30 November 2011

A Tale of Two Cleantech Companies: My Presentation from IMPACT 2011

Today I presented "A Tale of Two Cleantech Companies: A case study of what leads to a successful exit or a stunning failure" at the IMPACT 2011 Venture Summit Mid-Atlantic in Philadelphia, PA.

I told the stories of Solyndra and CPower and how they failed and succeeded, respectively.

Here are my slides from the presentation:

And here is a transcript of my notes/talking points on Scribd: A Tale of Two Cleantech Companies

23 November 2011

7th Inning Stretch: A Note of Thanks from The Green Skeptic

One of my favorite quotes about the writer-reader relationship is from Walter Lowenfels. I keep it at the top of my poetry blog as a reminder. Lowenfels wrote,
"One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement."
I try to keep those words in mind every day as a writer.

On this the seventh anniversary of The Green Skeptic, I want to thank you, dear readers. I am grateful for your support, your comments, and your readership. I hope you are finding some sustenance here.

Seven years ago I wrote in the first post for this blog,
"As 'The Green Skeptic' I propose to create a web voice that is at once environmentally concerned, while remaining skeptical about our methods of communication and action. My blog will explore current environmental issues in a pragmatic fashion, debunking environmental myths, while supporting market-based solutions that compliment actions taken both locally and globally."
While this blog is about "challenging assumptions about how we live on the earth and protect our environment," it is also about the practice of writing.

Two bloggers I read regularly wrote eloquently about writing this week, Fred Wilson and Joshua Brown.

Fred wrote on A VC that through blogging
"I have learned to love writing. It's creative. It's a puzzle. How do I tell the story? How do I get my point across? How do I do it crisply and clearly? How do I end it on a strong note?"
Joshua, who writes the excellent blog, The Reformed Broker, suggested,
"It is in the writing that I discover what I actually think.  It is in the writing and the communicating of ideas and concepts that they truly become mine.  This is a cognitive learning thing that is very widely understood in the education world.  When I'm blogging there are two things that are happening - you, the reader, are being exposed to something I think might be important and I, the writer, am crystallizing my own beliefs and understanding of the topic at hand."
Writing is important to me. As I've written elsewhere on this blog,
"I have always been a writer -- it's all I've really ever wanted to be. Sure, I do a lot of other things, always have, much of which I've stopped doing over the years. But I'll never stop writing. It's who I am. I'm a writer."
As we mark this seventh year of The Green Skeptic together, I want to thank you again for reading. I hope to keep up my end of the bargain moving forward with good, informed writing about the issues, a healthy skepticism about both hyperbole and hysteria and, most of all, a respect for you, my readers.

Happy Thanksgiving.

22 November 2011

IMPACT 2011 Venture Summit Mid-Atlantic to Feature Cleantech

IMPACT 2011 Venture Summit Mid-Atlantic, the annual conference put on by PACT (the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies), will take place a week from today and tomorrow (November 29 & 30) at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the Crystal Tea Room.

On Wednesday, the 30th, I'll be telling a "Tale of Two Cleantech Companies," offering perspective on a success story and a failure (hint: one of them is Solyndra) and Monday Night Football's Ron Jaworski, known to his fans as "Jaws," will be the keynote over lunch. Timothy C. Draper, Founder and Managing Director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, will close the 29th as keynote speaker.

A rich cleantech track has been developed for this year's conference, including panels offering investors's perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of investing in clean energy technology and fund managers's perspectives on energy efficiency finance.

Panelists include representatives from Meidlinger Partners, SJF Ventures, Ben Franklin Technology Partners, Blue Hill Partners, New Venture Partners, DB Climate Change Advisors, Transcend Equity Development Corp and the City of Philadelphia.

14 cleantech companies will present, including

AHI Technologies
Alencon Systems, Inc.
e2e Materials, Inc.
FieldView Solutions, Inc.
Holganix, LLC
LED Saving Solutions
Liberty Hydro, Inc.
Local Food Systems, Inc.
Organica Sustainable Water, LLC
Rho Renewables, Inc.
WhiteOptics LLC

See the full agenda here, including non-cleantech related agenda items.

Hope to see you there!

