Friday, September 28, 2012

A Lean Greentech Approach

I am a greentech enthusiast and I have been closely following the greentech VC investment landscape. The VCs like Kleiner Perkins who have had a large greentech portfolio including companies such as Bloom Energy are scaling down on greentech investment. Their current investment is not likely to get any returns close to what a VC would expect. The fundamental challenge with such greentech (excluding software) investment is that they are open ended capital-intensive; you just don't know home much time it would take to build the technology/product, how much it would cost, and how much you would be able to sell it for. The market fluctuations make things even worse. This is not only true in the case of start-ups but also true for the large companies; Applied Materials' grand plan to revolutionize thin-film solar business ended up in a bust.  

There's a different way to approach this monumental challenge.

Just look at how open source has evolved. It started out as non-commercial academia projects where a few individuals challenged the way the existing systems behaved and created new systems. These open source projects found corporate sponsors who embraced them and helped them find a permanent home. This also resulted in a vibrant ecosystem around it to extend those projects. A few entrepreneurs looked at these open source projects and built companies to commercialize them with the help of VC funding. Time after time, this business model has worked. Technologists are great at building technology, companies are great at throwing money at people, entrepreneurs are great at extending and combining existing technology to create new products, and VCs are great at funding those companies to help entrepreneurs build businesses. What VCs are not good at is doling out very large sum of money to bet on technology that doesn't yet exist.

If we need to make it work, we need a three-way relationship. People in academia should work on capital-intensive greentech technology projects that are funded by corporations through traditional grants. These projects should become available in public domain with an open source like license or even a commercial license. The entrepreneurs can license these technology, open source or not, and raise venture money to build a profitable business. The companies that are constantly contributing their greentech initiatives to public domain should continue to do so. Facebook's Open Compute project is gaining traction in its second year and Google continues to share their green data center design.

The important aspect is to differentiate technology from a product. The VCs are not that good at investing into (non-software) technology but are certainly good at investing into products. For many greentech companies, technology is a key piece such as a battery, a specific kind of a solar film, a fuel cell etc. Commercializing this technology is a completely different story. This requires setting up key partnerships such as eBay's new data center using Bloombox and Israeli government committing to a nationwide all-electric car infrastructure with Better Place.

Many large companies have set up their incubators or "labs" to find something that is fundamentally disruptive that could help their business. Later, there have been a very few success stories of these incubators or labs because the start-up world is way more efficient to do what big companies want to do. These labs are also torn between technology and products. My suggestion to them would be to go back to what they were good at - hiring great scientists from academia and working with academia on the next-generation technology to create a business model by either using that technology in your products or to license it to others who want to build business. This shifts the investment from a few VCs to a relatively large number of corporations.

What we really need is a lean greentech approach.

Photo Courtesy: Kah Wai Lin

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