Volha was practically shaking, she was so excited to tell me about the undergraduate Capstone project she and her fellow UW chemical engineers had taken to the final round of the Environmental Innovation Challenge (EIC) at Seattle Center yesterday. When her team, PolyDrop, won the $10,000 grand prize I could recognize her voice among the happy screams from the back of the room.
PolyDrop manufactures additives that makes regular coatings like paint conductive, opening up, as the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship described when announcing the winners, “a world of opportunity for carbon fiber composites in transportation industries.” A funny thing happens on the way to using light-weight carbon fiber materials for cars and plane to reduce fuel consumption and decrease carbon dioxide emissions: those carbon fiber composites accumulate a static charge that will interfere with a vehicle’s sensitive electronics. PolyDrop can fix that.
I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting any members of the PolyDrop team before the EIC, but I knew nearly half of the second place team from last Fall’s Environmental Innovation Practicum, which I teach at UW. That team, Pure Blue Technologies, is developing a safer, smaller, more cost-effective water disinfection technology for treating the average of seven barrels of water that comes from extracting one barrel of oil. Called “produced water,” it has to be disinfected to meet EPA regulations, even if it is just going to be disposed. In the U.S. alone, we’re talking about 353 billion gallons of highly contaminated produced water.
I stopped to congratulate another team from this year’s class, Upcycled, developer of a handy little bio-briquette maker initially targeting markets in India, and one from last year, EcoMembrane, developing a better technology EcoMembrane is developing a new technology for preventing scaling and fouling of desalination and wastewater treatment membranes using ultrasound. Founder Jaffer Alali told me getting Pacific Northwesterners to grasp the need for desalination is a bit trickier than it was in Jordan where he was a teaching assistant recently. Yet desalination is news here in the U.S. too. We talked about San Diego’s recent announcement for a big plant. I was so proud of him and his tenacity in continuing to develop his technology and gain industry support for that work. Both these teams won $2,500 Honorable Mention prizes along with Sunscroll from Western Washington for its solar-charged LED light and USB charging station. You can read more about all of the teams at UW’s Foster Unplugged Blog: $22,500 Awarded to Environmental/Cleantech Innovators. Seattle’s KING5 TV also covered the competition on its Evening Magazine program, which is wonderful!
As I made a last round before heading home, I talked with another student from this Fall’s Practicum, a brilliant electrical engineering student who has come so very far, far since Dec. in identifying a real potential market and articulating a viable value proposition for that sector. After working so hard and pitching his heart out all afternoon, he struggled to contain his disappointment to be walking away without a prize. I resisted the enormous temptation to give him a consoling hug. But the team intends to keep developing their technology and are entering the UW Business Plan Competition, one with an even bigger purse than the EIC offers.
These are the faces of environmental innovation in this region — young, passionate, committed and (most importantly in my mind) hopeful. They see possibilities for making a difference all around them. What’s so cool to me is being able to see so many possibilities in them. I can’t wait to see where they take it from here!
One in four Americans with a 2-car garage can’t park their car in that garage.
The average American has $7,000 worth of unused stuff in their homes.
Wow! Those are some of the numbers Nick Huzar, CEO and Founder of OfferUp, shared with my Entrepreneurial Marketing undergrads at the University of Washington Tues. They set the stage to explain the big problem OfferUp is set to solve: how to make selling all that stuff we have and don’t need or want as easy as taking a smartphone picture.
Every quarter, I ask an entrepreneur to come to the first day of class and tell their story. For me, the purpose is three-fold: 1) entrepreneurship majors get a great opportunity to hear from and question somebody doing exactly what they want to do; 2) marketing majors get their brains in the “few resources” space of entrepreneurs really fast; and 3) it makes good use of a class day for which the students have done no reading or preparation!
Nick was a fantastic first day speaker. He couldn’t have done a better job of setting up the course material if he’d been working from a script instead of just sharing what he wanted to share with the packed classroom. For instance, on selecting the target market and having a single focus early on:
“I’m not the target market. I needed to stop developing for me and just shut up and listen to moms.” Why moms? They buy and sell a lot of stuff. Kids grow fast. They’re the highest adopters of smartphones. They weren’t at all happy with available options. They love OfferUp. Nick said half of his downloads are organic. Word of mouth at its finest.
