Saturday, May 31, 2008

Keeping It Cleantech

It's funny being back in your hometown after 12 years away. The first time people see you, they figure you're stopping through. They see you again, and they wonder how you swung such a nice vacation. They see you a couple more times, and they start getting suspicious. And, finally, after you keep cropping up all over the place, curiosity takes over, and they start asking questions.

What are you doing back here? Are you living here? Working here? Not a very big mid-twenties population in Wilmington or Kennett Square; certainly nothing going on in Chadds Ford. What are you thinking? Is everything ok? Is there something wrong with you?

Not one to miss the opportunity to tell stories, I usually give a rave about the 3.5 years in China: the studies, the work, and the startup project that yanked me away. I talk about Mimi, the granny, and the fact that Hal, the grandfather, and I have an arrangement by which he provides me a bed and I provide him a long term solution to his mouse infestation problem (a ferociously adorable six week old black and white kitten is napping on a bed of folded t-shirts about six inches from this keyboard). And I talk about Acorn Energy, the wonderfully generous publicly traded holding company that adopted me, gave me an office and a paycheck, and told me to work primarily on my own stuff but help out when needed.

The next questions are usually about Acorn. What's a holding company? What does it hold?

I tell people that Acorn is a cleantech investment firm. Non-sexy, behind the scenes cleantech. We invest in technologies and entrepreneurs working to add intelligence to our energy infrastructure. Nothing pretty. Nothing fancy. Invisible backend gruntwork technologies that we're betting will help bring about a clean and sustainable energy future.

I think that sounds nice, and I'm proud to be associated with a company like that, but I realize that I might be using my imagination a little too much. I'm wondering more and more if we live up to the cleantech connotations.

How much we really care? How clear is our focus on creating that sustainable future?

Acorn's a business. We're an investor. First and foremost, we look for opportunities to support entrepreneurs and technologies that'll make money for our shareholders.

Investing in cleantech companies is a huge part of how we're trying to make that happen. Four of our seven portfolio companies, in my opinion, are cleantech through and through. Another two are legacy investments, made many moons ago, before John Moore took over and before the focus shifted to the energy sector. But the last one, our most recent investment, is a bit of a worry.

It might disqualify us from throwing the word cleantech around. It might make us less attractive to socially responsible investors. It might keep me from ever buying Acorn stock.

But it might be in my head.

The investment is in an enterprise software project led by an enterprise software geek entrepreneur that we love. We're investing, more than anything, in him. And, given my peripheral status at Acorn, I've heard a lot more about him than about the company.

I talked to John. He understands my personal reservations, and he agrees that there's a significant marketing difference between being pure and being tainted. But he thinks I might be overreacting. There's a lot of weird gray area in the energy industry, a lot of technologies that support both fossil fuels and renewables, a lot of projects that'll only survive to support renewables if they enter the market agnostically and opportunistically as solutions to big oil's small problems.

He thinks I should give the project a proper look before I fully settle into a conclusion, so, starting yesterday, my Acorn focus shifted to the seventh portfolio company.

I'll be doing everything I can to help them accomplish what they want to accomplish, and I'll be asking myself just how good or bad for the world they are.

If I get the feeling I'm destroying the world, I'll scream, cry, escape back to tropical northeastern Australia, and start growing miracle fruit.

If I realize that my not cleantech enough worries are unfounded, there'll be high fives all around, and I'll get back to work.

Or, maybe, a different kind of inspiration will strike, and I'll dig in and try my hand at intrapreneurship.


Mike Adler said...

I'm sorry, but what do you do for Acorn?

Jake de Grazia said...

"Entrepreneur in Residence" is the official title. Acorn adopted me in February. They give me an office and a paycheck, and, while I work primarily on my own startup stuff, I do what I can to support Acorn however I can. I screen pitches for our CEO. I do research for some of our portfolio companies. I work with our communications and marketing people. I punch holes. And I bug people about not being cleantech enough.

9a said...

by the way, I placed an order for miracle fruit through the website that the NYT recommended, in hopes of throwing my own miracle fruit party, but unfortunately I clicked on the PayPal button to place the order before I realized that they hadn't taken my shipping information or even my email. I thought I would be directed to another page that would do that, but no dice. I figured the NYT couldn't promote a flat-out scam, but if they don't respond to my dispute on PayPal and request for a refund, I will write the NYT a letter about it...

so yeah. You should grow some miracle fruit.

Jake de Grazia said...

Hmmm. Who is this Miracle Fruit Man? I think you should write him a letter. And invite him to your party.