The venture capital industry is flying pretty high these days. Valuations have taken off, and what was once considered so rare that it was termed a "unicorn" -- a venture-backed company with a valuation above $1 billion -- is now common in the tech sector. There are now dozens of mythical beasts running around out there.
There are a number of reasons, good and bad, that this to be happening. But it's become so hot out there in VC land that we're starting to see the inevitable predictions of a looming fallout in the sector. That's when you know things are going well.
So amidst all of this excitement, where are the green unicorns?
It's no surprise that a lack of green unicorns and a lack of limited partner (LP) interest in the sector go hand in hand. A recent survey by the advisory group Probitas asked LPs where they planned to focus their attention in 2015. Only 5 percent said they were going to focus on green-focused funds, the second-lowest category out of 26.
But hey, at least it beat out "Shariah Compliant Funds."
Even amidst a positive cycle for venture capital in general, greentech remains unpopular and under-invested amongst VCs and their LP backers. And thus you don't get green unicorns, because $1 billion valuations are mostly a function of capital excitement more than operational progress.
Lacking green unicorns or other evidence of a sector rebound, LPs continue to not want to put capital into the sector. So it becomes a negative feedback cycle that leaves the green sector out of the overall VC party.
Meanwhile, there's another party going on where green markets are the belle of the ball. The explosive growth of renewable energy markets, and the availability of cheap capital, has launched a feeding frenzy in the YieldCo space.
These are the green unicorns. We're seeing multi-billion-dollar acquisitions taking place. New capital vehicles are being launched seemingly each week. And just as with the venture-backed unicorns in the general tech sector, hedge funds are quietly approaching just about any established deployment platform that could feed projects into those YieldCo vehicles, looking to put significant dollars to work.
It's a different story than the successes fueled by private dollars in the broad VC sector. Access to cheap capital through the public equities markets is fueling this wave. But otherwise, this is the same momentum-driven investing hype cycle at work, with many of the same non-VC players involved.
So where are the green unicorns? They're around. It's that community solar project, that wind farm and that solar system up on your roof right now.
This is just the beginning of an even broader deployment-investing wave. The combination of YieldCo structuring and other financing platforms has worked in a handful of established models in solar and wind, but there are a lot more green market opportunities out there.
Even in solar and wind, new deployment and financing models are needed for expanding applications and geographies. The same goes for food, water, transportation, and other verticals where distributed asset networks will need to be deployed at scale.
Who will establish these new models? It's unlikely to be the VCs. Venture capitalists and their LPs have overtly sidelined themselves for the time being. Successful establishment of these models requires significant deployment capital, which doesn't work well within the VC structure.
Using venture capital structures to fund project construction is an ugly mismatch. During the last big cleantech VC wave, it had to happen out of lack of other alternatives. The result was a lot of capital intensity and corresponding high valuations way too early in a startup's life cycle.
That's why it was noteworthy and encouraging a few weeks ago at the White House's Clean Energy Investment Summit to see so many non-traditional investors present and committing themselves to putting billions of dollars of capital to work in the sector. There were family offices, foundations and pension funds all there, talking about the innovative ways they are doing new kinds of deals and establishing new kinds of investment models.
We also used the opportunity to announce the merger of the Cleantech Syndicate of family offices with the CREO Network of family offices, creating a super-group of family offices and related investors all looking to collaborate around these new models.
I'm really excited about this CREO Syndicate (we're clearly not creative at branding, but whatever), and grateful to my colleagues at Black Coral, the Syndicate and CREO who built both groups and put it all together. We're talking hundreds of investors with tens of billions in capital available.
Notably lacking in the crowd at the summit? VCs. Only a couple were there.
But that's fine, because there's a new pathway to growth in green markets these days -- one that doesn't require VCs at all.
We non-traditional investors have the capital, the flexibility, and the early successful examples from which to draw upon. VCs are welcome to this party as well, and will eventually jump back in, but there are inherent advantages in this new investment wave to not being tethered to venture capital investment structures.
It's no coincidence that a lot of the early green success stories out there were primarily backed by such non-traditional investors, both within and outside of venture capital structures. This is not a new wave that's about to come -- it's a wave that's already happening.