“Don’t try to please everyone right away. That never works.”
And then there were the references to guerrilla techniques, like t-shirts. Pointing to the shirt he was wearing, with OfferUp’s logo and tagline, Nick said: “I wear t-shirts to every networking event I attend. I have one that says ‘Developers wanted’ in three languages. It helped me find one of the guys who’s helping build the company. They cost like $25.” You can’t beat that for cost-effective marketing.
Rich Tong and John Zagula of Ignition Partners offered that advice when they wrote The Marketing Playbook. I found myself channeling them the last couple weeks as I’ve been having a fabulous time mentoring Fledgings, companies participating in the current 10-week program at Fledge, an incubator for socially conscious companies (read TriplePundit’s article about the program).
There’s so much to scope out when you’re in the early stages of creating a company. One thing you can’t take your eye off is this: who will pay you? In business-to-business settings, the individual with purchasing authority may not be the individual who wants your product or service. The ramifications for your business plan, your sales plan, your communications plan and your messaging are enormous.
In class, I love to use Google as an example. Everybody knows how Google makes most of its money. And it doesn’t take long before the entire group understands that if huge numbers of people switched search engines, that Google’s advertising revenue will vaporize. Yet it’s tougher for them to look at a young website that intends to make money off advertising and realize advertisers aren’t the primary audience; that it’s all about eyeballs. The true target customer is the consumer who’ll use the site. Without them, there’s no one to whom to advertise and therefore no revenue.
It’s not only with the media model, where readers/viewers/listeners use the product for cheap or free and true revenue comes from ads, that it can get confusing. Selling into large companies or academic institutions can put a startup in the same position. When you talk to prospective users, make sure you understand their role in the purchasing decision, too. Don’t just get product feedback.
It’s fantastic that the people who need your product are saying they love it. Just make sure the people who’d pay for it will love it, too.
Quick: why did Charles Lindbergh fly the Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927?
Answer: to win a $25,000 prize offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.
Personally, I’d forgotten the why, only the accomplishment. But I was reminded by a terrific Conservation Magazine story from June about the prize pool for environmental innovation challenges increasing 12 fold over the past 10 years, but wondering if crowd-sourcing solutions paid off for the environment as well as the winners.
The article by Marc Gunther states that history tells us prizes can deliver big social benefits. “Before the growth of research universities and global corporations with R&D labs, prizes were the pathway to solving many scientific problems, according to Karim Lakhani, a faculty member at Harvard Business School who studies open innovation. The Longitude Prize, established in 1714 by the British government, inspired clockmaker John Harrison to develop the marine chronometer, enabling ships to know their locations at sea.”
He goes on to write: “Once the buzz dies down, can prizes generate solutions that scale up to deliver lasting environmental change? Put another way, do they pay off for the world as well as for the winners?”
Which is a perfectly fair question.
The article struck a chord since the Environmental Innovation Practicum course I teach at the University of Washington was originally invented to help student teams prepare to compete in UW’s then brand new regional Environmental Innovation Challenge. But when I came across a reference in the text I’m using for the course this year, The Way Out: Kick-Starting Capitalism to Save Our Economic Ass, it came back to the forefront.
In The Way Out, authors L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen write about Andrew Smith, the entrepreneurial founder and CEO of ATDynamics, who took the company from winning a business school competition to a company whose website says its sold more than 10,000 of its trailer tails, designed to help semi trucks drastically improve fuel efficiency. Not surprisingly, huge and heavy rectangular boxes aren’t all that aerodynamic when pulled down the interstate at 60+ mph. The company reports delivering more than a 6% increase in fuel efficiency. That might not sound like that much but when you consider the typical semis drives an average of 125,000 miles a year at a horrific 6 mpg, every little bit saved can quickly add up to a lot of unneeded diesel fuel.