18 November 2011

Create Value, Don't Trade Value

"The problem society faces is that the best way to become rich is to trade value, not create value."  

--Roger Martin, Dean of The Rotman School and author of Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL, in interview with Steven Goldbach of Monitor Group

What is it about this statement that pisses me off? I mean no disrespect to Dean Martin (sorry, I couldn't resist), he's just the messenger, and I know he bemoans the truth of his statement as much as I do. But the fact that he's correct makes it even more troublesome.

We have completely forgotten what value is as a society. Winning is great in sports and in business, but it isn't great if it is at the expense of values and creating values.

Take Penn State as an example. 

Officials at Penn State may have covered up the hateful and abhorrent crimes allegedly purported by one of its coaches over a decade because acknowledging and doing something about it might harm the mega-million dollar cash cow of its football program. 

That's trading value not creating value.

Trading value creates harm because its driver is greed and its time horizon is temporary.

Creating value creates something lasting and beneficial, not just for stakeholders and stockholders, but for customers and all of society.

Apple creates value. 

Mortgage-backed securities traded value.

We need more people creating value, lasting value, if we want our economy and our lives to thrive.

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15 November 2011

Will Wireless Vehicle Charging Become Like EZPass?

A rather poor diagram of inductive charging.Image via Wikipedia
A rather poor diagram of inductive charging.

Qualcomm, long a leader in the wireless and mobile space, is expanding into in the electric vehicle (EV) charging market with its acquisition last week of HaloIPT.

The acquisition, reportedly $70 million, has some in the EV charging space scratching their heads. Not because of Qualcomm's interest, but because they went after such a small player in the space.

HaloITP developed its wireless electric car charging technology out of the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Wireless inductive charging, a process explained here allows an electric vehicle to drive over or near a mat that provides a charge without plugging in.

I've written about the need for and benefits of wireless EV charging technologies previously on this blog and, in the interest of full disclosure, I've done some advisory work with one company, Momentum Dynamics of Malvern, Pennsylvania.

According to sources close to Momentum, the company has already bested Halo, which had been doing 7,200 watts, achieving 30,000 watts. That's the level of power needed for commercial vehicles, which is Momentum's target market, and almost 10 times more powerful than WiTricity and Evatran can transmit 3,300 watts (more or less the capability of a low-powered Level 2 plug-in charger).

Momentum has been regularly getting 10,000 watts with greater than 90 percent efficiency. They are so efficient, my source tells me, "you can keep your fingers on them and barely detect that they are warm."

Toyota and GM are investor-partners in WiTricity and Powermat, respectively, and Nissan, meanwhile, is reportedly working on its own wireless charging technology. And Google tested Evatran's technology earlier this year.

With a big wireless player like Qualcomm moving into the space, is it only a matter of time before wireless EV charging becomes EZ and as ubiquitous as wireless toll collecting?

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11 November 2011

Can #poetryday Save Our Souls?

Seamus Heaney Seamus HeaneyOn Thursday Umair Haque, self-described author, blogger, thinker, and reformer, suggested #poetryday on Twitter as an antidote to the usual "endless series of tweets about (no offense) trivial stuff" that ordinarily fills his stream.

For some of us -- poets and readers -- everyday is poetry day, but the more I thought about it and saw how others were responding to it, the more I started to think he may be onto something.

I'm not convinced that "poetry is the opposite of the profit motive," as one responder wrote, but I do believe with Seamus Heaney that poetry is "an anthropological necessity because if you didn't have poetry, everything would slip back into media speak."

We need poetry and the attention of the poet because, in Heaney's words, it "helps us to live our lives in the face of destruction."

"I keep getting this funny feeling that our degeneration and the fact that we treat great poetry like stupid rambling might be connected," Umair wrote in another Tweet.

Poet and lecturer David Whyte has been talking about the need for reconnecting with poetry for nearly two decades.

"Corporate America desperately needs the powers historically associated with the poetic imagination not only to see their way through the present whirligig of change, but also, because poetry asks for accountability to a human community, for rootedness and responsibility even as it changes," Whyte wrote in The Heart Aroused, his 1994 book about poetry and the need for more soul in the workplace.

