22 February 2010

Wisdom from Wharton: Cleantech Talk

"Twenty years from now, we will look back on how we get energy the same way we look back at how we got information twenty years ago," Steve Cohen said in launching the first of two cleantech panels at last Friday's Wharton Entrepreneurship Conference 2010.

"Current Trends and Opportunities in Cleantech," moderated by Cohen, an energy lawyer with Morgan Lewis, also featured Dr. Stephen Tang, CEO of the Science Center, the oldest and largest urban incubator and science park in the world, along with Sean Casey from FiniteCarbon, a forest carbon development company, and Sam Gabbita of cleantech investor Element Partners.

Dr. Tang, a Chemical Engineer by training, knows something about the "energy of the future" having earned his entrepreneurial stripes developing hydrogen fuel cells with Millennium Cell, which recently went bankrupt.

"I took Millennium Cell to its IPO in 2000, and left in 2004. Ten years ago hydrogen fuel cells were a major focus of US automakers; at least, that's what they wanted you to believe," said Tang. "What they were really focused on were CAFE standards and keeping them from being lowered. You have to understand the headwinds."

Often those headwinds are political, such as with carbon regulation. "Carbon markets are directly responsive to government action," said Casey, of FiniteCarbon. "And in the US, we want to do it our own way."

Indeed, the energy industry itself may be its own worst enemy. As Gabbita of Element Partners put it, "The biggest challenge in Cleantech is that you're dealing with a commodity market made up of slow-movers."

This is why some believe that we won't be able to move as fast as China in terms of alternative energy adoption.

"The risk isn't that China won't adopt cleantech," Gabbita suggested. "The risk is that China is doing it now and will define the rules of the game for the future."

While China may be slow to start, they have the power of the centralized government to innovate more quickly once the decision is made to move toward adoption of alternative energy sources.

And, while some, such as keynote speaker Pennsylvania State Treasurer Rob McCord, recognize that the "energy sector has massive externalities that require government support," it may be best for entrepreneurs to proceed cautiously in pursuing government funding for their ideas.

"It's great to get government money until you realize they are in your shorts for-ever," said Harrison Wellford of Wellford Energy Advisors in a panel on "Financing Your Cleantech Ventures."

Technologies are available today to help with the transition here. However, as Ravi Barot of OxiCool suggested in that same panel, "Investors and entrepreneurs need to realize that clean technology takes time, more than other investments."

And, as Steve Tang from the Science Center related earlier in the day, "The killer app of today is more important than the platform technology of the future for energy transition to happen."

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