Tom Ranken’s Mission: Knit Together Northwest’s First Real Cleantech Trade Association

7/19/10Follow @xconomy

Tom Ranken has been feeling a bit of déjà vu lately.

The feeling has washed over Ranken in the past month, since he was hired to be the first full-time CEO of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance. His job is essentially to turn a fledgling, hyped-up, loosely-defined industry into a more clearly defined, potent force for Washington state’s economic future—like software or aerospace.

Or biotech, the industry that Ranken helped coalesce for the first time in Washington in the 1990s.

“The parallels here to biotech from 20 years ago are almost eerie,” Ranken says.

Back when Ranken became the president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association in January 1995, the organization only had one part-time employee. People still asked “what is biotech?” in conversation, like they ask “what is cleantech?” today. Nobody really knew what a cancer drug developer had in common with a medical device company, or a developer of genetically engineered crops—just like it’s hard to say what a biofuels company today has in common with a smart grid startup or a solar power developer. When Ranken started at the WBBA, nothing had really happened to bring the industry together around a common purpose or theme—just like today in cleantech.

How loosely defined is cleantech today in the Northwest? One of the group’s board members, whom Ranken didn’t name, told him that he really likes the association but still doesn’t know its purpose.

“We haven’t yet had a catalyzing event,” Ranken says.

Tom Ranken

Tom Ranken

It’s a lot to ask someone to pull together an industry, especially one so amorphous that it doesn’t really even have a national governing trade association. But that’s what Ranken is seeking to do, and he’s drawing from the playbook he followed back in the 1990s at the WBBA. Back then, the organization found its rallying cry around a political effort to push for tax credits for R&D-based companies, like those in biotech. The same thing needs to happen to unify the cleantech industry in the Northwest, Ranken told me last week when we met for coffee in South Lake Union.

“We have a gung ho board, and they want to make a go of it, but this really needs to find its sea legs,” Ranken says.

There are essentially five key functions that the Clean Technology Alliance needs to perform if it wants to be relevant, Ranken says: political advocacy; membership services, like bulk-purchasing discounts; communications, to keep members informed about who’s up and who’s down; networking events; and organizational development (essentially getting bigger and more useful).

The Washington Clean Technology Alliance was founded in 2007. The board of directors, as always, offers up a pretty good indication of the group’s interest. The board president is David Allen, the executive vice president of McKinstry, which Ranken notes has built an empire with cleantech initiatives to make buildings more energy efficient. Other members include Bill McSherry of the Puget Sound Regional Council, David Benson of Stoel Rives, Marc Cummings of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Benjamin Farrow of Puget Sound Energy, John Gardner of Washington State University, Linden Rhoads of the University of Washington, and Kirt Montague of Prometheus Energy.

The organization at this point has about 40 paying members, Ranken says. They come from different perspectives of interest—core entrepreneurial companies, large established companies like McKinstry, service providers, and economic development groups like enterpriseSeattle and the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Building up that list with dues-paying members, and making sure they are getting their money’s worth from their membership, is one of the top priorities. Part of the way to do that, Ranken says, is to really get out and survey the landscape. A career biotechie, Ranken has been beefing up his Rolodex in cleantech, going out to meet executives where they work, asking them about their business (not unlike being a reporter). He’s been out doing two or three of these meetings per day, trying to get to know people and find the common threads that might bind companies together. Already, he says he’s starting to get a sense of what the region’s competitive strengths and weaknesses are, what political issues would really help, or really hurt, his member companies.

Right now, the Northwest has some core expertise in smart grid technology that enables people to better monitor their energy usage, biofuels for aviation, and “green” energy-efficient buildings. Wind and solar technology might catch on faster with Northwest consumers because of our environmental ethos, but these are not strong subsectors of industry that are creating jobs, Ranken says.

“We have these nice wind farms, but we tend to buy the materials from China or Europe and install them here,” Ranken says.

We’ve written a lot about some well-meaning initiatives in our two-plus years at Xconomy Seattle, which never seem to go anywhere. Senator Maria Cantwell, more than a year ago, urged some smart, aggressive businesspeople to go get some of that federal stimulus money she was trying to bring home to Washington. Michael Butler, the CEO of Seattle-based Cascadia Capital, has lamented that the Northwest hasn’t yet created the supportive ecosystem needed for cleantech to take off as an industry. It is an important question, given that John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has called cleantech the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century.

Before that opportunity can be fully realized, Ranken figures the industry has to have a valuable, functioning trade association along the lines of the WBBA, or the Washington Technology Industry Association.

It’s actually sort of like building a business like any other, he says. You have to prove your value to your customers.

“At some point or another, every member is going to have hard times, and ask themselves, ‘what am I getting for this money?’” Ranken says. “If you can’t answer that question in a persuasive way, you won’t succeed.”

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