring their dollars into better technology for the future in energy, transportation, conservation, sustainability (Breakthrough Energy Venture, Hewlett Foundation). And we’ve seen some companies thrive in this environment doing well economically, socially, and environmentally. From the customer side, conscious shoppers give marketing and advertising departments a foothold to take advantage of. Issues of climate change and sustainability have become regular topics of conversation and impact everyday decisions now. Slowly but surely, we’re making steps in the right direction.
But it’s not happening fast enough. To continue our momentum and hit the goals of the Paris Accords, we need to create partnerships across borders and industries and cultures. It can’t just be companies breaking into new markets alone, the terrain is too rough. There needs to be a concerted effort between private sector, academia, and government to ensure 3 things.
- The application of entrepreneurship and innovation practices to solve problems and navigate the difficulties of starting something new.
- A steady stream of our greatest minds entering this exciting industry as engineers, financial experts, programmers, data scientists, managers, writers, marketers, community developers, builders, thinkers.
- Favorable policy to promote our economic, social, and environmental well-being.
There are over 100 operating cleantech and clean energy related incubators and accelerators in the world housing thousands of companies. Every government body is thinking about their plan for reducing carbon emissions and become energy leaders. Any research and science based academic institution in the world is conducting some sort of research and collecting data. If there was ever a time to bring these people together, it would be now.
Many skeptics say it’s too difficult and unrealistic to bring together so many different groups to establish change. I agree. It is unrealistic and hopeful and possibly naive. But it’s even more unlikely that a singular company, an independent university research study, or a lone bill passed in Congress will make it happen. When you’re trying to do good for the world, everyone needs a seat at the table. Everyone’s voice needs to be heard. It is clear that the cleantech industry isn’t able to stand on it’s own. But that’s because it’s willingly shouldering the burden of the world. We’re not trying to make money, we’re trying to do good for the planet. You can’t valuate that and you definitely can’t expect a 10x multiple, but you can still place the bet on a better future your children.
Thanks for reading! I’m hoping to write about my work that I did this entire summer as soon as I’m settled so stay tuned! Comments, questions, feedback always appreciated.