Venturing forth

Major investors around the world are turning their attention to clean technology. John Elkington visited Silicon Valley – California’s high-tech hub – and found cause for cheer.
<p>(Image: Alamy)</p>

(Image: Alamy)

It is always exciting to be in California, particularly when the venture-capital community there is working itself up into a new frenzy of hype about an innovation like the Segway (the upright scooter, which you still occasionally see in the streets of San Francisco), Apple’s new iPad or, this February, the so-called “Bloom Box” – a low carbon fuel-cell system currently hailed as the most radical technology to have come out of Silicon Valley, the United States’ main high-tech hub, since the PC.

Well, maybe. Only time will tell whether entrepreneur KR Sridhar and his company Bloom Energy will fulfil the dreams of its backers, who include the legendary John Doerr of venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. But the initial signs are promising: among the customers already signed up are Coca-Cola, eBay, FedEx, Google and Wal-Mart. And, at the heart of the Bloom Box system, the current version of which weighs 10 tonnes and costs around US$800,000 (5.5 million yuan), is the seed of something that could sprout into a key industry of the low-carbon economy.

Travelling around Silicon Valley recently, I was struck once again by the extraordinary role this region continues to play in the evolution of the world’s high-tech industries. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the sixteenth Cleantech Forum, held in San Francisco on February 24 to 26. After trekking through the “Valley of Death”, as Cleantech Group president Sheeraz Haji put it, many cleantech firms now see operating conditions improving, not least because of the US$512 billion (3.5 trillion yuan) in stimulus funding committed by world governments in response to the economic crisis. But he warned that China’s 1.4 trillion yuan (US$200 billion) cleantech stimulus is way ahead of the pack, with China and Hong Kong accounting for 69% of cleantech investment last year.

I have journeyed to California to meet, and sometimes work with, high-tech pioneers since the early 1980s. In the process, I have seen the dizzying rollercoaster rides that the biotechnology and New Economy industries have enjoyed – and endured. This time, I was in the Valley to help guide a group of chief executives and senior executives from 19 British cleantech companies taking part in the first Clean & Cool Mission, a joint venture whose sponsors included the UK Technology Strategy Board, which has £1 billion (10 billion yuan) to spend on high technology over three years; UK Trade & Investment, a government agency that promotes British companies overseas; market intelligence company Polecat; and our own firm, Volans.

It was striking how the sustainability language and agenda surfaced everywhere we went, whether to giant companies like Hewlett-Packard; San Francisco’s City Hall; leading change agents such as engineering firm Arup and design consultancy IDEO; or early-stage companies like Better Place, a provider of electric-vehicle services, and Serious Materials, which develops green construction products. US companies once saw the sustainability agenda as a new variant of socialism, but growing numbers are now signing up for the ride.

Once again, as economist Joseph Schumpeter predicted, the great economic tectonic plates are in energetic motion – with key drivers including climate change, energy security, water scarcity and the growing green sensibility of developed-world consumers. Cleantech Group executive chairman Nicholas Parker told the Cleantech Forum’s opening session that “creative destruction is accelerating”. In 1960, companies listed on Standard & Poor’s 500 index lasted an average of 40 years. By the year 2000, this figure had halved to 20 years – and the turnover rate is now 10% a year.

Who, he wondered, would be tomorrow’s “clean chips”? He underscored the growing interest of corporate giants, with Google alone responsible for two of the largest three cleantech deals last year. We are seeing a shift from cleantech-focussed venture capitalism towards cleantech-oriented mergers and acquisitions, accelerated by the fact that the downturn has ensured there are “a lot of cheap assets on the chopping block”.

An impressive number of major corporations were using the Cleantech Forum to scout for interesting new start-up companies, among them Boeing, Coca-Cola and Duke Energy. There are many reasons why this is happening now, but Parker saw the turning point in the United States as being the year 2005, when both General Electric and Wal-Mart switched on to sustainability. Now, even Bill Gates has put his substantial shoulder to the climate wheel with his recent speech at the annual TED conference, in which he described climate change as the biggest single challenge of the new century.

The most striking of the big corporate efforts to engage innovators was unveiled by Veolia Environnement. Senior vice president Philippe Martin announced their new Innovation Accelerator, saying that he expects to be joined on the Cleantech Forum platform in 2011 by the chief executives of at least four new cleantech firms Veolia will be working with by then.

They say that you hear what you’re listening for. So I was instantly alert when Nicholas Parker reflected that it had taken a long time for sustainability to get into the “C-Suite”, the group of top-ranking executives in any given firm. I had already discussed with Fast Company magazine a new blog series we hope to launch early in April, focussing on how sustainability- and social-innovation challenges are looming on the radar screens of chief executive officers, chief financial officers, chief operating officers, chief technology officers, chief marketing officers and the new breed of chief sustainability officers, among others.

The UK cleantech firms I was with made quite an impression on those we visited. From AMEE, which helps clients calculate their carbon footprints, to Xeros, which aims to green the global laundry market, they aim to develop partnerships with the right sort of giants. They see venture capital as a stepping stone, with Xeros chief executive Bill Westwater joking that he might even set up a laundry in Sand Hill Road – the epicentre of the Silicon Valley venture-capital industry – to help investors see his particular version of the future.

That said, several Canadians I spoke to worried that economically weaker countries seem to be wrapping up their cleantech intellectual property in “pretty bows” so it can be scooped up by Valley venture capitalists – with the unfortunate consequence that the major applications and employment and tax opportunities all go to the United States, rather than Canada.

Looking forward, a key challenge for those of us who act as dating agencies between these innovators and mainstream corporations will be to ensure that the resulting relationships are as equitable and productive as possible, to encourage a tsunami of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors to pour into this vast new opportunity space.

John Elkington is co-founder of SustainAbility and of Volans. His personal website is