Government Plays VC in CleanTech

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Futuristic Projects

Futuristic Projects

“If we can get three home runs, that’s terrific,” announced Steven Chu, the DOE Secretary at a press conference on Monday, October 26 at Google’s campus in Mountain View, CA. Chu was at Google to deliver 37 energy technology projects funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program (ARPA-E), the DOE’s first effort at funding $151 million in experimental energy technology grants, focused on high-risk, high-payoff projects.

A 3 out of 37 home run success rate is hoping for an outcome better than Silicon Valley venture capital odds. Yet the DOE’s choice of companies and organizations is starkly different from those selected by VCs. While, 43% are small businesses, 35% went to educational institutions, and 19% to large corporations.

Grants to independent companies focused primarily on those with strong university research ties, such as MIT spinouts 1366 Technologies, SunCatalyx, FastCap Systems and FloDesign Wind Turbine. Several universities received funds such as MIT for an all liquid metal grid-scale battery low cost energy storage, Stanford for sensors, software, and controls to track and improve energy use patterns, Michigan State for a gas-fueled electric generator, and others to Arizona State, Ohio State, and more.

Large corporations were also included in the grant awards, to companies such asGeneral Motors for an energy recovery device that converts waste heat from car engines into electricity, du Pont for the production of advanced biofuel made from seaweed, and United Technologies for Synthetic enzymes that capture CO2 from coal plant flue gas streams.

Venture capitalists typically focused on early stage companies in order to focus on the potential high growth technologies of the future. The DOE’s mandate is different, choosing technologies that will transform the way we consumer energy in the future. The ARPA-E grant is the first investment in alternative energy technologies since the US began investing in technology R&D after Sputnik. What do you think of the government’s ability to pick winners? What odds would you give the Department of Energy?

Compost or Pay: The Journey to Zero Waste

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San Francisco Comprehensive Recycling

San Francisco Comprehensive Recycling

San Francisco has joined the movement to zero waste, and is now leading the charge by implementing a mandatory composting law. Within six weeks, San Francisco residents and business must compost their food and organic waste scraps, or they will risk being fined up to $1,000. Rather than protest, San Francisco residents are reported to be eagerly awaiting their new curbside composting bins.

Over 72 percent of the city’s waste is currently diverted from landfill with some of the most aggressive curbside recycling efforts in the country. What will happen to the collected compostable waste? Food scraps, plant trimmings, and soiled paper are turned into fertilizer for organic farms and wineries within the San Francisco region. Since over a third of the city’s remaining landfill waste is identified as compostable food and paper, mandating this waste back into a resource stream is a key step to achieving the city’s goal of sending nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020.

Yet San Francisco is a town known for its green loving, eco-minded behavior. How likely are other cities and municipalities to follow suit? The answer may soon be everywhere, as cities and town run out of landfill space, and the financial means to ship their trash to a distant location. Nantucket, and island off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, was able to mandate tough recycling laws in order to save potential tax costs involved in shipping waste back to the mainland. When Nantucket added a voluntary composting facility, recycling rates jumped from 42% to a projected 90%, as residents saw the value in saving costs and reducing the size of island-based landfill.

In other cities, composting efforts focus on backyards, roofs, and self-organizing systems. In Seattle, residents are encouraged to compost in their own backyards to build urban soils and create healthy landscapes throughout the city, but curbside pickup is offered for those that do not have the space. Residents of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, are among many NYC-based citizen-led movements to voluntarily compost household organic waste and repurpose for community gardens.

The benefit goes beyond feel-good experiences and reduced taxes. Food scraps and other organic wastes contribute to methane emissions when not effectively composted, and methane is one of the key contributors to green house gas emissions. Sorting out your own organic waste may be the most effective way for you to reduce your individual contribution to climate change. Based on the trends in these cities, how likely are you to voluntarily adopt composting in your home, garden, or roof? Or will you wait for a curb-side composting efforts to be adopted in your hometown?

 Comments over at Open Forum for Inhabitat.

Google Wants You to Know Your Own Power

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If you could know the energy usage of all of the appliances and gadgets in your home, right now, on your handheld device, would you look?  Would you care? Google’s philanthropic arm,, believes that you would care, and that you would change your behavior to lower your household environmental impact. developed a free, Web-based tool that visually shows your personal home power consumption, the Power Meter. However, unless you draw your power from the few public utilities that allow for “smart” energy monitoring, you have no window into how your home consumes energy in real time. Until now. recently launched a partnership with Energy, Inc., the manufacturers of the Energy Detective, which provides a way for consumers to monitor their home energy use with a live data feed to the web. Installation of theTED 5000 requires a technically knowledgeable person or an electrician to connect to a home’s electrical panel. Once the device is installed, it can measure shifts in power usage at the single watt level, all visualized through the Power Meter. Consumers are then able to monitor their home energy usage at home on the web, or from any hand-held or net-enabled device.

