Back in 1997, I was invited to a small press briefing with Masayoshi Son, the rebel Japanese businessman who, at the time, was shaking up the computer world. His company mixed aggressive American marketing with an Asian love of cutting edge technology.
"He doesn't think in business cycles. He thinks in dynasties," one person whispered to me before it began. "He's going to update his roadmap for the next century today."
If he's got so much foresight, I asked, how come he's updating his vision for the next hundred years three years after he first published it?
"Well, he didn't see the Internet coming," the person replied.
That's sort of the mood in the greentech world these days. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists openly discussed the risks – high capital costs, the commodity nature of fuel and electricity, the competitive threat of multinationals, the long development times – to their projects. But these were temporary larks. Twitter wasn't built in a day, after all. Even after the crash began, the change seemed somehow abstract.
Now, people seem to be settling into the new mood. The good news is that the modern era could end up like the '70s. That much-maligned decade had quite a bit going for it in retrospect. For one thing, it ended. Granted, the American economy was in the dumps from 1973 through 1982, but it never got emerging world bad. Families in Connecticut didn't have to take the family pony, paint it with zebra stripes and rent it out for photos.
It also, in retrospect, turned out to be quite a creative period. Critics still hail the films and TV shows from that period. Solar and ethanol got their jumpstart then, and so did compact cars. Rick Wakeman strapped himself to a piano and twirled through the air mid-concert. How much more evidence do you need?
The bad news, of course, is that we now have to live through it. And here are some of the adjustments and trends that seem to be emerging:
1. Be Like Samsung: What do you do when capital costs are prohibitively high? Cut them, and that's what some are already doing. Interestingly, the examples are coming from South Korea. Telio Solar, a CIGS solar panel company, has built a prototype production line for less than $3 million (see A New CIGS Company Emerges: Telio Solar). The incredibly low price (for a CIGS company) comes from the fact that over 60 percent of its equipment is adapted directly from the TV industry.
Similarly, Lumiette, a florescent light company, wants to sell a long-life bulb originally built for LCD TVs (see A New Take on Fluorescent Bulbs Coming to Market). Both Gapseong Noh (CEO Telio) and Noel Park (of Lumiette) worked at Samsung, a relentlessly obsessive place when it comes to cost.
Samsung is considering a leap into solar panels. Be afraid.
2. Don't Expect a Buyout: If you're in a small village and a resident has hit on hard times, you might be willing to buy his or her livestock or feed. If you're in a lifeboat, though, you're probably not willing to eat his liver.
Companies short on cash don't buy other companies. Besides, if they don't have an established customer base, what's the point? Another reason you won't see as much consolidation as you might expect: incompatibility. Many CIGS and biofuel companies are really manufacturing/process plays. They've developed proprietary and specific ways to turn industrial chemicals or farm waste into valuable products. Unfortunately, their competitors have different processes. Buying someone else just creates a massive integration headache.
3. Smart Grid Fever Will Go From Exuberance to Panic: There's a lot to like about smart grid (see Smart Grid Test Customers Give Thumbs Up). Energy and water consumption is incredibly inefficient and most of the solutions are based around familiar hardware and software technologies from the computer world. The problem? The customer base consists of a very small number of utilities and municipal water districts. They tend to be very conservative and concentrate on a few vendors. Thus, only a few winners will emerge. The build-out will be profitable, but will start to get lopsided in 2010.
4. Here Come the Shady Operators: Remember those companies that promised to deliver free PCs to consumers and subsidize it through advertising? Advertising seemed like a bottomless pit. Now, government programs look like a bottomless pit, so watch out for slicksters promising free solar panels ("We buy the panels; you buy the power.") or quick-charge electric cars. Someone in regional government, they figure, will give them money (see Waiting for Obama).
5. The Amish Are Cool: Try as I might, I find myself on the verge of buying a Heat Surge Miracle Heater with beautifully hand-rubbed Amish mantle.
6. Rise of the Science Experiment: If you can't invest in a company on the verge of mass manufacturing, you do the next best thing. You invest in a science experiment. It takes less money and you don't have to worry about scaling up for years. For far-future ideas, check out Oasys, a Yale spin-out which wants to purify water with ammonia salts (see Forward Osmosis: Can a Startup Reverse Desalination?).
7. Desert Real Estate Is a Go: Because of the potential payoff, algae fuel will continue, and a lot of companies will try to grow it in the scrublands of the mountain states, which also remain prime areas for offshore wind farms, compressed air power storage, carbon capture experiments and nuclear repositories (see Startup ES&P to Store Electricity in the Air). Nevada is not a wasteland – it's the Land of Improvisation.