Will the Internet Venture Incubator Model Work in Cleantech? Greenstart Is About to Find Out

6/14/11Follow @wroush

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cleantech or greentech companies. So first and foremost we are trying to create an environment that gives these entrepreneurs a better chance of success, through a combination of mentoring and resources and connections and learning how to speak the language of investors and finding the right investors.”

Greenstart plans to copy some, but not all, of the elements found at TechStars, Y Combinator, and other tech incubators, Lowe says. “One problem is that cleantech is much broader than Web applications,” he notes. “If you were going to try to take the exact same model, you would need a solar accelerator and a wind accelerator and a powertrain accelerator and an energy efficiency software accelerator. We are going to try and take what works really well [at other incubators] and understand the different approaches and nuances that need to be taken in different categories.”

Greenstart will be able to work across those categories by assembling a diverse group of advisors with experience in each of these fields, Lowe says. “It means having a different kind of mentor network, being more proficient in our relationships with government and academic organizations, and reaching out to a different set of investors, including strategic investors.”

Lowe has a long history with his Greenstart co-founders Dave Graham and Dillon McDonald: in 1999 Lowe and Graham co-founded an Internet startup called OpenAuto, where McDonald was the first employee. Lowe and McDonald went on to build Jumpstart Automotive Media, an advertising network that forms partnerships with automotive publishers; the company was acquired in 2007 by Hachette Filipachi Media, which is now part of Hearst Corporation.

Lowe freely admits he and his partners have “zero background” in cleantech. This means that unlike Paul Graham at Y Combinator or David Cohen at TechStars, they won’t be able to draw on direct experience when it comes to advising their startups about questions like tailoring a product for a specific corner of the energy market. But Greenstart’s founders do have solid credentials as serial entrepreneurs and investors, and “a lot of the lessons that any early-stage company is going to have to learn are pretty universal,” Lowe says. “They are things like how you hire and raise money and define a product’s scope and prioritize. For the things that are focused in one particular niche, that is where the mentor network comes in.” One of the mentors working with Greenstart, for example, will be Marc Tarpenning, a co-founder of Palo Alto, CA-based electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors.

Greenstart companies will have access to 6,000 square feet of workspace and conference rooms at a building in downtown San Francisco, Lowe says (at Battery and Market Streets, to be specific). Mentors will hold regular office hours, and the incubator will provide additional services such as free assistance with incorporation paperwork from attorneys.

Applications for the fall class are due July 3, and some three dozen teams have sent in materials since Greenstart announced its program a couple of weeks ago, Lowe says.

While energy startups can use the help, the biggest reason to open a cleantech incubator, Lowe says, is simply to boost innovation at a time when the need for technologies that will blunt climate change are more urgent than ever. “If I see one more location-based Web startup or someone trying to get me to check in at Peet’s, my head is going to explode,” Lowe says. “We need to get people focused on a bigger problem. We need to do it and not talk about it. That’s why we are putting our own time and capital into doing this.”

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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