Green Energy Entrepreneurs – Be Prepared to Be Unprepared

May 4, 2017 SDEE How to Create a Green Energy Company: A Guide for Entrepreneurs

By Jared C. Hooks, PhD, Science Communicator

$3.5 billion and $780 million. That’s how much venture capital was being invested in clean tech last year for California and San Diego, respectively (1). So, as a green energy entrepreneur, one might ask, “How can I get my hands on some of that sweet, sweet capital?” With this question in mind, SDEE presented a workshop designed to address the state of green energy, the trials and tribulations of capturing that capital, and where opportunities might lie in the future.

Our first speaker, Ted Torre-Bueno, President of Empowered Energy Solutions (EEP), used his sustainability contracting firm as an example of how to approach energy-efficiency and green tech in a diverse manner. Beyond just solar installation, a mainstay in green energy production, EEP focuses on all aspects of energy within a business, including insulation, energy storage solutions, and several diagnostic monitoring services. This diversification adds tremendous value and serves as a great lesson to those wanting to establish themselves and their business through innovative use of current-day green technologies. Ted also lent some perspective he has gained over his years in growing EEP, including strong research from an array of sources, always planning for the unexpected (whether that be costs, time for a project, or challenges you’ve yet to encounter), and as an ideal, always being overfunded.

The issue of funding led into our next speaker, Dr. Carol Curchoe, the founder of the biologically-based battery storage company, 32ATPs. Carol’s talk was a lesson in all the unexpected ways trying to gain capital can fail. As an inventor of an innovative clean energy storage solution, she struggled with securing public grants, due at first to not having enough preliminary data, then, somewhat ironically, too much preliminary data to qualify. When pivoting to private venture capitalists for funding, Carol encountered another hurdle. Though Carol had accumulated strong preliminary data for her technology, her partner and CSO, Dr. Shelley Minteer, was still a full-time professor at the University of Utah. Without Dr. Minteer’s ability to be fully dedicated to 32ATPs, VCs considered the company too much of a risk to invest in. Though many hard lessons were learned, Carol is still trying to persevere, even in the face of quickly vanishing funds.

Our last speaker was Lane Sharman, the co-founder of the San Diego Energy District Foundation (SDED). Lane helped found SDED with the goal of allowing individuals the choice of where and how their energy is generated, leaving large utility providers to focus on energy delivery and maintenance of the electrical grid. Community choice allows for more sustainable energy solutions to be explored through the advocacy and initiatives of people in the community rather than a centralized utility regulating all aspects. This leads into the ever complicated and evolving realm of energy policy.

Related to both Ted’s advice of being prepared to be unprepared and Carol’s paradoxical experience with public grants, a green energy entrepreneur needs to be both up-to-date with current policies to fully leverage those in their business model, while at the same time advocating for more progressive changes. In addition to this, one attendee gave what I think is a great piece of advice when influencing policy to implement green energy solutions: always think about and convince people how you’re going to save them money. This is  critical both when dealing with local and state level energy solutions as well as the private sector. Always be selling yourself, your technology, and your services as an investment that returns both value to the customer as well as value to the environment.

1. Clean Edge, The 2017 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index; https://cleanedge.com/reports/2017-US-Clean-Tech-Leadership-Index

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