Tomorrow, my students at UW will pitch their ideas for their mid-term grade. Next Tues., Renuka Prabhakar, co-founder of Envitrum, which makes glass construction bricks from recycled bottles, will swing by to talk to the class about how to get people interested in your idea. The 2010 UW Environmental Innovation Challenge winner is busy doing exactly that, setting up production tests with partners.
You may not know this, but not all of the glass bottles you drop off for recycling can be reused with traditional methods of recycling glass. Green, brown, and other colored glass is often considered a contaminant at waste plants. So there’s little doubt Envitrum’s process could have an effect on the waste stream on that account alone.
Has an innovation challenge yet uncovered the silver bullet we all seek to scrub carbon from earth’s atmosphere? No. But that doesn’t mean they’re not making a difference for the planet while creating businesses for we humans.
David Allen, EVP of McKinstry, was at UW yesterday talking to my Environmental Innovation Practicum class about many things including the tremendous energy savings and consequent carbon reductions available from retrofitting old buildings and then reprogramming US to run them efficiently. Behavior, apparently, accounts for 9-11% of energy use.
Toward the end of his talk, while discussing how much we waste in this country and how we don’t pay the true cost of anything because of fossil fuel subsidies among other things, he got on a very intentional tangent on what needs to happen to fix the economic and environmental mess we’ve found ourselves in and he made a startling (to me, at least) pronouncement: That America isn’t dealing with a climate crisis or a fiscal crisis or a housing crisis or any of the current talking points. What we’re really facing is a crisis of integrity.
“I think integrity is America’s biggest problem,” Allen said. “The whole country is gaming the system.”
Why do some people thinks it’s fine to move money offshore so they don’t have to pay taxes on it? Why is it OK to bilk people you know out of their retirement account? Why do college students think it’ OK to cheat to get grades they don’t deserve or into programs they shouldn’t really get in to? Why do people buy blow-up dolls and hope to not get caught driving solo in the HOV lane? Or not pick up after their dogs despite scoop laws (and common courtesy!!)?
Because “we’re in a society where everyone’s cheating,” said Allen. And at least in their minds if not in their circles, it’s not a bad thing.
Although I hadn’t heard it before, the idea itself isn’t new. A quick Google search turned up a Boston Globe story on this very subject from May 2010. And apparently it isn’t just us. The British newspaper The Telegraph ran a piece in Jan. titled “Rise in dishonesty signals looming integrity crisis in Britain.”
But the concept was new to me. Allen was engaging in one of my favorite things — a root cause analysis. But in this case, I wasn’t enjoying seeing through all the distractions to get to that root. Instead, this revelation shook me up.
Because I think he’s right. America has a crisis of integrity.
How the hell do we fix that?
Could the timing be any better?
Tomorrow is the first class of UW’s Environmental Innovation Practicum course, and today the New York Times ran two articles on the enormous power usage of data centers and the pollution coming from the diesel generators that back them up.
The major story, Power, Pollution and the Internet, provides an idea of how much power it takes to support all our photo and email storage and search histories and everything else in the cloud and reveals just how much power is wasted making sure the data farms have enough capacity to more than handle sudden increases in demand. The second addresses some of the challenges around Microsoft’s data farm near Quincy, Wash.
Here is an example of a sector desperate for innovation. And I am hopeful some of our UW students (along with energy innovators everywhere!) will turn their attention to it and begin developing great solutions.
I love teaching the Practicum because it’s a mash-up type of course, open to business school students, engineering students, College of the Environment students — everyone from undergrads to Ph.D. candidates. We cover everything from alternative fuels and remaking manufacturing to the grid and electric vehicles to sustainable agriculture and carbon trading. And the entire focus is on sparking their creativity to solve some of our most pressing environmental issues. Innovators wanted!
It’s a speaker series more than anyting else, and we bring in tremendous speakers. And here’s the really good news! The speakers are open to the public. Savery Hall room 260 starting roughly at 4:20 p.m. most Tuesdays until the end of Nov. I’ll post a sign on the room door letting you know when you can join us.
On Oct. 2nd, MicroEnergy Credits CTO James Dailey will make the business case for climate protection and discuss being an entrepreneur in this space.
