Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Adventures in Cleantech

In keeping with the conference write up precedent that I set for myself in April when I was out in LA doing the Milken thing, I owe the blog some notes.

Yesterday's conference was called Cleantech Companies in Mainstream Markets. SJF Ventures hosted. Acorn had called and asked to participate at the last minute. We'd been denied (understandably, of course; it was bold of us to ask in the first place, ten days before the event). But we're on the lookout for new opportunities, and we're interested to see how other people define cleantech, so it was on with the suit and off to Wall St. for me.

There were eight total presentations: a keynote speech, three pitches* from companies doing work that connects to the energy industry, and four more from companies without the energy connection.

I turned my choice Milken notes into questions, so I'll do the same here, in no particular order:

-Kevin Skillern of GE Energy Financial Services, the keynote speaker, told us that there have been three nuclear energy related VC deals done in the past nine months. I'm curious as to what they might have been. Obviously not plant development. Software maybe? Something related to design and simulation? Remote monitoring and maintenance tools to prevent breakdowns or accidents? What vision do those VCs have for nuclear going forward? In what ways do they think the startups they're funding will contribute? I posed the short version of this question on Twitter, and I got this reply from @joeyheadset: "Related to nuclear energy"? That usually means Mutants. Or Zombies. Perhaps Zombie Mutants. Thank you Joey.

-ReCellular refurbishes discarded cell phones. They tell us they landfill nothing. If they can't refurbish a phone themselves, they either break it into component parts and send it to recyclers, or they send it to other refurbishers with different expertise or in locations closer to target markets. I worry about those other refurbishers. What do they do when they can't refurbish or can't refurbish with little enough work to make it profitable (it only takes ReCellular an average of 20 minutes to refurbish a phone, which kind of blows my mind)? I fear that a lot of those toxic phones end up in Chinese landfills. But I don't know: maybe ReCellular watches closely and sends only the phones that they know are refurbishABLE overseas.

-Should packaging be a part of the industrial or the biological metabolism? Should we manufacture it and recycle it or grow it and compost it? According to Allen King from Excellent Packaging & Supply, the cup and cutlery manufacturers with which he's working source all of their bio-feedstocks locally from non-industrial farms. However (provided that I took these notes properly), his manufacturers account for only 3% of eco-friendly food services disposables, and eco-friendly food services disposables make up only 3% of the greater food services disposables industry. That's a lot of room for growth and a lot of need for corn and potatoes and soy. Is it reasonable to imagine a future in which we can grow all that sustainably? Grow it without chopping down forests or blowing out soils or messing with developing world food supplies? Or might we be smarter long term to focus on cradle to cradle recyclability and leave the farmland to food production?

-Will uranium supply constrain nuclear energy development? If so, how soon?

-Brammo Motorsports CEO Craig Bramscher gave a solid presentation. The bikes look beautiful in the pictures. And Brammo gets big points from me for taking steps toward building an interactive, customer-focused website. But are cities really ready for plug in motorcycles with 80 lb. batteries? I'm impressed with the number of neophyte bikers that have signed up for test drives, and I'd love to take one too, but inadequate infrastructure is a massive barrier standing between test drive and buy. How are we going to fix that? Plug-ins are coming. I wouldn't want them to die for lack of plugs.

-Lamina's Frank Shinneman is a true LED evangelist, and he tells a good story. He gives off a pretty heavy anti-CFL vibe, however, and, maybe I'm crazy to feel this way, but his negativity toward CFLs made me less compelled by the rest of his presentation. Are CFLs really such a huge problem? Haven't they done a good thing by replacing lots of incandescent bulbs? Shouldn't they get some credit for that? And are they really even a threat to LEDs? Must the two be mutually exclusive? Must they be competitors? Frank sounded ready to start a Coke vs. Pepsi war, and I will only support a war like that if it promises to achieve a Coke vs. Pepsi level of silliness.

*Note: Not sure "pitch" is the appropriate word here, but there definitely was a salesy feel to things. Not in a bad way, of course: I was happy to hear the reasons the companies thought they were great businesses. It was a little surprising, though. Then again, a VC firm did throw the party, and they did invite fundraising startups to give the presentations. Publicly traded Acorn would have been a funny juxtaposition. Next year maybe.

Also note: Majora Carter was in the audience. I chased her down after the presentations ended, told her I was a big fan, and she was, as expected, warm and friendly and thoughtful and engaging. Absolute pleasure to meet her.

And, finally: Here's are links to all the participating companies, complete with feeble (and, potentially, inaccurate) attempts to explain what they do in as few words as possible:

Brammo Motorsports: vehicles as consumer electronics
FoodLogiq: redesigning the food distribution infrastructure to include
small, local producers
Excellent Packaging and Supply: distribution of bio-based packaging
ReCellular: collecting, refurbishing, and redeploying mobile phones
Lamina Lighting: all things LED
OwnEnergy: locally owned wind power
Sencera: affordable thin film photovoltaics


luis said...

Very interesting.

If the economics don't work, recycling and sustainable efforts won't either.
Check a blog about innovative entrepreneurs that make money selling recycled items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources. These include some very cool Green nline ventures, great new technologies, startups and investments opportunities.

Jake de Grazia said...

Thanks Luis.

Love the teaser photo for the June 11 post on fish skin bikinis.

To see the photo, you have to scroll to it on the Live Paths front page. I suggest you go that route. If you're so anxious to get the the text you're willing to miss out on the girl holding a fish in front of her boobs, however, go for it.

The internet is a funny place.