Recent Posts:

What Is the Appropriate Role for Government in Cleantech Innovation?

Rob Day: February 28, 2012, 4:00 PM

It's not a popular thing to argue right now, but yes, there certainly is a vital role for government in support of cleantech innovation.

Let me start by acknowledging that I absolutely understand and quite often agree with the sentiment that government shouldn't be in the business of venture capital. Market-based policies are, to my liking, almost always preferable to policies where government employees select and fund specific innovators or companies. Thus, the most effective way for governments to support cleantech innovation would be to price in externalities like climate change and dependence on imported energy, and then let the market sort things out.

But that's not likely to happen anytime soon in the U.S.

So in the meantime, how should we view policymakers' efforts to promote innovation and startups that would otherwise languish in today's skewed pricing environment? It's a very complex problem, which I'll illustrate below.

I would propose that an appropriate government effort to promote cleantech innovation will follow three core principles:

1. Additionality

Within the realm of desirable outcomes for the U.S. economy and energy mix, some are already being tackled by the private sector, and some are not.  As a rule, government efforts even in economically beneficial innovation areas shouldn't duplicate the existing efforts of the private sector. In this case, the government should be aiming to fill capital gaps.

This is a lot easier said than done, however. First of all, how do you define a capital gap? It's hard enough to get reliable information about venture funding overall, much less get reliable data about what specific stages and sectors and business models are hard to get funded. Secondly, these capital gaps also wax, wane, and shift as investor enthusiasm for a sector ebbs and flows. Thirdly, in some of these capital gaps, there might be non-institutional investors who are interested in putting in money where the institutional VCs won't, and the capital gap is one of check size (angels writing $25,000 checks when $250,000 is what's needed), not one that's sector- or stage-driven. And finally, there might even be gaps across various efforts within an individual company -- for example, a research project at a venture-backed startup, where the research wouldn't have happened with VC dollars alone.

You also want to avoid either having these government-directed dollars flowing into the hot new startup (because the program is under pressure to show some 'successes' early on), or a negative selection bias where government dollars are being directed away from the best innovative startups because VCs might become interested. But you do want to see leverage resulting from these efforts, where the government program helps to unlock follow-on capital from the private sector. In other words, VC dollars following government dollars is one indicative metric of a successful program. But government dollars following VC dollars is less so (with the caveat of the additional research project scenario as described above).

How to prove additionality under such complex conditions? It doesn't make sense to attempt to codify a definition legislatively. Rather, the best approach is to to develop flexible processes that are outcome-oriented and provide opportunities for an evolution of the program over time.

2. Flexibility

One of the less-reported but damaging trends in U.S. policy right now is the shift in tactical control from the executive branch to the legislative branch. In other words, lawmakers are writing in too many detailed directives as to how programs should work, instead of stepping back. Because if there's one group of people you don't want designing your management process, it's Congress. Yet that's exactly what's going on. Many of the more public examples of failed energy policy recently were, at heart, driven by byzantine program designs dictated from Capitol Hill, not in the White House or inside the DOE. It's the equivalent of a startup's board of directors going around the CEO to specify how junior engineers in the R&D group should organize their daily activities. Lawmakers should establish goals, provide boundaries and oversight, and then let the implementers on the firing lines figure out the best way to accomplish these objectives.

If lawmakers are to surrender some control over process, however, there does need to be sufficient oversight, as well as a forcing function to make sure the program really does evolve over time as market conditions change.

3. The Voice of the Market

To reiterate, I strongly prefer market-based policies to any effort to have government groups select some specific recipients over others. But if there are some areas where economic imperatives necessitate this latter type of policy, the next best choice is to at least give the voice of the market a major role.

Peer review is one commonly used way to get at this. And if done the right way, it can be quite valuable. But if done wrong, of course, it's useless. A good peer review process will work hard to get a wide variety of knowledgeable technical and market viewpoints, control for potential conflicts of interest, and include force-ranking or other ways of making sure 'grade inflation' doesn't creep in. 

