Man on a Cleantech Mission: A VC Visits the U.K. (Days Three and Four)

6/12/08Follow @jmatheson

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with our hosts in Cambridge. There is a pub called The Eagle that dates back to c. 1200. In relatively modern times, it was where the Royal Air Force pilots in World War II would hang out after surviving their missions. There are lots of memories on display, including pilots’ names burned into the ceiling with candles and cigarette lighters. It was fitting that our discussion here focused on the notion that the U.K. seems to have seriously embraced climate change as a national call to arms in a way that we have yet to do in the U.S. I hope it will be like other times in history in that once the U.S. gets mobilized, we will make a meaningful contribution by bringing the immense resources and skills of America to bear on this increasingly critical issue.

After a too-short night, on Wednesday we replayed a similar agenda in Cambridge as we did at Imperial College in an awesome conference facility. There was a large, diverse crowd with a very good level of engagement and questions. Cambridge feels very entrepreneurial, and I spent the afternoon in small mini-meetings with a variety of companies at a table overlooking the University cricket pitch (and tried unsuccessfully to have someone, anyone, explain to me how the game is played).

I continue to meet a large number of academics and entrepreneurs and am struck by both the similarities and differences from U.S.-based entrepreneurs. The areas of innovation are mostly similar with an all-too familiar solar craze (in the grey skies of the U.K. of all places). Wave, tidal, and off-shore wind are much more front-and-center here, which is a function of the policy context but is also due to the ratio of coastline-to-land and the strong wind and tidal patterns prevalent here. They are also much more “carbon aware” here around the topics of measuring, monetizing, and capturing carbon. In fact, Stephen Killeen of The Carbon Neutral Company (a U.K. company that Stephen is growing into the U.S. market) was with us yesterday at Imperial and highlighted this very topic.

Overall there are some good projects, and there is a strong awareness around the importance of IP. That said, I do note that U.K. entrepreneurs don’t seem to think “as big” as in the U.S., and their fundraising aspirations are subsequently also smaller. I cannot tell which is cause and which is effect. That is, if VCs pushed harder to deploy more funds, would entrepreneurs get conditioned to believe they could raise more money and go for bigger prizes, or vice versa? In any case, there is a definite dearth of early stage venture capital here. I need to explore this dynamic more fully…

Tonight we are in Manchester after a short flight from Stansted, and have a series of meetings tomorrow before heading off to Newcastle tomorrow evening. Flying into Manchester, it was apparent that this is a more manufacturing-oriented region, and so it will be interesting to see how they are leveraging these resources in the cleantech arena.

* Jim Matheson is a general partner with Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, MA. He is part of a small Boston contingent visiting Britain this week on a clean energy fact-finding and information sharing trip organized by UK Trade & Investment. He plans to file regular updates throughout the week.

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