18 April 2013

Focus on Teams, Customers, and Going to Market, Investors Tell Mid-Atlantic Energy Forum

Dr. Cheryl Martin Addressing
Mid-Atlantic Energy Tech Forum
"We focus on teamwork," Cheryl Martin, Deputy Director of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) in her keynote address to the Mid-Atlantic Energy Technology Forum last night. "There has to be a strong team and if we need to bring in a CEO to take the company to market, we will."

Dr. Martin, in her second year with the research and commercialization agency, spoke to a crowd of around 200 energy enthusiasts, investors, and entrepreneurs at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

"We look for high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are solving real problems, and the dedicated teams that can bring them to market," Martin noted. "We just celebrated our fourth anniversary. We've got more to do."

Marking its own 5th year, the Mid-Atlantic Energy Tech Forum (formerly Cleantech Investment Forum) is a partnership between the law firm of Blank Rome and the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic, which I co-founded in 2008 with Kevin Brown of the search firm Hobbes & Towne.

The Forum has grown into the premier showcase for the region's most promising companies in energy technology, cleantech, and resource efficiency.

Last night's presenting companies ranged from software as a service offerings such as Propel IT, which uses data and incentives to reduce fuel consumption in trucking fleets, to Rentricity's plug-in microturbine that captures energy generated by pressure reducing valves in the nation's water distribution system.

The CEO presenters included serial entrepreneurs and a former banker who each explained their solutions in 7-minutes pitches. All highlighted their management teams as well as their revenue structures and some spoke of the importance of customers.

Electric cars and dinosaurs were featured outside the Forum.
The focus on customers was raised earlier in the evening by the investor panel, which I moderated.

"In my years engaging with cleantech companies, most firms don't make delivering a superior customer experience the top priority like Apple does," Diana Propper de Callejon of Expansion Capital Partners noted.

As for opportunities in the sector, panelists Andrew Garman of New Venture Partners and Purnesh Seegopaul of Pangaea Ventures, each suggested the funding ecosystem for research and development has expanded and that sustainable solutions are needed in everything from buildings to fossil fuel use require advanced materials.

There has also been a boon in corporate venture capital, which has helped fill the investor syndicate pool as other VCs have left the water.

Success breeds success, however, as in most investing.

"We look for patterns of successful companies and want to replicate those patterns in other disruptive industries," said Seegopaul.

As one attendee told me during the cocktail reception after the program, his key takeaway was that business model innovations that can scale, focus on the customer, and disrupt their industry will win in the current market -- as long as they have a strong team and financial rigor.

Good lessons for any business, but especially in the current cleantech and energy environment.

(DISCLOSURE: The author is co-founder of the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic, one of the hosts of the event describe herein.)