State Cleantech Experts Debate Policy, Finance, and Global Opportunities at MITEF Event

1/21/10Follow @gthuang

“The easy answer is, ‘Of course it will,’” said panel moderator Jesse Berst, the head of Redmond, WA-based research and consulting firm GlobalSmartEnergy. He was referring to the title of last night’s event in downtown Seattle organized by the MIT Enterprise Forum: “Will Green Return the Green?”

It’s a reasonable question, especially here in Washington state, where things have been fairly quiet on the cleantech and energy front as of late. Despite the presence of such companies as EnerG2, Verdiem, Optimum Energy, Powerit, Bio Architecture Lab, Areva T&D, Avista, and Imperium Renewables, much has been made of the region’s lack of competitiveness with other parts of the country like Silicon Valley and New England—not to mention global competitors like China. (I’m using a broad definition of “green” tech here to include both alternative energy and sustainability.)

To discuss business and policy leaders’ concerns around financing opportunities, regulations, resources, and hot areas in the green sector, the MIT Enterprise Forum (together with a team of volunteers led by Seattle law firm Graham & Dunn) convened a distinguished panel:

—Berst (the moderator), a global authority on smart grid technologies and economics, and an Xconomist.

—Patricia Irving, CEO and founder of Richland, WA-based InnovaTek, which develops technologies for sustainable energy and environmental safety.

—Rogers Weed, director of the Department of Commerce, Washington state (and a former Microsoft vice president).

—Roger Woodworth, vice president for sustainable energy solutions at Avista, the Spokane, WA-based energy and utilities company.

—Bradley Zenger, managing director at Pivotal Investments, an early-stage cleantech venture investing firm in Portland, OR.

Green tech panel (courtesy of MITEF)

(By the way, all of the panelists are involved with the Cleantech Open, which is gearing up for its 2010 business plan competition.)

Berst kicked things off by saying that dozens of smart grid companies around the world have been raising $50-100 million or more, and many will be going public in the next 12 to 18 months. In terms of Washington state, he said, “We’ve got some real challenges here around creating a real cleantech cluster. The one thing you can’t fake is proximity. We have a lot of islands of innovation scattered 150 miles apart.” He also talked about the entrepreneurial culture of the region: “We don’t have a lot of people with the urgent desire to crush” competitors in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, and so forth, he said.

Irving, whose company makes fuel cells and other technologies for partners like Boeing, summed up the mindset of consumers in the Northwest. “We love to be green, but we’re not willing to take the risk that’s necessary to shift our paradigms,” she said. “Part of the challenge is we haven’t been willing to stand up. Sacrifices need to be made.”

Weed, who has been on the job for 10 months since being appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire, said cleantech is one of Washington’s top three opportunities for growth. But the state faces two key challenges, he said. One is the budget situation. “The state is struggling to make … Next Page »

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. Follow @gthuang

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