Two years ago, I heard today, at the NVCA Annual Meeting the Cleantech session had 200 participants.
At today's, it had around 30.
And yet I walked away very encouraged. Why? Because in a room that probably had something like 200 or so collective years of cleantech venture experience, so many smart minds were focused on the basic question that we're wrestling with these days: "What will the next wave of cleantech venture capital look like?"
The panel session quickly turned into a full-room discussion on the subject, with lots of fodder for future columns (I'll get to them eventually, I promise). But perhaps the biggest takeaway for me from the conversation was Josh Green's suggestion that there will be two separate cleantech categories. "Energy/Industrial", and what I'll generally call "Market Reinvention" (while continuing to think of a better way to describe a wide range of consumption-facing business models and technologies -- suggestions welcomed).
"Energy/Industrial" would be the cleantech that many VCs and others seem to instinctively think of when they think about "cleantech": Hardware innovations, production processes, physical innovations. And this always seems to be what VCs gravitate toward. If you get more than two VCs together in the same room to talk about "cleantech", I guarantee you that within 5 minutes the conversation will have skewed over into the difficulties of getting venture returns from materials science or bio-chemistry innovations. (It was fun to watch the cleanweb investors like Mitch Lowe from Greenstart smile and go silent when that happened today.) There are a lot of reasons for this dynamic, including that many of the original cleantech venture investors came out of such hard-engineering disciplines, as well as the fact that cleantech markets are inherently about the physical world and thus there's no escaping the significant needs for such physical world based innovations. But clearly, a lot of venture investors, LPs, pundits, etc., tend to have a primary image of "cleantech" as being all about this subcategory, not just sometimes about this subcategory...
And the other category, as regular readers will no doubt recognize, is about business models and system integration (sometimes financial-oriented, sometimes web-oriented, sometimes software and controls oriented, sometimes deployment-oriented, sometimes just plain services). In large part, these are innovations focused on accelerating the adoption of the increasingly-attractive physical innovations and other resource efficiency improvements that the last decade of cleantech venture capital has done so much to bring about. They can create competitive advantage through proprietary IP, but as often they utilize brand, network effects, captive value chains, etc. to create their competitive advantages.
The point of the conversation, as it dwelled on this division, is that these two subcategories are really very, very different. Very different in terms of the skills required by the entrepreneurs and investors; different in terms of capital requirements; different in terms of time to market; different in terms of which strategic partners are critical, and what roles they need to play.
I happen to personally believe (and am investing around the thesis) that the current investment opportunity is in the Market Reinvention subcategory. Because there's a backlog of ready-for-prime-time physical innovations that aren't being adopted nearly as fast as their economic value propositions would suggest, so there are rapid growth opportunities to be found in figuring out how to unleash accelerated adoption.
Indeed, when Cambridge Associates put out a recent analysis of cleantech venture returns, the differences in performance between these two strategies was quite stark. From 2000-2011, they found that the pooled IRRs of bets in "Renewable Power Development" (basically, deployments/finance/etc. downstream of powergen) and "Energy Optimization" (lighting, efficiency, etc) were relatively more attractive at 11.4% and 8.9% respectively, whereas IRRs for "Renewable Power Manufacturing" (at 4.6%) and "Resource Solutions" (at 1.5%) were significantly less attractive.
But the point isn't to argue that one of these subcategories is better or more attractive than others. That will likely be cyclical. If Market Reinvention is successful, in fact, it will create both increased demand for and more rapid adoption of new Energy/Industrial innovations and thus create the opportunity for superior returns there. It's analogous to when corporate America got to a point of prioritization of and dependence upon new IT innovations that CIOs became prevalent -- when corporate America starts hiring "Chief Energy Officers" we'll all be much better off and physical innovations may find more rapid paths to market adoption and exits. And heaven knows, as a society we need much significant progress in these innovation areas -- a need that may well lend itself to tremendous investment returns for investors with the right strategies and in the right market conditions.
No, the point isn't to advocate for one of these subcategories or the other; the point is that these subcategories are indeed very different and thus require very different investment strategies and skill sets. In any rethinking of the cleantech venture category (and perhaps leading to some rebranding efforts), it's important to acknowledge these differences, and indeed embrace them.
1. "Cleantech" is not one opportunity. It is lots of completely different opportunities in completely different markets, built upon completely different technologies. It is more of a lens through which to view a wide range of innovations by entrepreneurs, some of whom may not even consider themselves "cleantech". And that's okay.
2. Not all of these opportunities will be a fit for the venture capital model, with its exceptionally high returns expectations and relatively short time to exit expectations. And the boundaries of that will vary over time. And that's okay.
3. And even within these subcategories, there will be very different strategies and skillsets required. Smart investors will move away from "checklist investing" as so many of us have engaged with in the past ("I still don't have an advanced battery company in my portfolio, let me go get one of those") and start to focus on particular areas (skill-wise and/or market segment focused) where they have particular access and expertise. And that's okay.
Lest we forget, these are markets that add up to trillions of dollars of revenue opportunity per year that are practically screaming out to be overtaken by new, more efficient technologies and market processes. Clearly, only a subset of this opportunity will be applicable to venture capital returns. But even that subset will be hugely attractive, when we can figure out how to crack it open.
Let's go crack it open.