The Rise of Cleantech in the Northwest? "Watch This Space"
What will be the next hot opportunity in the cleantech sector? Business organizations lately have been trying to find the answer to this very question. Earlier this month I introduced an excellent panel at the MIT Enterprise Forum, titled "Greenomics." Today I attended Xconomy's "The Rise of Cleantech in the Northwest" forum. Both events attracted sell-out crowds.
March 26, 2009
Is cleantech really "on the rise" in the Pacific Northwestern U.S.? The most optimistic answer from this panel was, in the words of Microsoft's Mark Aggar, "watch this space."
As Director of Environmental Technology Strategy for the software gorilla, Aggar is still getting started. The first task before him and his boss Rob Bernard has been to get Microsoft to think about sustainability in its own products. The next target will be the PCs they run on.
"I think we have some pretty serious clout in the marketplace to actually drive the industry toward thinking about cleaner tech overall, including hardware," Aggar said.
Beyond "green IT" and the relatively small portion of total energy used in computing, Microsoft will look into "de-materializing processes and doing things virtually" -- in other words, conventional stuff like teleworking and videoconferencing.
Jesse Berst took that thought several steps farther. He said the earlier transitions of telecommunications and television from analog to digital is a model for what is about to happen with the smart grid.
Berst said the smart grid has already established standards for devices and protocols, particularly in smart meters and the networks that connect them. What interests him now are the applications that allow utilities to tap the data from devices to find efficiencies in the energy system.
"We're beginning to see some very sophisticated applications that collect massive amounts of information from sensors and devices," Berst said. "We're beginning to have the ability to reach down into the customer premises to each of their devices, mining that information. It's remarkable what you can do with that data to balance supply and demand."
Much of this cleantech innovation is happening in the Northwest -- Microsoft is based in Washington state, as is the DOE's smart-grid research giant Pacific Northwest National Laboratory -- but what about the growth of a clean-tech cluster in the region?
"The elephant in the room is that it is happening, but it doesn't seem to be happening in Washington state," observed the moderator, Michael Butler, Chairman and CEO of Cascadia Capital. "The reality is you could count the number of those companies here on one hand."
Panelists disagreed on whether it is possible to kick-start the coveted "cleantech cluster" effect here. Berst suggested that an industry cluster requires physical proximity, but the Northwest's cleantech powerhouse organizations are hundreds of miles apart. Aggar pointed out that distance has never been a barrier to collaboration for his company -- but admitted that most partners are eager to visit Redmond to meet with Microsoft.
"We need to start by doing something unique," said Jeremy Jaech, CEO of Verdiem. "It's silly to do what every other region in the country is trying to do." He suggested choosing something the Northwest has a competitive advantage in. "We do have a compilation of skills that are unique to this area, and you have to figure out how to take advantage of that."
Jaech said that the Northwest's cheap hydropower is now a disadvantage. The most favorable business and policy environments are in other states that have had to deal with costly or scarce energy.
Three cleantech startup companies made very brief presentations at the end of the panel discussion.
Kirt Montague explained how his company, Prometheus Energy, converts waste methane to liquefied natural gas to power trucks and factories. The methane, which comes from landfills and mines, would otherwise be wasted.
Chris Wheaton, COO for EnerG2, kindly did not try to explain the company's advanced materials for energy storage. He shared an observation from his own startup experience: The region needs to have cleantech venture capital firms before it can have a cleantech cluster. "We need cleantech investment firms in Washington -- and not just IT and biotech firms recast as cleantech," he said.
David Grieger showed lighting prototypes from his company, Vu1. The lights will be fully dimmable, with the light quality of incandescent, and no mercury content, he said.