The next wave of cleantech is here.
The old form of cleantech is dead or dying, everyone agrees. I don't know too many investors out there still looking for capital-intensive ways of making commodities, as marked the height of the pre-2008 cleantech wave (and that I've been guilty of myself in some cases, I must admit). And there will be yet more bad news piled onto our sector thanks to those types of investments. Just this past week I learned about yet another high-profile capital-intensive cleantech startup that is on the ropes cash-wise, and likely to be a bad headline soon. My message isn't that things are about to turn a corner, in terms of the negative tones in the press, in politics, or amongst LPs.
But there's a cadre of cleantech investors and entrepreneurs who are actively rethinking all this. And they're now getting a chance to put that thinking into action.
I'm seeing tech-focused investors looking not only for compelling innovations, but for management teams that are pragmatic about their path to market, and that are relatively (stress on relatively) capital-efficient in how they're going to commercialize their innovations. These "cleanTECH" investors may still be hunting for the next great patent, as before, but they're now doing it in smarter ways.
And I'm seeing more investors tackling information-based cleantech, taking on the next great data challenge and opportunity that is energy and water, and thinking about brands not as something that can be bought with scads of venture capital driven PR, but instead as powerful assets that smart management teams can build in effective ways, organically.
In both cases, it's no longer "build it and they will come" approaches; rather, it's all about the customers, directly or indirectly. And I firmly believe that effective market reinvention and adoption acceleration will mark the inflection point where the pendulum starts to swing back for our industry. Owning the customer is more important than owning a patent. And a great execution-oriented team is more valuable than a great technical innovation.
This next wave of cleantech is less MiaSolé, and more Nest and Next Step Living.
And it's being led by a younger crowd of investors. I got to catch up this past week with the likes of Rodrigo Prudencio, Will Coleman, Matthew Nordan, and others among their peer group -- smart investors blazing a new path. What I heard about what they're up to got me revved up, energized, excited about the next wave. I'm seeing complete rethinkings about how venture capital in this sector should be structured, how investors should make their choices, and how the rest of the ecosystem (especially large corporates) should be engaged. About how to declare "Damn the political torpedoes, full speed ahead." And most of all, about how to grow companies without burning so much capital along the way. High-cash-burn business models have already killed way too many good cleantech ideas over the past decade.
I also got to meet a bunch of entrepreneurs who are working on this next wave: experienced IT entrepreneurs building new marketplaces using tools they already understand well; younger entrepreneurs who are thinking cleverly about how to leverage existing and underutilized capacities in existing markets; and industry veterans who know how to open doors with large corporate customers and have realistic expectations about how to build powerful relationships that unlock doors. Some of these entrepreneurs I already knew well; some were brand new to me. All left me impressed.
There will continue to be blowups out of the last wave of cleantech. They will continue to dominate the headlines over the coming months. But in the background, the next wave is upon us. And I have high hopes for it.