We may never get the news from poetry, as William Carlos Williams posited, but turning away from poetry may prevent us from achieving what Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky called "the goal of our species."

(Disclosure: The author is an award-winning poet who also blogs about poetry at seapoetry.wordpress.com.)
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10 November 2011

Acumen Fund's 10 Lessons Learned About Getting Beyond Poverty

Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund
Five years ago I sat down with Jacqueline Novogratz to talk about Acumen Fund. She was just about to leave for a trip to Africa and I was just beginning to think about leaving The Nature Conservancy.

To my mind at the time the Conservancy had moved away from its core strength of supporting work on-the-ground and in-the-water -- we were more focused on large-scale global planning.

We had moved to the side of the "Planners" versus the "Searchers," to use William Easterly's nomenclature from his critique of Western efforts to "Aid the Rest," White Man's Burden. 

"Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand," Easterly wrote. "Planners apply global blueprints [emphasis mine]; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out if the customer is satisfied..."

Acumen Fund was on the side of the Searchers, the entrepreneurs. I wanted to get back to working with entrepreneurs who were doing real work.

There were three things I really liked about Acumen Fund:

1.) They were investing not donating -- and they were all about results.
2.) They thought like a Venture Fund, only with a more patient, long-term view.
3.) Jacqueline. She was direct and didn't beat around the bush.

I need to explain that last bullet.

I was coming from a big, non-profit corporation, which operated in many ways like a Fortune 500 company.  Five years into its life Acumen was still more like a small and nimble start-up fund.

As entrepreneurial as I was -- I'd started several print and online media ventures over the years -- and despite how intrapraneurial I had been in my time with the Conservancy, Jacqueline saw that I wouldn't fit into Acumen at that time.

"Have you thought about starting something on your own?" Jacqueline asked.

(I ended up going to Ashoka as their vice president for global development before moving on to start my own endeavors.)

I continue to follow, support, and be impressed by Acumen's progress.  They have an impressive record of success.

Tonight and tomorrow Jacqueline and Acumen Fund are celebrating 10 years of creating a world beyond poverty by investing patient capital in social enterprises, emerging leaders, and breakthrough ideas.

Since 2001, the fund has invested more than $65 million in enterprises providing access to water, health, alternative energy, housing and agricultural services to low-income customers in South Asia and Africa. Their global community of emerging leaders combines the tools of business and philanthropy, making the world a better place.

Here are 10 Things Acumen Fund has learned over the past 10 years:

1. Dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth.
2. Neither grants nor markets alone will solve the problems of poverty.
3. Poverty is a description of someone’s economic situation, it does not describe who someone is.
4. We won’t succeed in the long term without cultivating local leaders, local money, and strong local communities.
5. Great people, every time, no exceptions.
6. Great technology alone is not the answer.
7. If failing is not an option, you’ve ruled out success as well.
8. Governments rarely invent solutions, but they can scale what works.
9. There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it.
10. Patient capital investing is built upon a system of values; it is not a series of steps to be followed.

You can learn more about Acumen Fund here and download their Lessons Learned here.

Congratulations Jacqueline and Acumen Fund on ten years of success -- and here's to the next ten years!

09 November 2011

Alaska and United Make For Greener Friendly Skies

This Eskimo has reason to smile.
As one of the worst storms in the last 40 years heads for the Alaska coast, Alaska Airlines prepares to storm the future by launching the first of 75 scheduled biofuels-powered flights.

The first will depart from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEATAC) heading for Washington Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC.

The second will head from SEATAC to Portland, OR. Both will be powered by a blend of jet fuel and 20 percent biofuel derived from used cooking oil.

Using social media to promote this flight, Alaska will host a Twitter-based discussion onboard the first flight, which the airline is calling "#FlyGreen Chat," to talk about the future of aviation, sustainability, and environmental awareness.

United Continental made history on Monday when the first commercial biofuels-powered flight completed a trip from Houston to Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

United announced Monday that it signed a letter of intent with Solazyme Inc., which provided the biofuel for Monday's Continental flight, to buy 20 million gallons of algae-derived biofuel annually.