Oct. 9th, Peter Christensen will join us from Pacific Northwest National Labs to talk about the grid and work being done to revamp how we manage and distribute power in the U.S.
Oct. 16th McKinstry EVP David Allen will talk about how buildings present an immense opportunity to reduce energy consumption and make businesses more profitable. (The image in this post is from McKinstry’s very cool Innovation Center lobby.)
Author James Billmaier and General Biodiesel’s Hoby Douglass to present back-to-back on Oct. 23rd to talk about better ways to fuel transportation.
Washington State University professor Dr. Steven Jones will join us Nov. 13th — couple weeks break there — to talk about sustainable agriculture in “Being Grown Out of Place.”
Funding cleantech innovation is the subject on Nov. 20th when Lars Johansson of Northwest Energy Angels and Kirk Van Alstyne of Evolution Capital Advisors come to visit.
And finally “Return on Sustainability” Author and Consultant Kevin Wilheim will join us Nov. 27th to close out the speaker series.
But the class also an idea competition because the students have to work in teams to create business concepts and they pitch them at midterms and finals. It’s a simple, 2-credit pass/fail class but oh, so much fun!
Can’t wait to meet this year’s crew.
My mother-in-law phoned Tuesday. It was sunny and headed for about 60 degrees in Iowa. “It’s really weird. But I like it!”
Thursday’s Environmental blog from The Guardian opened with this paragraph:
2012 has begun where 2011 left off with weird weather in Europe and the Americas, Arctic ice at almost its lowest extent ever recorded in midwinter, disastrous droughts and searing heat in Africa and Latin America, and one of the world’s biggest insurance companies warning that climate change will increase damages.
Friday’s New York Times featured photos of Jan. ’11′s snow-covered Central Park and this month’s grassy green lawn. And then there’s the 18 feet of snow in Alaska. There’s a reason some call global warming “global weirding.” Who knows what we’re in for?
Last quarter at the University of Washington, I taught the Environmental Innovation Practicum for the first time. A series of fantastic speakers came in to talk to the class including Michael Potts, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI); David Allen, executive VP of McKinstry; and James Billmaier, author of “JOLT!: The Impending Dominance Of The Electric Car And Why America Must Take Charge” (a terrific book! I highly recommend it).
We used “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era,” a brand new book from RMI Co-founder, Chairman and Chief scientist Amory Lovins, as our course text. It was a little tricky since it was only available in ebook format when we started the quarter. Format aside (it wasn’t the most elegant electronic rendering), I like it a lot.
Continuing my quest to educate me on climate change and global warming, I also read “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth” by journalist Mark Hertsgaard and “But Will the Planet Notice?” By Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Yes, it was all enough to make my head spin. But the different approaches to the problem we’re facing were also simultaneously eye-opening, depressing and inspiring.
Hertsgaard exposes the reality that global warming is arriving about 100 years sooner than published predictions. He calls his young daughter’s generation “Generation Hot” because they’ll be the ones who really get to deal with the aftermath of our current lifestyles, particularly if we, as a global community, continue to do nothing to mitigate the problem. Hertsgaard argues we have to get off the stick on mitigation (reducing emissions) but we also have to get quickly on board with adaptation (dealing with the inevitable sea level rises and regional climate changes), because even if we suddenly did all the right things today (as if that’s possible!), there’s already too much CO2 in the atmosphere to manage an about-face. We have to adapt to changes we can’t avoid.
Hertsgaard also taught me the difference between global warming and climate change, which I’d used interchangeably, like everyone else. Global warming, he writes, is the man-made rise in temperatures caused by excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change refers to the effects these higher temperatures have on the earth’s natural systems and the impacts that can result. So global warming is what we’ve done to the atmosphere. Climate change is what global warming is doing and will do to the earth.
Wagner’s book takes a different tact. He states that personal actions – while noble and cumulative if we all do them – are individually irrelevant to the global climate. The planet won’t notice. He believes only smarter economics will be able to mitigate climate change. He expresses hope because, he writes, smarter economics saved us before – from acid rain. “The solution is clear,” he states, “put the right incentives in place.” He advocates cap-and-trade as a market. He writes:
As much as this issue has been politicized, this is not about right versus left, Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus conservationists, or markets versus the environment. This is about liberating markets and consequently turning each and every one of us into a force for good; it’s about making sure that increasing GDP, gross domestic product, does not decrease collective well-being.
