'Tis the season for making year-end predictions, and even though I'm clearly not very good at it, I got dragged into doing them a while back. So here are some for 2012. Enjoy these with the appropriately sized grain of sodium chloride.
1. Both dollar totals and deal totals for U.S. cleantech venture capital will be up more than 20% over 2011.
I'm basing this on the hope of a bit more economic stabilization, allowing some of the currently fundraising venture funds in the sector to successfully close and start writing checks. Furthermore, more and more corporate and other large investors are putting money directly into venture capital type investments in the sector, and I believe this trend will continue. Also, I think the year will see a bit of a return of Series A and seed investing -- this would in particular boost the overall number of deals. So while I don't see 2012 as some kind of blockbuster positive year for the cleantech sector, I do think, for structural reasons, we'll see deal and dollar totals rise.
2. At least one "brand-name IT entrepreneur" will launch or join a cleantech effort.
One of the most encouraging trends that I see right now is the continued move of successful serial entrepreneurs into the cleantech sector. This shift did slow down a bit over the past couple of years, it feels like, what with the consumer web sector being so hot and the cleantech sector being somewhat out of favor. But even while it has slowed down, it continues. And I think there will be some big-name IT or web entrepreneur who very publicly jumps into this sector in 2012, bringing along a lot of hype into a well-financed play. As the sector matures, it looks more and more possible to figure out a way to be successful as an entrepreneur in these markets. What's more, the de-emphasis on proprietary, engineering-heavy technologies, plus the feel-good nature of many cleantech efforts, will entice entrepreneurs who previously thought there wasn't a play for them in this sector but see it as their next place to make a mark on the world. Hopefully, this will help to build the necessary but missing bridges between the IT/web and cleantech communities overall.
3. There will be at least one additional major syndicate of family offices launched to target cleantech (or a synonymous label for the sector).
One of the pleasant side-effects of publicly launching our Cleantech Syndicate collaboration group this year has been the opportunity to learn about others who have been working toward similar types of efforts. And over the past two and a half years as a family office investor, I've learned that the family office/HNW community is much larger than I'd thought it was, with a lot of latent interest in cleantech and related investments. Plus, outside of this sector, there is a general shift among such investors toward doing more direct investing, as a general rejection of "2 and 20" and as a consequence of the past decade's poor returns provided by VCs to their family office LPs.
All of these factors point to the likely creation of at least one additional such official syndicate of such investors. In fact I wouldn't be surprised to see more than one get launched. Such collaborations help family offices and HNWs pool not only their knowledge and dealflow, but also their diligence resources and strategic relationships.
4. There will be no progress made on U.S. federal energy policy, and there will be a rollback of state-level policy.
The unnecessary politicization of energy policy continues in this country, and not only does this (and an election year) mean it's unlikely we'll see anything meaningful happen in D.C., it also means that there is now an active "swiftboating" effort at the state level -- baseless (or at least greatly exaggerated) attacks on the state-level policies (like the Green Communities Act here in Massachusetts) that have helped the sector weather the storm of incompetence taking place on Capitol Hill. This will get even louder this year, and we'll see more of a rollback of good policies than a continued rollout of good policies. Don't comfort yourselves with the knowledge that such state-level policies have been cost-effective investments for taxpayers. Facts will have no real role in these attacks -- or in their political effects. This will be a year to prepare to fight hard at the state level if you care about energy policy.
5. Significant and visible consolidation within the solar industry will occur.
There is significant overcapacity among solar panel manufacturers right now, and even some inventory dumping, crushing panel ASPs. Some of the results have been a couple of obvious failures among high-profile startups in the sector. And this shakeout will continue, among both dead-ended technology developers and lower-tier manufacturers in places like China. But another result is that it's really cheap to buy a valuable solar manufacturer right now. There are rumors of First Solar being a potential acquisition target. Other next-gen manufacturers like MiaSolé (one of ours, by the way), Nanosolar, Stion and others are already actively in partnership talks with large corporate players and would make natural acquisition targets. Meanwhile, more and more such large corporate players are jumping into the solar sector, as the market continues to grow like crazy. My guess is there will be some high-profile acquisitions in 2012.
6. 2012 will see the emergence of multiple "roll-up" efforts.
With such a wild proliferation of technologies and startups across the various cleantech sectors over the past few years, many are plateauing as they face two major post-commercialization challenges: 1) long sales cycles, as customers don't have the attention or the resources to quickly investigate and decide in the face of all the now-available choices; and 2) low brand equity and small sales/distribution networks. This speaks to a potential wave of acquisitions that I'll talk about momentarily. But it also means that providing various specific customer groups with fuller, more heavily branded, and more complete solutions might make sense. We've already seen a couple of such roll-up efforts in distributed water treatment, sensors, and lighting. I'm guessing we'll see a lot more such thinking this coming year, resulting in multiple, visible "roll-up" plays. Success in these types of efforts is a LOT more easier said than done, so no one tackles them blindly. But now more than ever sure seems like an opportune time for them.
