Cleantech is dead! Long live cleantech!

A week ago, at the Wall Street Journal Eco:nomics conference, a cleantech investor (well, I guess, what should be described as a former cleantech investor) stated to me that cleantech as a moniker is dead. He didn’t mean that his firm is going to stop investing in startups building things like energy efficiency software, or bio replacements for chemicals, but he meant that he and his fellow investors aren’t going to be loudly declaring that their portfolio is full of cleantech startups.
Fast forward a week, and the research firm Cleantech Group, which has arguably done more than any other firm to brand the term cleantech, held the 10th anniversary of its annual conference focused on bringing together the entrepreneurs and investors building so-called cleantech companies. In the kickoff presentation by Cleantech Group CEO Sheeraz Haji, Haji said that cleantech is changing and that he and his team are “shifting our thinking in a radical way,” to a discussion about how one day cleantech will be pervasive, with “cleantech inside” everything. Though, for now, he said, his group is still focusing on the more traditional view of cleantech as a grouping of specific sectors made up by clean power, biofuels, energy efficiency, etc.
It’s certainly time for reflection for a sector that has had a difficult past 18 months. As many have noticed by now, a significant segment of venture capitalists, many at generalist firms, have shifted away from investing in new and early stage cleantech companies thanks to the difficulties so far in making that money back through acquisitions or IPOs. There’s also a public sentiment backlash brewing due to the high-profile Solyndra bankruptcy (and others), and the continued spin of Solyndra in an election year.
And those are just some of the problems. Others include the slower than expected roll-out of electric cars, abundant cheap natural gas handicapping cleaner forms of power, and the recession that hit capital-intensive cleantech infrastructure companies harder than most. Cleantech investor Rob Day wrote in a column recently that “the period 2009-2011 will be looked back upon as a real dry season for the sector.”
But maybe it’s not just a dry season. Maybe cleantech as a brand is morphing and splintering into more specific verticals, both because it’s an early and emerging sector, but also because the umbrella brand has gotten tarnished in some circles — for consumers, investors (and their LPs) and entrepreneurs.
The whole debate over which would be the dominant term, cleantech vs. greentech, was being pondered a couple years ago, I think largely because the space is relatively new — sometimes it takes awhile for terms to really stick (Web 2.0, cloud computing, big data). (Also because John Doerr cried during his Ted talk when he brought the term greentech to the world stage).
Cleantech is also just vague enough, that it can be unproductive for certain purposes. At a general cleantech conference, does a solar exec really need to talk to a biofuel exec and vice versa? Web conferences and mobile conferences don’t have this problem, it’s unique to the cleantech sector. As my colleague Adam Lesser put it to me: cleantech is an idea that we should leverage technology for the environment — it’s not an industry.
So in the future, will descriptions of “cleantech” companies stick to the specific verticals — like solar, or biofuels — and not fall under a cleantech over arching brand? Will another generic term take the place of cleantech, like energy tech? Or will cleantech rise again more powerful than it was?
Well, already more specific brands are being created to meet the needs of investors and entrepreneurs. Spring Ventures investor Sunil Paul has coined the phrase cleanweb to describe cleantech companies that are leveraging information technology. Note, he’s not using the term “cleantech IT.”
But, then again, perhaps cleantech has been around long enough that it’s not necessarily fading away, it’s just laying low until the market turns up a bit. Paul himself, whom I chatted with after his cleanweb-focused onstage interview this week, thinks cleantech as a moniker is here to stay, it’s just in a down cycle. He was one of the first investors in cleantech and backed Nanosolar and Solazyme early on.
It’s clear that the industry is in flux, whether that’s a transition, growing up, or cycling down. And it’s not just for cleantech, it’s everything related to climate change, sustainability and clean power. At Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance conference last week CEO Michael Liebreich laid out a 7 point plan, emphasizing the need for the clean power industry to tackle new ways or marketing, messaging and PR. At the Wall Street Journal conference marketing execs of large consumer brands seemed to agree that calling a product “green” could be a liability these days.
Energy tinkerer Saul Griffith perhaps had the most marketable (if hard to implement) advice at the Cleantech Group event, saying “you’re in defensive mode right now;” instead “all of you need to make the future of energy sound awesome.”
Image courtesy of Adam Jones, PhD.