What I haven't seen as much of, but what would also be valuable, would be to have additional reviews done by groups of end-users or customers. This is tougher, and won't be definitive, because quite often customers don't know what they've been missing until they see something in action. But still, for building energy efficiency technology (for example), there should be collective reviews by large building owners who could eventually be purchasing the technology, both within the government system (e.g., let's get the Navy helping ARPA-E select what technologies they'd love to have commercialized for use on their bases) and, of course, really including the private sector owners of buildings. It will be important to avoid inclusion of channel partners who seem like purchasers but really are biased distributors (sorry, ESCOs). It won't be a perfect process, but these programs shouldn't be "build it and they will come" by design -- they should be bringing in the voice of the customer right from the point of selection. And the input and perspective will help all participating startups, even those not selected by the program.

Outside perspectives from market participants can, at least in a wisdom of crowds format, also help identify which areas are truly capital gaps and which aren't. Perhaps doing this on a case-by-case basis would be unwieldy, but at the very least, a large panel of advisors from the private sector could help evaluate the program staff's own identification and definition of capital gaps on an annual basis, helping to validate the strategy while keeping it somewhat flexible. It would have to be a large and diverse panel -- each advisor would absolutely walk in with their own biases in certain sectors and categories, so it will be important to flood out each bias with enough of a crowd of perspectives.

Bringing this all together, I'll throw out there a vision of what this might look like:

  • A program given a concrete and ambitious but relatively broad set of mandates in terms of goals (such as $1.00 per watt installed solar cost), with an authorized budget and department home, and some basic parameters around types of activities (grants vs. investments, etc.) and a requirement to demonstrate additionality.
  • An oversight committee to review the program's activities on a quarterly basis and strategy/program design on an annual basis.
  • An auditor established elsewhere in the government to evaluate adherence and effectiveness of the program on an annual basis.
  • A strong manager out of the private sector with a mandate to hire a top-notch team, tasked with designing and running the program.
  • Peer review and market input processes so that as much as possible of the program's activities are guided by the voice of the market, while still giving the internal team latitude to use their experience and judgment toward meeting the goals of the program.

Obviously, a fourth unstated principle, therefore, is that this requires a really sharp team. Not a bureaucrat-laden team, but a team of experienced managers with private-sector experience, leavened with smart young technologists and market analyst types. This is the single most important determinant, in my mind, between a successful effort like this and an unsuccessful effort. Groups like ARPA-E and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center have had leadership like this, and it's a major reason why (in my mind, at least) they've been pretty successful to date. Effective, mission-oriented people have been brought on board by the leadership of each program, and they've found a way to make a positive impact.  

But will that last? I do worry that the crushing nature of politics means that such people will eventually be driven out by partisanship-inspired attacks. I'm not sure that can be avoided (unless anyone has any brilliant ideas on how to remove party politics from energy policy in this country?). So we can only hope that effective businesspeople with tough hides will continue to agree to lead programs like this out of a sense of mission, and that they will be able to continue to inspire strong managers and analysts to come join these teams even though they will have to expect that it becomes unpleasant at times.

In the meantime, we can hope to continue to see broader recognition of the need for market-based energy policies that will establish a more even playing field, so that all of the above becomes less necessary. Because right now, it's absolutely critical.

What’s Going On With Corporate Investors in Cleantech?

Rob Day: February 22, 2012, 10:00 AM

Walt Frick posted a good rebuttal to the Wired "cleantech bust" article recently, in which he points out that venture dollars going into the sector remain high.

This is true, but as one of my fellow panelists at the Kellogg PE/VC conference yesterday pointed out, a lot of those dollars are simply follow-ons into existing investments. And furthermore, corporate investors have really been filling the gap recently.  One lawyer I spoke with recently who sees a lot of cleantech transactions told me that over the past 12 months, most transactions he's seen have included a strategic investor as the predominant "new money" in the deal.

It's clear that many large corporations have determined that there will be growth opportunities in emerging clean technologies, and at a time when many corporations have been hoarding cash they are thus able to put some money at work in venture investments in the sector. This is very encouraging for the sector, of course.

But corporate venture investments have a history of piling on at the end of cycles. Does this current wave of investments portend bad things for the cleantech venture sector, given the lagging indicator they've often been?

