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TIEcon Wrap-Up for Cleantech: The Mundane Matters

Solar PanelThere were many viewpoints this weekend at TIE’s annual ‘pow-wow’ TIEcon 2009 when it came to cleantech, but if I were to boil them down (in a electric stove running on renewable energy) I would say the essence can be summarized as this: the mundane matters.

I say this not because there was a lack of enthusiasm in the air-absolutely the opposite-rather I say it because a more zoomed-out perspective on cleantech has begun to crystallize, and with that everyone from VC’s to the entrepreneurs bootstrapping their way through the battlefields of innovation has recognized the value of niches within the ‘ecosystem’ of cleantech.

This, of course, is a fitting metaphor for the area of innovation hoping to save us from ourselves. The area of innovation slated to reinvigorate our intuitions about what it means to work alongside nature as opposed to taking it for granted. At the same time, the principles of business and innovation surrounding growth of capital via monetization requires these innovations to return deep profits for those invested. Here’s how that duality played out in real-time:

In a panel presentation called: “Greentech: The New Paradigm”, Justin Label of Bessemer Ventures waxed about how the current cleantech constellation represents “fifty years of backlogged innovation,” presumably waiting to be capitalized upon in terms of green growth of profits. Other members of the VC community, notably Mayfield Fund’s Navin Chaddha, saw the potential in dollars terms alone it seemed, wanting whatever share of the huge energy market that can be wrestled away during these moments of market-disruption. Inside the panel’s back and fourth there seemed to be a deeper discussion going on about who will lay claim to the direction of cleantech.

Answers seemed to come from another panel I attended where this years winners of TIE 50 cleantech awards presented their businesses. These companies were culled from a vast number of entries and voted on by TIE members as part of the determination process. From this group of winners there were some audacious plans like those of AltaRock Energy, which have already been discussed. Most plans however were engaging niche positions when compared with the often lofty expectations placed upon funded Silicon Valley startups.

The best example was Enphase Energy, which developed micro-inverters for solar panels. The concept being that instead of converting DC current to AC current en-mass when a solar panel connects to the building, current conversion can happen at the panel site, creating a micro-grid between panels which improves efficiency, reduces cost and creates simpler maintenance for the lifetime of the system. This is textbook tech startup: leveraging effort and capital to solve a problem.

The real innovations, in other words, are situated in obscure and often mundane-seeming places. Cleantech in its many varied forms slowly and deliberately innovates a better greener mousetrap, (or perhaps light bulb is a more appropriate example). Innovation just happens, and the conference showed that innovators are not in short supply. With barriers of entry lower than ever and larger pools of talent directing their capabilities into the space, how can collaborations be orchestrated which scale these technologies quickly and intelligently? Maybe next years brightest companies will be brought to market using the current incarnation of VC funding schemes, maybe not, but what is known is that the niches keep growing and innovations will be needed to fill them for many many years to come. In the meantime, keep on tinkering!

Photo Credit: lcrf via flickr under Creative Commons License

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