Monday, May 05, 2008

Technology Innovation Sparks Clean tech… But Not Overnight

I had the great opportunity to attend the inspiring Mass High Tech Clean Tech Forum last Thursday, May 1. The event was part of the quarterly MHT Forum series that is meant to “highlight growing sectors within New England’s innovation ecosystem by bringing together top tech professionals for lively and insightful discussion and networking.” And that it did!

MHT Editor Doug Banks kicked off the event by giving some remarkable statistics about Clean-tech innovation in Massachusetts. Since last year, clean-tech companies in the state have doubled and in terms of total amount spent, Massachusetts ranked #2 in the nation for clean-tech investment. Further underscoring that point, approximately 87% of VC funding last year in the state was targeted to clean-tech companies.

The event continued as Banks introduced panel moderator Eric Raciti, Partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner L.L.P, as well as the following panelists:

Bruce Anderson, CEO of Wilson TurboPower, Inc.
Abigail A. Barrow, Ph.D., Director, Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center
Robert M. Day, Principal, @Ventures
David Marcus, CEO & Director, General Compression

The first question for discussion was regarding sustainability vs. clean tech – are we economically sustainable or is sustainability just a bubble? Marcus chimed in saying that sustainability is not a bubble, that clean tech is more than just being energy efficient, that it is a huge space with several different categories of energy companies. He noted that its recent explosion in the marketplace is due to wanting to save the world and unfortunately, making money. Anderson noted that the bottom line is that we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 90%.

Raciti then asked the panelists if universities are at the front end of innovation, to which Barrow chimed in saying, absolutely. SunEthanol – a bio-fuels company that is utilizing biomass such as microorganisms to make ethanol just received $2.5 million in investment grants. The company was founded by the discovery of a UMass Amherst microbiologist and just one example of innovation from our local universities. Other local universities such as UMass Dartmouth, Tufts, Boston College and MIT have also produced clean-tech companies.

One of the most discussed questions was perhaps this one: “What is the proper role of the government and clean tech? Day noted that the space is not an easy one and that it takes a long time to gestate. He said there are two key parts to succeeding: 1. be sure the innovation will be accepted into the marketplace and 2. be sure you have the money to ramp up with the end goal of course being to commercialize the technology. Anderson noted that the atmosphere is a shared resource that we all need to start taking care of or we’ll self-destruct. He noted that the government needs to be more aggressive and that taxing carbon could be one solution to the carbon problem. He also said that the government has a huge role to play as far as bridging the technology out of the labs into the mainstream market. As a whole, it’s societies shared responsibility to reduce the amount of carbon in the environment, he said. Marcus noted that figuring out what carbon will cost us in the long run requires taking into account the national disasters and other catastrophes that will occur due to our actions. That’s a pretty powerful thought considering it was estimated that Hurricane Katrina alone cost the U.S. a whopping $110 billion dollars.

Regarding what mistakes have been made in cleant ech to this point, Anderson said changing the infrastructure is and will continue to be difficult. A sad example, he noted, is that the energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) have been around since the 1980s and we’re just now using them. The fact is, if every household in the U.S. replaced one light bulb with a CFL, it would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road!

As far as the future of clean tech, all the panelists agree that the efficiency of energy is a key driver to the success of carbon reduction, that as a society we need to use what resources we have and use them better. Barrow summed up the panel session with good advice for us all, “As a whole, we need to adopt the mindset to create and embrace change.”

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