Making Energy Tech As Cool As Facebook

Building the next-generation of energy-focused entrepreneurs and technologies, will need more than just money. It will need a whole generation of inspired, science-focused kids that think energy technology is the coolest thing since, well, Facebook. I keep hearing that sentiment from policy-makers, greentech CEOs, and investors, and undoubtedly it’s true.

This morning at the ARPA-e summit in Phoenix, Arizona, Arun Majumdar, director of the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, talked about the need for more “energy literacy” for young people. “Most kids know megabits, not megawatts,” said Majumdar. ARPA-E provides grants for early stage greentech startups that are a lot higher risk than some of the DOE’s other programs.

The mission to make clean energy and energy efficiency tech cool is coming from the top of the federal government, too. According to reports today, President Obama filmed a segment with the science show MythBusters about solar energy, which will air on December 8 on the Discovery Channel. The segment was reportedly part of the White House’s push to promote science education.

Part of that emphasis on science and math is a reaction to the sluggish economy and the growing threat of China. As Thomas Friedman continues to put it, China’s entrepreneurs and science and math nerds will “eat our lunch” when it comes to building the next-generation of energy technology.

Investors and entrepreneurs that made money in the dotcom and moved on to cleantech as their next project, have been hoping that the same type of inspiration from quick wealth generation would happen for cleantech. Ie., a bubble that convinces college kids to quit school to launch the next billion dollar firms.

But the greentech ecosystems hasn’t yet made anywhere close to as many people wealthy as the dotcom quite yet. Either the returns are taking longer, or the investment learning curve has been slower. And there can also be a more narrow skill set required than to create an Internet business. Hence the new emphasis on education (the useful kind, that doesn’t turn your kids into bloggers).

Governments, municipalities and corporations have been doing this trick for years: asking people to get excited about something that the community fundamentally needs to survive. At the Always On Going Green conference last week Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, said that the key to building a successful greentech company is “inspiration.” In other words, passion is often times be the best way to make money.

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Image courtesy of Micah Sittig.