The hope is that consumers will become aware of the energy loads needed to power the appliances and electronics in their home, even from those “vampire devices” that suck electricity even when turned off. Now, Google, Energy Inc., and early adopter consumers will find out if real time data visualizations will actually affect home energy use. Tom Sly, a senior manager on Google’s new business development team, told the NY Times Bits Blog, “PowerMeter is really focused on the problem of climate change. We believe that this actually does cause people to reduce consumption.” What do you think? If you could check your home energy usage the way that you check your email and social media feeds, would it affect how much energy you use?


When Hard Metrics Inhibit Success

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Hopenhagen  - We Had hope, Copenhagen

Hopenhagen – We Had Hope, Copenhagen

OK, so I caught your attention for a moment. In an economic cycle like the one we’re currently experiencing, it’s impossible to make any move or decision that is not tied to hard, cold, clear metrics. Increase sales by X%. Attract Y new customers. But there are times when overemphasizing numeric goals can get in the way of success.

Case in point: an enormous pro bono project initiated by the IAA and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to increase awareness of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, called, optimistically, Hopenhagen. OK so I lost you at pro bono, but there are lessons here for anyone launching a new idea.

Hopenhagen is a communications campaign designed to reach a wider audience than the smaller niche of people who pay attention to climate talks. Leading several agencies in a pro bono project, Freya Williams, Senior Partner, Planning Director of Ogilvy and Mather New York discussed the aim of the campaign, which is to get the public to move from “coping” with climate change to one of “hope.” Through a social marketing-based petition, the campaign asks people to become a citizen of Hopenhagen. But there is no publicly stated goal for the number of signatures they are collecting. “The vision is to move beyond the sense of disempowerment and inertia that many feel,” to send a message of “hope” and optimism. The campaign’s effect cannot be measured in pure numbers, because the true impact is what that message inspires, how it reaches an audience who may otherwise tune out and how other people and organizations define the idea on their own terms.

Examples of these serendipitous acts occurred without direct prompting from the people who envisioned Hopenhagen. The city of Copenhagen is so inspired; they will rename the entire city “Hopenhagen” in December. “Signs will great the UN Delegates, saying ‘Welcome to Hopenhagen,’ and the city will replace all of the C’s with H’s on street signs, highways, and everywhere the city’s name appears to people attending the treaty ratification,” described Marc Alt, a green design activist who is inspired by the effect to the campaign. Even the Danish Soccer team will play as the Hopenhagen soccer team in order to support the idea.

How this translates to the hard reality of entrepreneurs, slugging it out everyday to ensure that their business survives and thrives in this economy? Create a groundswell of support for your idea by thinking big, appealing to people emotionally, and moving beyond short term achievable metrics as the primary goal. You may be pleasantly surprised with what people do to support and adopt and promote your idea.

Image rights granted by Hopenhagen for posting.

Entrepreneurs: The Movement

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Who will save the economy? It is all up to you. The entrepreneur. The Kauffman Foundation recognizes that entrepreneurs are the backbone of this economy, but rarely represent their opinions and ideas in a unified voice. To provide a platform for the entrepreneur’s voice, Build a Stronger America was launched last week. The websiteTwitter feed, andFacebook fan page all encourage entrepreneurs to submit their ideas to solve real world problems.

As Carl Schramm, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation, explained in a story on the Huffington Post, “The vast majority of new jobs during tough economic times are created by entrepreneurs, and since 1980, all net job growth has come from businesses less than five years old. Entrepreneurs nationwide know firsthand the transformative effect that starting a business can have on individuals and on their communities.”

Schramm goes on to point out a great disconnect. While Americans understand the value of entrepreneurship and its contribution to job creation, “our national dialogue doesn’t include comprehensive discussion of policies that promote private sector, job-creating reform.” Build a Stronger America, “is intended to fill that void by giving entrepreneurs the voice they need.”

The U.S. Dept. of Commerce appears to be listening, having just launched the new Office for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. According to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the Office will, “help entrepreneurs transform ideas into companies” by helping new business owners, “get training, credit and access to government research, in a bid to encourage the ‘right kind’ of risks by business leaders.” Secretary Locke believes that the primary focus of government support should be focused on the first step in the business cycle – moving an idea from “somebody’s imagination or from a research lab into a business plan.”

As an entrepreneur, what do you think? Can entrepreneurs self-organize to share their voice and influence a national dialogue?