Friday, October 16, 2009

Human Capital, Not Venture Capital, the Biggest Cleantech Challenge

Building great businesses typically requires three key ingredients:   phenomenal people, compelling technology and investment capital.  Cleantech companies are no exception.   While cleantech venture capital investments have expanded rapidly, averaging an annual growth rate of 65% over the past five years and now representing over 15% of all venture investments, the compelling technologies are mostly early in their development cycles and the human eco-system for early stage cleantech companies is in its infancy.  There is much buzz about the venture capital and government funding that is being invested in cleantech companies, but the immaturity of the cleantech entrepreneurial ecosystem is overlooked as a significant challenge in accelerating the growth of successful cleantech companies.


In the more traditional areas of VC investment such as software/internet, life sciences, and semi-conductors there are a relatively large number of successful entrepreneurs who have had exit events that made them wealthy.  These individuals are the most likely source of smart early angel financing for other start-ups in the same sector.  I emphasize “smart” because angel investors who invest in companies within industries that they know well not only make wiser investments but also can add real value to those businesses.  And they tend to be more prolific investors within those industries for just that reason.  The reality is that the list of successful cleantech entrepreneurs, where success is defined by a healthy exit event, is very short. 


Early stage cleantech companies struggle much more than companies in traditional areas of venture capital to find wise angel investors, or advisors and executives with both industry and entrepreneurial experience.  While crossover entrepreneurs – those with success in a different sector who desire to get into cleantech – can be helpful and bring valuable wisdom, nothing can substitute for the valuable knowledge and experience gained by building a company within the same sector.  Efforts like the Cleantech Open , some of the emerging cleantech incubators (like CleanLaunch, Austin’s Cleantech incubator and San Francisco’s incubator) and cleantech network groups (like Colorado Greentech Group, the Renewable Energy Business Network and the CleanTX Foundation) can assist in the tough challenge of bringing the right mix of entrepreneurial, business and industry expertise together for an early stage cleantech company.  But, in the end, only time will fully cure this problem by generating experienced and successful entrepreneurs who can breed the second generation of cleantech companies.  In the mean time, the challenges of growing and investing in early stage cleantech companies are as great as they will ever be.  Fortunately, I believe, the rewards will be equally great.

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