The alternative optimistic view says that "this time is different," because various clean technologies are reaching a point of maturation where they are "ready for primetime" -- and this just happens to be at a point in time where corporations have capital and VCs don't. And in addition, the generally horribly ineffective channels for clean technologies mean that large corporate partners do indeed have value to add, as opposed to other "bulges" in corporate venture investing, where they were just buying late into the party.

At the risk of saying "this time is different" (famous last words), I do tend to believe this latter, optimistic view. Mostly because I don't see a lot of evidence that corporate venture groups are dramatically overpaying to buy their way into 'hot' companies. Indeed, I see a lot of bargain-hunting and serious evaluation of underlying technologies instead of just momentum investing among corporate VCs. I do believe that many large corporations have determined that clean technologies will be strategic growth areas for them over the long run, and that this is a buyer's market, so it's an opportune time to forge some relationships, investment-oriented and otherwise.

But even if so, there's still a significant disconnect going on.  While these corporate venture groups are investing in growth opportunities, the operating units within these larger companies are adopting cost-saving clean technologies as slowly as ever.

A long, long time ago, a colleague and I wrote about four different ways "sustainability" can be used to create economic value for large companies. The first is simply to help ensure "right to operate" -- that is, avoiding major environmental screw-ups. The second is as a means of identifying cost savings via waste reduction. The third is adding new products with resource-efficiency advantages, and the fourth is redefining the entire business. (You can learn more about this framework here.)

Corporate venture groups are primarily concerned with the third of these opportunities: new add-on businesses. But there's a huge opportunity in the cost-saving category that is being missed by these same companies.

I see a lot of industrial energy efficiency startups right now, for example, that are having a hard time getting large corporates to act quickly to purchase new lighting, controls, and other systems that would be relatively easy to implement and have compelling ROIs. You would typically think that a two-year payback period is a no-brainer for a corporate operating manager to pitch internally, yet I'm seeing even six-month paybacks not get the traction you would expect. Why? Mostly because these aren't strategic priorities.

The corporate world has shifted a bit so that C-suites are often focused on executing on a top-three set of priorities. And rarely is "make our facilities run more efficiently" one of these top three stated priorities. Without a specific strategic mandate, the plant manager fights an uphill battle getting the CFO to pay attention, and the CFO doesn't want to spend time pushing these opportunities down on plant managers. And then there's the "all the other stuff" dynamic -- plant managers have three priorities themselves: production, safety, and all the other "stuff."  Energy (and other types of) cost savings fall into this distant third category.

I found it ironic that our cleantech panel yesterday was held at the same time as a panel on how PE firms can create additional returns by driving operational improvements at their portfolio companies. Ironic, because we should have combined the panels. Indeed, thanks to efforts such as the Environmental Defense Fund's Green Returns project, PE firms are actually helping drive adoption of resource-efficient technologies pretty effectively within their portfolios.  

That's because they've made it a strategic priority (because it's such low-hanging fruit with rapid returns). But too often I go out and talk with a corporate venture group, and we'll be comparing notes on investment areas of interest, and they make it clear that their mandate only covers revenue growth opportunities -- they have no ability to invest in technologies that could save their company money in terms of cost savings. Even at companies like Wal-Mart that are doing a pretty effective job of making a priority of resource efficiency in their operations, the venture group is forbidden from investing in companies that could become vendors to their facilities.  

This is a major strategic disconnect -- and in my opinion, a mistake. The most direct way to add to earnings per share is to reduce the costs necessary to create the same dollar of revenue. But some of the very same large corporations now investing into somewhat risky cleantech venture capital deals aren't effectively adopting many of the readily available and proven technologies that could save their operations millions in costs. You, Gentle Reader, are a shareholder in some of these companies, no doubt, so how do you feel about that trade-off?

If corporate leaders are indeed serious about driving future returns through investments in cleantech, they need to make sure that's an urgent priority for their Ops managers as well. Cost savings through adoption of new efficiency technologies should be a priority at every large firm.  

If it takes your plant managers nine months to agree to purchase a system that has a six-month ROI, you're doing it wrong.