7. New hybrid investment models will emerge.
"I predicted this for 2010 [and 2011]. It didn't really happen. But I continue to speak with both LP-backed and non-traditional VCs and PE players who see the need. So I'll double down for the prediction for 2011 [and now 2012]. And what I'm talking about is the emergence of new models that combine project finance and venture capital; that take innovative approaches to the use of debt and equity combined; and/or investment into the kinds of business models (like services, etc.) that VCs have typically had a hard time backing."
I took the above excerpt directly from last year's prediction column. Never wrong, but often early, right?
8. 2012 will see a big wave of corporate M&A in the cleantech sector.
I've never seen more interest among large corporate players in driving topline growth through clean technologies. Thus, there's been a wave of announced partnerships between Fortune 1000 companies and cleantech startups. This will continue, but with valuations depressed and the variety of available choices making for a buyer's market, a wave of acquisitions should be expected. In fact, it may have already started in 2011.
Lighting, biofuels, solar, and building energy intelligence are all sectors where we might see a buying spree in 2012. Large corporates also appear to have keen interest in sectors like energy storage and transportation and water, but I'm not sure those sectors have enough mature venture-backed startups of sufficient interest to corporate buyers as to result in a major wave of acquisitions -- those would come later.
Note that I'm not predicting anything about how lucrative such a wave of M&A would be for venture investors' portfolios.
9. A major geopolitical event will spike oil prices above $120/barrel.
I predicted this last year as well, and sure enough, we had spikes because of geopolitical events, but in the end, the macroeconomic blues held down prices below $120/barrel for the entire year. As noted, I'm hopeful of at least some economic stabilization in 2012. On the basis of that hope, I'm willing to continue to bet on major price volatility for oil, one of the world's tightest and most easily manipulated markets. Until we finally figure out how damaging it is to our economy that we allow ourselves to be dependent upon such a headline-risk input, and start to wean ourselves off of Middle Eastern oil through smart policy and long-term capex decisions, markets will continue to be near-term price-inelastic and thus we will continue to see spikes whenever some crackpot somewhere around the world decides to make a stink.
If China's economic expansion loses significant steam, or Europe fumbles and causes a global recession, this prediction will be wrong. But given even a halfway-decent economy in 2012, such volatility seems pretty inevitable. To borrow from Rick James, "Oil is a hell of a drug."
10. Several "environmental markets" will collapse and shut down.
In many markets around the world, prices of carbon credits and renewable energy credits are collapsing. This is mostly due to the overall economic situation, which not only means less capital is sloshing around looking for innovative new bets to play, it also means many targeted emissions reductions are being met simply because of lower levels of production overall. Further, it reflects that many of these markets were established with prices intentionally set low at the beginning, and, increasingly, a lack of faith that policymakers will continue to let such markets exist and run as promised. One of the many ways reactionary politics creates uncertainty, which kills businesses.
In any case, with prices collapsing, we're already seeing some such markets closing down altogether. I expect this to continue in 2012. I am a believer in the emergence of such environmental markets over the long run -- but right now is their winter.
11. There will be an overall pullback in non-U.S. cleantech venture capital deal counts, but an increase in project finance.
With so many choices to pick from domestically, and also with less faith in the consistent, near-term growth of some emerging economies, I'm hearing fewer U.S. venture investors talk about their latest overseas investments. What's more, the U.S. continues to dominate the venture capital industry. Further, economic uncertainty in Europe is also stagnating interest in risky venture capital bets there. My pure guess is that 2012 will see a temporary pullback in non-U.S. cleantech venture capital deal counts. But meanwhile, as cleantech equipment prices get crushed, renewable energy projects pencil out better and better, even in places without generous subsidies or FITs. Project finance is low-risk and long-term, and clearly in demand. So I feel pretty confident that we'll see a continued strong growth in overseas cleantech project finance -- albeit with some likely significant shifts from some regions into others.
12. The Redskins will have a losing record next season.
It pains me to say it, as I think they actually made some good progress this year. But next year they'll probably be starting a rookie QB, and there's no way the rest of the NFC East can continue to be so lousy next year. Plus, it looks like they'll have to face primarily the AFC North and the NFC South in non-divisional matchups, which were two of the strongest divisions this season. So I'm guessing my football frustrations will continue, even if I see them improving next year in terms of quality. Here's to the 2013-14 season, I guess.