As a reporter based in California's Silicon Valley, I am guilty of a certain degree of American and California-centric myopia. There is the occasional tendency to accept that one-percenters driving Fisker Karmas and Tesla Roadsters are actually the vanguard of a renewable energy economy. Or that residential energy dashboards or pretty thermostats are the key to a coal-free future.
Upon reflection, none of these technology-rich products pass the Chindia test. The "Chindia test" is a term coined by VC investor Vinod Khosla that suggests energy solutions must work in China and India if they are to have any material impact.
So how does an entrepreneur make a difference in emerging markets like China or India or in certain cases, the U.S.?
The Berkeley-Stanford Cleantech Conference on April 12 at the Stanford campus explores that question from a number of angles. Mr. Khosla will be offering his view in one of the keynotes.
Donn Tice, the CEO and Chairman of D.light Design, a cleantech entrepreurial success in the developing world, is also speaking at that event.
D.light builds a line of affordable, solar-powered lamps -- including one with a mobile-phone charging feature -- with the aim of replacing kerosene-powered lights, which are dirty and dangerous. The company's target is to improve the quality of life for 50 million people by 2015. The firm has funding from philanthropic investors like the Omidyar Network as well as traditional VCs like DFJ and Garage Technology Ventures. Building the solar lamp is one part of the enterprise; the other is creating a sales network to get the device into the hands of the people who need it.
According to Tice, the threshold question is "How important is technology?" and "What is impactful technology?"
As cleantech companies in developed economies navigate an uncertain policy and economic environment in their own countries, a huge opportunity is opening up for these firms to sell their products and develop projects in emerging markets.
Tice spoke of the previously mentioned technologist prejudice. "We have a bias that large-scale, capital-intensive, technology solutions are what works. In the developed world they do. In the non-developed world, they don't." He adds that "Cleantech is necessary but insufficient for success. It's great and important -- once you have technology, you're in the game."
So getting technology into people's hands in emerging economies comes down to distribution and education. "Technology is enabling, but you actually have to get the product to these places. You have to educate, demonstrate and then maybe the people will adopt." He added, "If you think that last mile of cable [in the U.S.] is difficult, what do you do in Uthar Pradesh, India?"
Tice concluded, "It's not build it and they will come." It's "What is the appropriate technology for these consumers and these markets?"
More details on the April 12 event on Stanford University campus here.