The economy is sputtering; VCs and LPs continue to be wary of cleantech; federal government support of the sector continues to be feckless; political rhetoric regarding cleantech is reckless; and the sky is falling (at least where I live -- we had five inches of rain in two hours yesterday).
So why am I smiling and full of cheer this morning?
Because the Cleantech Open Northeast regional final event yesterday and last night (formerly known as Ignite Clean Energy) was an incredible demonstration of the power of the grassroots community that has grown to support and nurture this sector, and of the amazing entrepreneurial energy being directed at our natural resource challenges.
Yesterday, we had more than 30 strong startups from across the New England region gather to present to a collection of judges. Six finalists were selected for a second round of judging, which was public, in front of a crowd of over 200 that had gathered to witness the event. Then an all-star roster of New England cleantech investors and entrepreneurs (including Pat Cloney of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center
, Geoff Chapin of Next Step Living
, Gisele Everett of DB Masdar
, David Vieau of A123
, Tom Burton of Mintz Levin
, and Bryan Garcia of the Connecticut Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority
) selected three finalists who are going to go represent New England at the national competition in November.
But more important than the results of the competition was what the entire day represented.
1. A vibrant entrepreneurial community. We had over 70 applicants for this year's program -- 70 real businesses, not just business plans or ideas. Many were first-time entrepreneurs. Across those 70 startups, a wide range of sectors and technologies were represented. The three regional finalists, as Nadia Shalaby of Arctic Sand pointed out to me last night, are all led by women entrepreneurs. And the event ran smoothly, thanks largely to the efforts of a bunch of student and professional volunteers, many of whom got involved because they are or want to be cleantech entrepreneurs themselves. There is a deeply set passion many entrepreneurs have for the cleantech sector, and that passion will carry the sector through this and any other downturns in the future.
2. A supportive community of experienced entrepreneurs and businesspeople. All of yesterday's contestants worked with mentors. This year, we had over 100 mentors volunteer their time to help these companies. And that plus the rest of the CTO educational program seemed to have really delivered some value to the participating entrepreneurs -- several judges came up to tell me that they'd seen some of the participants several months back, and in the meantime the companies had made leaps and bounds in terms of progress. And the judges themselves were great. In addition to the judges for the evening public event, we had something like 25 additional judges from the investor, entrepreneur and corporate communities, all of whom volunteered an entire day out of their busy lives to come listen to the pitches, grade them, and even more importantly, give feedback. At least here in New England, to have such a deep bench of committed, experienced sector participants is a huge resource. By connecting with this resource, even those Cleantech Open participants who didn't win still gained a lot from the experience and the exposure.
3. Lots of collaboration.
In addition to working with the MassCEC and the CT CEFIA, here in New England the Cleantech Open is also working closely with groups like the New England Clean Energy Council and the Fraunhofer TechBridge -- in fact, several ULaunch/TechBridge
awards were also announced last night. That kind of overt collaboration stands in stark contrast to the political infighting and territorial grabbing that happens all too often at the national level among environmental and cleantech-oriented nonprofits. Such overt collaboration is, I believe, a critical reason why cleantech regional policies and cluster-building efforts have been so much more effective than most efforts at the national/federal level. Those who truly have a passion for seeing this sector grow and thrive don't need to own it. They work together as partners, and they don't feel the need to make sure they get labels like "co-founder" and get to be the center of attention -- something I've seen way too much of in certain cleantech cluster-building efforts lately. There's no room for power-grabs and other forms of selfishness when we all need to work together to harness and cultivate the entrepreneurial passion in the cleantech sector. We all need to have small egos and dull elbows. In that regard, the collaboration evidenced at last night's event was hugely gratifying.
So while the cleantech sector faces a lot of "headline risk" at the moment, at the grassroots level, we have never seen so much commitment and enthusiasm from both new entrants and experienced leaders in support of the growth of the sector. Last night was a competition, but it was also a celebration -- one that the New England cleantech community roundly deserves.