Xconomy Forum Preview: Northwest Cleantech Rising this Thursday

3/24/09Follow @gthuang

It’s shaping up to be a really special event. Xconomy is putting on a forum about cleantech innovation this Thursday evening at K&L Gates in downtown Seattle. Our distinguished panelists will put away their PowerPoint slides and get right down to debating the tough questions. What are the real opportunities in cleantech-meets-software? How should the Northwest build critical mass in this critical industry? How do we get technologies out of world-class research labs and into the hands of business people who can make them into useful products? Which opportunities are all hype, and which ones are real?

Following the panel will be an extensive networking reception, kicked off by two-minute company presentations from Prometheus Energy (Kirt Montague), EnerG2 (Chris Wheaton), and Vu1 (David Grieger). The reception will bring together venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, researchers, startups, law firms, and big companies from across the spectrum of information technology, energy, and biotech. We’re hoping to stimulate deep discussions that will lead to real, innovative partnerships. But first, a bit more about our main speakers—and what they’ve been telling us lately.

Our panel moderator, Michael Butler, is the co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Cascadia Capital and an expert on the emerging cleantech and sustainability markets. Earlier this month, Butler commented on the progress of the cleantech industry in Washington state. “We’re well behind…not only California and Massachusetts, but we’re well behind Colorado and Texas, and I fear we’re behind states like Michigan and Pennsylvania.” He pointed to a couple reasons for this. One, the “sectors that have taken off are driven by technologies deep in the stack that we’re not very good at.” (Solar is an example.) Two, he said, “We don’t feel the pain. We have clean, affordable energy” in the form of hydro—and other states don’t.

That sets the stage for a dynamic panel with expertise that cuts across software, entrepreneurship, technology transfer, and energy. Here are snippets of what each of our panelists has said in recent months on the pages of Xconomy:

—Mark Aggar, director of environmental technology strategy at Microsoft, on the role of big software companies in the cleantech revolution: “We have a strong role to play in ensuring our products are both energy efficient and have minimal impact on the environment…We have very broad reach into all elements of people’s lives—homes, businesses. We have the platforms and the technologies to help accelerate systems to help us live a more sustainable life. Plus it’s the right thing to do. And there are a lot of people at Microsoft who feel that way.”

—Jesse Berst, managing director of Global Smart Energy in Redmond, WA, on the prospects of building critical mass in cleantech in the Northwest: “I’m not sanguine about Seattle as a big leader in the area. I don’t know if we’ll have a cluster here.” But there are concrete steps we can take. “Real, permanent job growth comes from small-to-mid-size companies that grow up,” he says. Large organizations like Boeing and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are “a warehouse of breakthrough concepts,” but they often struggle with commercializing technologies. Lastly, he says, there’s a talent shortage. “We have to import power engineers.”

—Jeremy Jaech, CEO of Seattle-based Verdiem (and co-founder of Aldus and Visio), on business opportunities in cleantech-meets-software, particularly in energy efficiency and IT management: “Big companies—that’s where the energy savings are…Companies are starting to create C-level positions, like chief sustainability officer, that are responsible for the carbon footprint of the company…They want to be a step ahead of the government, and a lot of it starts with measurement.” He adds, “Companies are starting to get really interested.”

—Linden Rhoads, vice provost for UW TechTransfer, on how to better commercialize energy technologies from research labs: “We’re combing the nation for the venture capitalists who are truly aware of a specific research area. And people from industry, like someone from Intel…We might talk to someone like Alex Jen, our chairman of materials science, who has this incredible idea around thin-film solar, on organic material rather than silicon…So let’s find out from industry what aspects are the most important things to them…We want to recruit the most relevant people from inside these companies…to get involved with our researchers many years before there is any intellectual property coming out. We’re hoping to get our really prolific faculty involved early with industry, and we hope to stack the pipeline of innovation.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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