It’s about taking personal responsibility for costs we now socialize and impose in society and the planet as a whole. Our choices are already being influenced by forces much larger than ourselves. They always have been and will be. The question is whether the nudge we submit to is guiding us where we want to go, preserving life and the rotation of the planet as we know it.
“Reinventing Fire” is another animal all together, which is why I chose it for class. While Lovins acknowledges the hurdles to reinventing how we power everything from buildings to buses and power plants to planes, “Reinventing Fire” is about hope, about using what’s already available and working, and about how businesses can make a lot of money in a clean fuel world. That’s not an argument you often hear for ditching fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, I saw countless stories and blog posts about the challenges of getting people to accept, care about and act on global warming. I get the frustration – and the confusion.
In marketing, we talk about “FUD” – fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s called the FUD factor. You can read quite a bit about it on Wikipedia, if you’re interested. Sometimes marketers battle it; sometimes marketers create it on purpose. Proponents for change, including both environmental groups and advocates for new technologies like electric vehicles, wind and solar power, smart grid, composites and myriad other exciting new developments, not only battle the complexities of talking about some of these innovations and issues, but FUD marketing budgets of entrenched industries whose very survival rests with a global majority making no changes in how they do anything.
I’ve been toying with a number of posts on this, so expect you’ll see me write more about it later. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your experiences with FUD and the environment!
Melissa Winters from the EPA came to UW Tuesday to talk to my Environmental Innovation Practicum class about Life Cycle Assessment, also known as Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). She talked about an assessment Proctor and Gamble did its Tide brand in which they discovered the greatest environmental impact happened when the product was used in the home. Hot water washing. So they reformulated Tide to create a cold water only detergent.
Melissa also mentioned an ebook analysis I’ve written about before. I’d discovered the analysis through Conservation Magazine, a favorite of mine, but it originated in a New York Times op-ed piece written by the folks who did the analysis, Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris, both well known names and leaders in LCA work. Norris founded the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, which is a tremendous resource (check out this LCA on algae biodiesel as an example).
When I wrote about the e-reader analysis in July, I noted that you needed to read 40-50 books a year to make an e-reader the better choice over paper books, based on the report in Conservation Magazine. Melissa commented that if we took greenhouse gas emissions into account, it was actually 100 books. If we looked at human impact, it was somewhere in between those two numbers. My iPad is a lot more than an e-reader to me, but I still glanced at it guiltily.
Since Melissa works with the building industry, the whole conversation reminded me of a TEDTalk I really enjoyed a while back, so I want hunting. It’s Catherine Mohr on building green and I think it’s great! It playfully but powerfully demonstrates that obvious answers for what’s the “greenest” choice is often very wrong. Or as she puts it: “Sometimes the things you least expect … have a bigger impact than any of those things you’re trying to optimize.”
The next morning, I spotted a story from dexigner.com on how the Cascadia Green Building Council had commissioned an LCA study on the “Environmental Impacts of Wastewater Treatment Strategies” and had just released the report. It’s a good read for anyone connected to the building industry or anyone who just wants to get a handle on what a life cycle analysis can uncover.
From a marketing perspective, a life cycle analysis does two things: 1) it’s an insurance policy that you know the up and downsides of your product before a competitor figures them out and uses the latter against you, and 2) assuming you do well in the analysis, it’s a grabbag of positive messages you can take to the market. From a business plan perspective, it’s an insurance policy to demonstrate you know the risk associated with your business and a grabbag of positive messages to take to investors, employees and business partners.
The trick for cleantech and other green entrepreneurs is the cost. Conducting LCA is pricey. For startups, a true LCA may be out of reach. But you can still do a significant amount of digging for data, look for comparables in your industry or adjacent ones, and make informed decisions. You can get a primer on life cycle assessment on the EPA’s website and well as a list of resources to serve as a starting point for research life cycle assessment on any product or service category.
