SPOKANE, Wash. – The Pacific Northwest’s entrepreneurial spirit is crossing over into the clean technology industry – that’s everything from biofuels to electric vehicles to the smart grid. Regional clean technology experts, entrepreneurs and investors recently participated in a discussion in Spokane, Wash., to talk about the state of the clean technology industry and where it’s headed. Byron McCann is a clean technology investor and works with “angel” investment groups in the Pacific Northwest. These groups help provide start-up money for entrepreneurs.
McCann: Yeah, I think we get through this economy, and, I think, we have a fantastic future.
EarthFix: What are some of the key points that are needed to grow the industry?
McCann: Right now, I think, one of the key points is access to capital. The last couple of years investors have been more cautious, but that’s picking up again, and the venture capital is accelerating. And the there’s a very dynamic angel community. You have:
Getting these early-stage companies financed is really important. The types of companies getting financed now, in the last couple years has shifted to less capital intensive companies. People need to be able to do more with less capital as we get through the current economic situation.
EarthFix: And how can you do more with less?
McCann: Try to get to some milestones earlier than you would otherwise — get customers involved earlier, so you get indications of interest before you spend a lot of money. And then find business models that are more capital efficient. Outsource certain components of the business model to partners, so you don’t have to come up with all the capital to support those sides of the business.
(Michael Rosenfeld, Clean Tech Sector Lead at UK Trade & Investment, speaks about innovation in the West Coast energy market. Video courtesy of NW Cleantech.)
EarthFix: How do some of these new start-up companies help with growing the economy?
McCann: Number one: They raise capital, and they employ people to grow the company. A company may create some renewable energy product. They employ people to develop that product, but there’s also employing people that will install it and support it and maintain it… And hopefully export the products to the rest of the world.
The clean tech industry really is a global industry. There’s a lot more agressive uptake in clean technology solutions in other countries, I find, than in the U.S. So, you have countries with really serious energy-demand issues, like China. They’re putting the pedal to the metal on all sorts of solutions, so it’s a great market entry point to a lot of companies that could be here in the Northwest.
EarthFix: Can we compete with some of those other countries that are a little bit ahead of us?
McCann: We still don’t have an energy policy, a clear energy policy. Whereas, in the rest of the world, the energy policies are much clearer, much more stable. Here we are in an election cycle. Our energy policy is being used as a pawn. So in the U.S., we’re kind of frozen, in a way, policy-wise on the energy front.
There’s a lot of question: Should it be a pure market? Well, energy is not a pure market. Energy is so subsidized the way it is now. Seriously, I would think some U.S. companies might want to release their products first in other markets [that] have better policies: feed-in tariffs, that sort of thing, mandates for renewable energy and clean technologies — and not just energy, but clean water and other environmental solutions.
And I worry about, in China, the state puts billions of dollars behind this, so I think entrepreneurs here in the U.S. have to be extremely nimble, extremely capital-efficient and be hyper-innovation focused. There’s a lot of great talent around the world. We don’t have a monopoly on it, and there are young innovators all over the globe. Everybody sees the energy and climate issues and environmental issues are not going away.
So, my advice to entrepreneurs is just be really nimble, try to understand these various markets, and just move quickly.
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