The headlines can be depressing right now, I know. Because so much journalist attention is being paid to venture capitalists and politicians, when VCs are running scared away from the cleantech sector, and politicians are treating our industry like a punching bag, it can feel like things aren't going well.
That ignores the fact that I see a lot of cleantech companies (outside of a couple of sectors like upstream solar) doing very well operationally right now, growing revenues, achieving profitability, etc. And just as important is seeing how many large corporations are also more and more engaged in the sector, as customers, partners, and acquirers. If the economy can just hold off from cratering in the second half of 2012, I think it's going to end up being a pretty good year for our sector, all things considered. It just wouldn't be reflected in investor and political rhetoric. Whatever.
Besides, VCs and politicians aren't the most important stakeholders for us. Entrepreneurs are, because they're the ones who actually make it all happen. And while I acknowledge the challenges the sector faces due to capital flight and political fights, the level of entrepreneurial enthusiasm and effectiveness right now in the sector is higher than I've ever seen it. And that, my friends, is the lifeblood of our industry.
A couple of recent examples helped highlight this for me.
I had the honor of being asked to be a finalist judge for the first-ever DOE National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition. While entry was restricted to student teams, and thus naturally even the finalists all had gaps that would need to be addressed for them to be successful, it was clear that engineering and business students remain really enthusiastic about this sector. The teams had clearly worked very hard not only to make a compelling pitch, but more importantly to advance their innovations toward commercialization in meaningful ways. Especially encouraging was seeing how many of them were in some level of substantive dialog with potential strategic partners. The winners, NuMat Technologies from Northwestern University, are developing an obscure but potentially really valuable approach to gas storage (discovery and activation of MOFs) that could make it a lot more feasible for natgas vehicles to get adopted by the average American consumer, for instance. They and all the finalists did a great job, and I came away feeling encouraged about the level of enthusiasm I saw by all the competitors.
And then just yesterday we announced the semifinalists for this year's Cleantech Open Northeast accelerator program. What was great to see was that the level of participation this year not only didn't fall off from last year, but in fact it was even higher. Across the entire seven-region program, there were a record 350 applicants. Here in the Northeast region, we ended up with 39 semifinalists, up from 30 last year.
And remember, for this networking and training program (built around a fun competition, of course!), we only work with actual startups -- this isn't just a business plan competition. So this level of participation speaks to the fact that entrepreneurial activity in the cleantech sector isn't falling off -- it's continuing to grow.
You can find the full list of Northeast regional semifinalists here (PDF), but let me close by highlighting just a small handful that were new to me but struck me as highlighting the breadth of entrepreneurial activity we're seeing right now:
Power Ally is taking advantage of more readily available customer energy usage information in deregulated electricity retail markets to be a channel for customers to better identify energy providers.
Red Ox Systems is tackling the oil and gas industries' challenges with brine discharge -- and turning it into useable product.
CleanSoft LLC is developing software that will help utilities tackle on-bill financing for energy efficiency projects -- a hot area in energy efficiency finance chatter, but one where the utilities will face challenges in implementation.
Callida Energy is managing and analyzing smart building data to drive more savings and better comfort in commercial buildings.
I'm very much looking forward to learning more about these companies, and to working with all of the semifinalist teams over the next few months. Our "Academy" is next week, which will be my first real chance to meet many of these entrepreneurs. I expect a lot of enthusiasm. In fact, I'm already feeling it myself.