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Calling All Entrepreneurs: Cleantech Needs You

While the rest of the tech world goes about its business, the clean technology world (which includes technologies like solar power, biofuels, energy efficiency, clean water technologies, advanced materials, etc.) has been steadily catching on fire. You can’t open up a newspaper these days without reading some headline about new energy technologies… or more often, the lack thereof.

While the rest of the tech world goes about its business, the clean technology world (which includes technologies like solar power, biofuels, energy efficiency, clean water technologies, advanced materials, etc.) has been steadily catching on fire. You can’t open up a newspaper these days without reading some headline about new energy technologies… or more often, the lack thereof.

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The sector is booming, long-awaited adoption of these technologies appears to be taking place (we could go into the reasons why, but that’s another lengthy post all by itself, and you can always just check out my site here), investments are flocking in… What the sector needs most right now is effective entrepreneurial management teams.

Not to say there aren’t already some very effective management teams in cleantech. Just to say that the magnitude of the opportunity demands even more.

Fast Company readers will know exactly what I’m talking about — in such a fast-growing sector with so much going on, execution is the key. Just as Gary Megennis talked about in this interview, we’re talking about doing something very difficult: re-inventing our entire energy and water infrastructure, top to bottom. That won’t be simple, and while there are a lot of good ideas out there, creating real businesses out of these ideas and driving market adoption is as tough or tougher than it is in any other tech sector. Smart entrepreneurs are already starting to look around for ways to apply their proven business-building skills in this space. But the bad news is that there are a lot of challenges.

There’s a lot of good news, however.

First of all, the VCs are ready for you. Clean technology investments have been growing very quickly (becoming the third-largest investment sector right now, according to the Cleantech Venture Network). One out of five VCs report that they’re going to be investing in clean energy within the next five years. And every single one of those investors is going to want to back solid management teams first and foremost.

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Secondly, the sky’s the limit in terms of what kinds of businesses you can start or join. Solar power and ethanol are getting all of the press right now. But everything from how we get our drinking water, to the way we use energy, to the way we build underground water pipes, to smart sensors and intelligent networks to promote manufacturing efficiency, to recycling, and even to the way we build our homes are all areas that are seeing significant entrepreneurial activity… and need even more. Someone smarter than me pointed out recently that we’re moving from an era when capital was expensive and materials/ natural resources were cheap, to an era when resources are expensive and capital is easy to find. Which means that there are a lot of opportunities to figure out how to get customers to spend a little money to save a lot of waste. Even trash is becoming valuable, as this article shows — entrepreneurs are scavenging it for valuable metals, using it to create alternative fuels, burning off its gasses for power, and even “pulping” it to make recycled cardboard boxes out of it. Look around you, in your office, in your home… Look for the wasted energy or materials, and think about the wasteful ways those energy and products were produced in the first place. Every single one of those is a potential cleantech business.

Finally, stealing from your existing knowledge of IT and biotech and telecom is not only okay — it’s encouraged! Some of the best ideas right now in cleantech are taking advantage of IT and telecom technology to build the intelligent energy infrastructure of the future, with automated optimization of energy use and energy generation according to on-the-spot conditions; or to use another example, wirelessly monitoring both soil conditions and weather forecasts to irrigate cornfields exactly when needed, and only as much as is needed. And biotech-based approaches may someday revolutionize the way we get our transportation fuels. Other smart IT “refugees” are applying the knowledge they learned in manufacturing hard disk drives, for example, to building the next generation of solar panels. Really, this industry is not new to you at all. It’s just the applications that are.

So have at it! Hook up with local cleantech business plan contests. Hang out with the local university’s engineers and scientists. Help bring those technologies to market. It’s exciting times right now, and we need all hands on deck.