Get as smart as you can about the potential environmental impact of your products or services. It’s smart business.
Rocky Mountain Institute’s CEO, Michael Potts, will be at UW in Seattle Oct. 11th for the Environmental Innovation Speaker Series to talk about the concepts in a brand new book by RMI’s Chairman and Chief Scientist Amory Lovins, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era, and the opportunities these create for entrepreneurs, scientists and inventors. The speaker series is part of UW’s Environmental Innovation Practicum course, which helps teams prepare for the regional Environmental Innovation Challenge UW organizes in the spring.
“Rocky Mountain Institute has been, and remains to be the seminal thought leader in the field of energy efficiency,” says David Allen, EVP of Seattle’s McKinstry. Asked to preview the chapter on Buildings before the book went to the publisher, Allen also says, ”Reinventing Fire successfully makes the case that working together conservationists, policy makers and the business community can solve the big problems surrounding energy, while creating jobs and economic opportunity.” You can read my interview with David on his talk at UW, which will be Nov. 1st, in this earlier post.
RMI created an infographic depicting the big picture — literally — of Reinventing Fire. At right, I inserted a snapshot of the part of the graphic that paints the picture of where we can be in 2050 if we chose to reinvent fire.
I had a chance to interview Michael and get his perspective on opportunities for entrepreneurial innovation and to get a flavor for his upcoming talk at UW. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: Among the many opportunities for innovation outlined in Reinventing Fire, where do you see the greatest potential for entrepreneurs versus established organizations?
Michael: Unlike the high-tech boom which introduced many entirely new services, the shift to an economy based on efficiency and renewables will in large part replace products and services that we already enjoy today regarding mobility, comfort, manufacturing, and convenience. In fact, many people understandably will consider it a great achievement if we can just maintain what we have (and hopeful distribute services also to less privileged citizens) when our inevitable energy transition has completed.
Accordingly, you can expect that some core products and services will likely flow through the big, established organizations that already access capital and scaling capabilities necessary to drive infrastructure change. Automobiles and electricity, for example, are highly regulated, also relatively concentrated, and require huge investments to drive change.
For example, some analysts believe that electric cars will scale quickly, with much more speed than current “conventional wisdom” project. If this happens, it will likely be big companies that crank them out in volume–although those companies may well be from countries other than the US (for example, the Chinese government has invested heavily in electric and hybrid vehicle development).
To take this automobile example further, such a shift to electric cars would dramatically and quickly transform the massive auto “after-market.” New businesses will emerge in a different eco-system creating many products and services such as battery swapping, different tires and thermal comfort strategies, charging methods, and innovations we can’t possibly predict. This vibrant side of the industry will be like the “wild west,” with many of the spoils going to the fastest and most creative innovators.
You can expect big changes in the building and manufacturing industries, especially as electricity prices increase nationwide due to long-delayed infrastructure renewal. These vital sectors are less concentrated than transportation and electricity in ownership and approach, so you can expect faster innovation (arguably already happening) and more room for energized entrepreneurs.
Q: Are there new skills or new ways of thinking that these entrepreneurs and inventors will need compared to those their predecessors needed?
Michael: Our energy transmission and application systems are wildly inefficient. As we built out the US infrastructure, energy was so cheap–nearly free–that it was uneconomical to invest time and effort designing cars and buildings and power-lines in a way that avoids waste.
This dynamic is changing quickly, and the science of efficiency offers a news set of skills and perspectives essential for the new energy era. Shameless plug: these principles are at the core of RMI’s latest book: Reinventing Fire.
Q: If you could give all of UW one “assignment” to help reinvent fire, what would it be?
Michael: Push efficiency first. I can’t tell you how many projects we see where, for example, well-meaning decision-makers bolt solar panels on top of a leaky building. Wasting electricity from the sun isn’t any better than wasting electricity derived from coal–it’s all waste. Help people understand that our first task is to make a system efficient. “First you cool it, then you fuel it.”
Come join us at UW for the Environmental Innovation Speaker Series. See what ideas they can spark in you!