Solazyme is one of the US Navy's partners supplying jet and other fuels for its fleets in the air and water, as I wrote about in The Energy Collective in September.

You can learn more about Alaska Airlines Greener Skies Initiative and its biofuels program at Greener Skies Initiative and join the conversation on Twitter by following #FlyGreen.

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08 November 2011

Remember When Boxing Was King? RIP Joe Frazier

Somewhere in my house I have a postcard signed by Jack Dempsey.

The card is just like the one depicted here and the signature is virtually the same, although I think it says, "Hey, Scott --" over his name. My father got it for me while on a business trip to New York.

As a kid, I was a boxing nut. Of course it was hard not to be in those days -- the 70s -- with Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, the "Thrilla in Manila," the "Rumble in the Jungle," and all that "float like a butterfly and stinging like a bee" poetry.

I followed every fight, read every book I could, from Joe Louis's autobiography My Life to A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science, and watched every boxing film from "Rocky" to "Raging Bull" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight" to "The Harder They Fall."

My brothers and I used to don socks stuffed with socks and have three-round fights on the "ring" of our parents' king-sized bed until we broke the box spring.

Boxing was king back then. But as the 70s came to a close and Frazier and Ali retired and then Ali's battle with Parkinson's shed light on the brutality of boxing, I lost interest.

By the time Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear, I was long over my obsession with boxing.

Watching Muhammad Ali deteriorate over the years proved a knock-out for me and the sport.  (Don't even get me started on cage fighting.)

The death of Smokin' Joe Frazier brought me back to those days when boxing was king this morning.

"Life doesn't run away from nobody," Joe Frazier once said. "Life runs at people."

Rest in Peace, Joe.

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03 November 2011

Beacon Power and Other Gov't VC Bets: The Green Skeptic on FOX Business

I sat down yesterday with Stuart Varney, Elizabeth MacDonald and company to talk about Beacon Power's bankruptcy and what the government should and should not be doing in clean energy.  Hint: It's not playing venture capitalist.

Here's the video:

And here is a link if the player doesn't work in your browser: Green Skeptic on FOX Business
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01 November 2011

Falling Up: The Choices We Make May Be Our Own

Letchworth Gorge by J. Stephen Conn, used by permission.
When I was 15 years old I was hiking in Letchworth Gorge in upstate New York. (Here is a picture of the gorge, left.) A beautiful place.

Despite the warnings or perhaps because of them -- I was a teenager after all -- I got too close to the edge. And I fell. I fell for what seemed like a long way and a long time, but in reality it was perhaps just a matter of seconds.

Time dragged, however, like a cartoon character falling off a cliff – think of Bugs Bunny falling, eating a carrot, reading War and Peace, and filing his nails. I was remarkably calm, at peace, really. One with the fall, it was a true Buddhist moment.

And then it was over. Somehow there was a branch or root and my arm reached out to grab it – I remember the jerking feeling like a parachute opening…I was safe. I'd fallen but I didn't die. I had a second chance. 

After a few seconds of stunned silence, I climbed back up to the top of the gorge.

That memory has been haunting me lately.  I shared this story in my talk at SXSW last month and again with a group of leaders at a retreat last week.

Why am I reminded of this story now?  Well, as I wrote in an earlier post on this blog, I think our economy is in free-fall and we seriously need to change.  

The latest example of a society in free-fall is the news of a "celebrity marriage" failing after 72 days.  

According to Twitter sources that include some celebrities allegedly close to the situation, the wedding earned the bride $17.9 million.  Really?  $17.9 million for a marriage that lasted 72 days? 

No wonder people like Lawrence Lessig think our society could fall like Rome.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can change the outcome. We can adopt a new game plan. 

But we can't change the world if we aren't first prepared to change within ourselves and live the lives we know we can live, be the people we know we can be, and take the actions we are compelled to take.

The choice is ours, but we must be conscious as we make our choices. We need to stop compromising in our lives, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And we need to deliver lasting value, to innovate, and finally, to inspire and be inspired.

When you're free-falling, you have two choices: keep falling to the bottom or grab the first available branch, scamper back up to the top and create a new path forward. Call it "falling up."

Which do you choose? And what are you waiting for?

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