Funding Options Shrink for Early-Stage Cleantech Ventures

8/5/14Follow @mlamonica

The term “cleantech” has gone through a rebranding. However it’s defined, though, investment in energy and natural resource-related startups continues. Just don’t expect venture capitalists to be writing all the checks.

As a reporter, I chronicled the rush of venture capital in cleantech in the mid-to-late 2000s and the subsequent financial bust and politicization of green energy. But is cleantech really dead just because many venture capital firms have moved on?

To get more insight into where innovation is going and who is funding it, I spoke to the Cleantech Group, which has been following the ebbs and flows of investing for more than a decade. It’s difficult to get hard and fast answers because what constitutes cleantech is a moving target, but some trends emerge when you look at the data.

Cleantech is not dead.

Without a doubt, many venture capitalists lost lots of money making ill-advised investments in capital-intensive companies that required many years to bring products to market and supportive government policies. And if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s more difficult to get financial backing for a cleantech venture than in years past, particularly for materials and energy-related technologies (more on that below.)

But it’s not completely moribund either. In the first half this year, $6.2 billion went into U.S. cleantech companies, compared to $7.3 billion for all of last year. At that pace, investment could match or exceed its peak level of $11 billion in 2011. The National Venture Capital Association, which has a far more restrictive definition of cleantech, says about $1.5 billion went into cleantech last year, down from a high of $4.4 billion in 2011.

Where is the money going? In the first half of this year, the three big areas were transportation, solar, and agriculture and food, according to the Cleantech Group’s definition. Energy efficiency also remains a consistent area.

During the go-go years, energy technologies, notably solar and biofuels, dominated startup funding. But now, agriculture and food—a category that wasn’t necessarily considered cleantech—is quickly rising; about $471 million went into that sector in the first half of this year, almost as much as all of last year.

Also, a number of companies are developing so-called cleanweb applications, or software applications geared at sustainability in general. For example, the Cleantech Group counts ride-sharing phenom Uber as a cleantech company since sharing cars is, in theory, more efficient than everyone owing their own. But that’s a very different company than one developing a new type of solar cell or battery technology, for instance. Indeed, cleantech has never been one industry but an investment thesis, so lumping together companies in such varied industries as biochemicals and power utilities has always been a stretch.

Money is coming from different sources.

Venture capitalists are still the most active investors, but their numbers have been whittled way down. In the first half of this year, there were 30 VC firms involved in three or more deals and, again, some of those likely had little to do with energy.

The hope is that corporations and the venture arms of big industrial companies, such as General Electric or Shell, will step up to fill the gap left by venture capitals. That hasn’t quite happened, but corporations are more active, consistently representing about 20 percent of the deals, says Troy Ault, manager of research at the Cleantech Group.

Family offices, particularly those with a social mission, also represent a substantial amount of capital. Arguably, these investors are better suited for companies that require a long time to develop technology. Incubators, such as Houston’s Surge, which is focused on oil and gas, have also emerged as important pieces in the funding ecosystem.

Cleantech entrepreneurs are building different things.

Solar-related companies brought in $659 million in the first half of the year, a 57 percent jump from the same period last year. But where the money in solar is going reflects the necessary changes startups and investors have had to make.

In the early 2000s, a “solar startup” was typically a company trying to build a better solar panel. Now, much of the money is going to solar installers, such as Sungevity, which raised $70 million earlier this year, and other solar-related companies. For example, Sunverge Energy, which intends to package batteries with solar arrays, and QBotix, which makes a robot to improve solar farm output, both raised money this year.

Food and agriculture is one area that’s starting to look a bit frothy to Ault. A lot of that is due to Monsanto’s $1.1 billion acquisition of Climate Corp., which analyzes weather data to create crop insurance. But there are also a number of companies using sensors and drones to improve farming and there are a number of biotech veterans who see natural overlap. “Agriculture is getting a lot of attention from investors who say it looks a lot like biotech and they are kind of making the jump,” Ault says.

But early-stage startups are getting less funding.

One worrying trend for entrepreneurs is that the number of deals going into seed or Series A funding rounds has dropped from last year. This means that companies need to work harder to get early-stage funding, a consequence of over exuberance in years past. “It’s not just deal volume. Series A rounds are smaller than they used to be,” Ault says. “That’s the nature of any bubble or bubble-like scenario where you’ve got investors rushing in, copy-catting, and a lot of companies getting funding that shouldn’t have.”

Credit: Cleantech Group

Credit: Cleantech Group

Another area of concern is that there aren’t obvious sources of funding for companies trying to create radically better energy technologies, which many consider necessary to address climate change. Transatomic Power, an atomic energy startup that wants to generate electricity from spent nuclear fuel, today said it raised $2 million from FF Science, a portion of the Founders Fund dedicated to science- and engineering-based companies. But as a whole, venture companies are wary of any technology that could take close to a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars to commercialize. These are not the kinds of long-term investments most venture capital funds are set up to make.

Anecdotally, entrepreneurs will tell you that they struggle to get financing in the current environment or they need to be more creative in finding new sources of funding. One former battery startup CEO told me he’s moved out of energy because of the  funding environment. Venture capitalists say it’s difficult to form syndicates since many firms have exited cleantech, which means they sometimes need to dedicate their available money to their existing startups, rather than funding new ones.

But despite the challenging funding situation for some types of companies, few would question that energy and natural resources are areas ripe for innovation, given the stresses caused by a growing global population and a changing climate. The question for entrepreneurs is whether they can find the financial backers to realize their clever ideas.

Martin LaMonica is a national correspondent for Xconomy covering energy and technology. You can reach him at mlamonica@xconomy.com or @mlamonica. Follow @mlamonica

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  • CleanTech Advocate

    Why would investors take the risk when the government can pick and choose the winners and losers in the politically charged clean energy game?

  • Chris

    Thanks and good read, Martin. Where did efforts focused on water fall? Giving how pressing that is, was wondering what’s up on that front? Cheers…

    • Martin LaMonica

      Water was the smallest category in terms of investment in the first half ($190M over 69 deals). Agreed – it’s one of those areas where there’s a clear need for better technology but it can be a tough market, particularly in municipal water–low prices, conservative customers, etc.