When Prometheus Energy Co-founder and CEO announced a $10 million investment from Shell Technology Ventures in 2009, it was a big deal, meriting multiple stories in area media such as this Xconomy article.
On Tues., Oct. 4th, Kirt will kick off the public Environmental Innovation Speaker Series at UW’s Seattle campus at 4:30pm in Mary Gates Hall #389. The Series is part of the UW’s Environmental Innovation Practicum course, designed to help teams prepare to compete in UW’s regional Environmental Innovation Challenge in March and encourage business solutions to our most pressing environmental challenges.
In this interview, Kirt previews some of the themes he’ll be discussing before opening the floor for the Q&A session. That’s Kirt on the left with a colleague in Poland from the company’s facilities converting coal-mine methane to liquid natural gas.
Q: Among all the amazing parts about creating Prometheus Energy, there is one or two things that were the most satisfying and rewarding for you as the entrepreneur?
Kirt: Two things come immediately to mind:
People. By far the most satisfying part of creating Prometheus Energy was the opportunity to work with such talented, bright and dedicated people who made such significant contributions to the effort. Building a company that provides quality jobs for good people is rewarding in its own right, but Prometheus became far more than just a job to me and to them. The belief that we were part of something special, that we could make a difference for good in the world, and that what we were doing actually made economic sense, created passion and drive that not only made it fun, but also frankly, enabled us to survive the dark days. I find special satisfaction in watching some of the young people we hired grow and develop, and become true experts in the space. Several of them now hold key managerial positions within the company. Others have moved on to play key roles elsewhere. Regardless, I’m extraordinarily proud of them.
Projects. We envisioned, then developed, several first-of-kind energy projects in the US and Poland. Seeing those projects come on-line, often after overcoming significant hurdles along the way, is tremendously satisfying. More importantly, those projects enabled us to deliver energy to our customers that is cleaner, cost significantly less, and reduced their emissions profile dramatically. That doing so helped reduce our reliance on imported oil also makes one feel good about the effort.
Q: You’re obviously a big believer in energy innovation. We’ve talked about a number of areas where significant dollars will be necessary to bring innovations to market and make them stick. Are there facets of it where the solo entrepreneur or inventor or small teams could make an important contribution in this decade?
Kirt: While it is true that energy typically is a very expensive game in which to play, and, at least traditionally, has been dominated by the big multi-national players, there are facets of the sector that enable small teams to play effectively. (Note that I intentionally left out “solo entrepreneurs.” While there are certainly exceptions, in general, it is very difficult to do this alone). I’ll touch on three of those facets, although there are likely more.
First, things are moving quickly in the energy sector. Small teams are more nimble and adaptive, enabling them to move more quickly as new opportunities present themselves. The big boys in the space simply have a hard time turning the ship once it has started on a particular course.
Second, small teams are not constrained by the extensive policies and procedures that have become part of the landscape in large multi-national corporations and big national labs. Such policies and procedures not only add significant levels of cost to any project or effort, but also introduce multiple levels to the decision-making process. As a result, it’s very difficult for most of the bigger players to look at smaller technologies and opportunities because of the heavy cost burden that has to be assessed to projects. Moreover, each level in the decision making process is another place at which those pushing a project or idea can hear a “no.”
Third, small teams are better able to create, and actually thrive, in a culture that prizes and rewards innovative thinking. Again, while there are exceptions to the rule, innovative “outside-of-the-box thinking” is often not as highly valued in bigger organizations as they might otherwise profess. That the major multi-national energy companies have created their own internal venture funds to invest in small teams and companies lends additional credence to that claim.
Q: Is there a single piece of advice you’d offer to cleantech or other green entrepreneurs when it comes to finding or understanding the connection between their innovation and public policy?
Kirt: Yes. Public policy matters, as it can engender business and opportunity, but in my view, it serves best as a backdrop, or just one of the factors to consider when one embarks on a new business. Basing a business entirely on a government sponsored program such as a subsidy or tax credit that reflects public policy at the time is a risky proposition. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with companies who bet the farm on a particular piece of public policy only to see it change suddenly, sometimes without much warning, or even disappear completely. To put it bluntly, Uncle Sam can be a very fickle business partner.