The last decade of cleantech venture capital did not generate stellar returns.

That should come as no surprise to regular Greentech Media readers -- as Adam Medoff, Matthew Nordan, and many others have pointed out, factors like high capital requirements, relatively few exits, and poor public market performance have plagued the sector. Though the last point has shifted in the right direction recently, the fact remains that by and large things haven’t been pretty.

This audience also will not be surprised by the notion that it’s too early to throw in the towel. As last month’s NextWave Conference highlighted, new and differentiated investment models abound. Cleanweb, growth equity, philanthropic capital, and corporate venture investing approaches all have promise to fuel the next generation of cleantech.

While those factors provide important context, I’m not writing to retread that ground. I’m writing to tell the story that the next wave is already here. The Cleantech Group recently released its annual list of the 100 companies in the sector with the greatest likelihood to have a significant market impact over the next five to ten years, as judged by a panel of 94 experts. Fifty-one of these companies appear on the list for the first time this year, compared to 38 in 2012, while only four companies made the list for the fifth consecutive year.

I found it especially striking how well two of the three companies on the Cleantech Group’s “Lust List” (so named for receiving universal praise from panelists) exhibit the three pillars of next-wave cleantech entrepreneurship. (If you haven’t read Rob Day’s recent blog post on the topic, you should.) The two companies are Marrone Bio Innovations (Nasdaq: MBII), a developer of bio-based weed, pest, and disease management products, and Clean Power Finance (CPF), a financing and SaaS provider for residential solar installers. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m working as an associate with Clean Pacific Ventures, an early backer of both MBII and CPF, so I am not an entirely impartial observer. This is not true, however, of almost all of the panelists who anointed these companies as being worthy of inclusion on the Lust List.)

Here's a bit more on how Clean Power Finance and Marrone Bio Innovations align with the three pillars.

A shift from centralized to distributed assets and intelligence. Clean Power Finance offers financing that lets installers give homeowners the chance to go solar without a large upfront capital investment, as well as software to streamline the sales process. CPF is a leader in the distributed solar revolution, routinely facilitating more than $3M in residential financing in a single day.

Capital pragmatism. CPF, a finance and SaaS provider, has a naturally capital-efficient business model. Like many other cleanweb companies, it capitalizes on upstream innovation that has already occurred to boost deployment through business model innovation. Perhaps more surprisingly, Marrone also fits this category well. Raising about $40 million in equity on its way to going public in July 2013, the company now has a market cap of over $350 million. While MBII has an IP-centric, manufacturing-based business model, it has taken a pragmatic approach to minimizing cash burn. For example, it utilized contract manufacturing for its initial production, and repurposed a former biodiesel manufacturing facility in Michigan to slash expenses on its first plant. The company was also able to secure non-dilutive research grants from the EPA. While cleanweb companies naturally require less capital than do companies producing physical products, a strong dose of capital pragmatism can create strong venture opportunities within the latter category.

Provide solutions, not just technologies, while taking existing value chains into account. Marrone knew that it had a product that many farmers would clamor for, if only they could get it. However, internally developing distribution in its fragmented and geographically dispersed end markets would have been exceedingly difficult and expensive, so Marrone formed a distribution partnership with Syngenta, one of the world’s largest agribusinesses. It instantly gained the reach of one of the world’s leading agricultural distribution channels and made a partner out of what could have been a competitor. Meanwhile, distributed solar did not take off solely due to technological innovation and manufacturing cost reductions. Instead, it took off when companies like CPF offered financing solutions to unlock the opportunity for homeowners to go solar without a large upfront capital investment. Its SaaS solution also makes it easier for installers to manage their workflows. To this end, the company offers solutions that reduce friction on both sides of the residential solar marketplace. Also of note is the fact that both companies received corporate venture investment. This isn’t always the right approach, and some situations call for attacking incumbents head-on, particularly when they intentionally obstruct innovation. However, when incumbents have a strong hold on value chains and end customers, partnering rather than confronting is often a prudent approach.

The immense yet solvable problems that sparked the first wave of cleantech venture investment still exist, while the addressable markets are still massive and ripe for disruption. The next wave is here, as more and more cleantech entrepreneurs are acting upon the lessons learned from the last wave, creating more venture investment opportunities and laying the foundation for strong returns. At the same time, fewer investment dollars are available, especially for early-stage companies. The confluence of these factors means that there has never been a better time to be a cleantech venture capital investor.


Matt Logan is an Associate at Clean Pacific Ventures and a second-year MBA at the Ross School of Business.