Seattle area a new hub for "clean" technology

         

Seattle Times, 2nd January 2008

By ángel González, Seattle Times business reporter

Michael Weaver began thinking about alternative energy while cruising around Puget Sound.

About two and a half years ago, the newly minted software millionaire was spending a lot of time with his new yacht, but its poor fuel performance and the foul smell of diesel prompted Weaver to look for a cleaner alternative.

"I didn't like the smell of the generator, and I've always been pro-environment," said Weaver, who made his fortune by selling the legal software firm Applied Discovery to LexisNexis in 2003.

Now the Eastside entrepreneur heads Bionavitas, a firm that seeks to efficiently grow algae for biodiesel — helping supplant such land-hungry fuel crops as soybean or rapeseed.

In such technology hubs as San Francisco and Seattle, people who made their fortunes and business reputations in the dot-com era are again on the prowl for the next new thing — this time, the "clean-tech" revolution.

Reliving the dream

The Pacific Northwest still ranks below the Bay Area and the Northeast in terms of clean-tech investment, but Weaver is among many local techies who see fertile opportunities to address the world's insatiable thirst for energy and the accompanying geopolitical and environmental concerns.

"I realized it's the birth of a new economy again ... I saw another chance to relive the dream," Erik Blachford, who used to run Bellevue-based travel Web site Expedia, said at a recent clean-tech conference in Seattle.

His new San Francisco-based company, TerraPass, asks people to voluntarily pay for their carbon emissions and invests the money into CO2-reducing projects.

But the tech whizzes' new playground has different rules than the old. Software has low distribution costs and high profit margins; biofuels are the opposite, requiring costly raw materials, transportation and processing, while selling for prices limited by competition with well-entrenched oil firms. Likewise, the information-technology marketplace is a libertarian's dream — fast-moving, well-funded and loosely regulated. Alternative-energy ventures, on the other hand, often rely on government policy to make ends meet.

"I'm not a big fan of subsidies," Weaver said, but emerging alternative-energy technologies need that push to be able to compete head-to-head with oil.

David Kaplan, who developed software and managed projects at Microsoft for a dozen years, now thinks full time about how to deal with the oncoming wave of plug-in electric vehicles. His self-funded company, V2Green, designs software and hardware to enable communication between cars and the utility grid, helping utilities schedule charging times in a way that won't overwhelm the system.

Few plug-in cars exist now, but Kaplan expects a mass market to emerge around the turn of the decade.

"This is a long-term business," he said of his nine-employee company. He's already talking to electric companies, and plans to test the concept along with utility Xcel Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Perhaps the best-known local tech executive who made the jump into clean tech was Martin Tobias, previously the chief executive and chairman of Imperium Renewables, the area's largest alternative-energy firm. But in a surprise move, the company said late last month that Tobias had stepped down. No explanation was given.

Predicting a boom

Analysts predict a boom in clean technologies amid an oncoming energy crunch. The alternative-energy industry's revenues are projected to quadruple to $226 billion by 2017, according to a report by Clean Edge, a Portland-based market-research firm.

That's still far less than the sales Exxon Mobil logged last year, but the clean-energy sector's growth is "more akin to the PC, wireless and Web industries during their heyday" than the "usually staid and slow-moving energy sector," the report said.

Already, hubs of clean-technology entrepreneurship are forming to capitalize on that trend. Some of these, such as in the Midwest, have ample raw agricultural materials needed for ethanol and biodiesel, or a tradition of seeking alternatives to traditional fossil fuels, as in the case of Brazil or Spain.

Technology centers including San Francisco, Boston and Seattle are also on the list, bringing together venture capital, large research universities and an environmentally friendly entrepreneurial class.

California led the pack with $726 million in clean-tech venture investments in the first three quarters of 2007, according to a report by the National Venture Capital Association. Massachusetts came in second, with $292 million in deals.

Washington, with $121 million in venture-capital investments, ranked fourth behind Texas.

But the state has already seen some world-class funding activity. In early 2007, Imperium Renewables raised $113 million in one of the largest alternative-energy venture-capital deals ever, and borrowed another $101 million. In August, the company's coastal biodiesel plant, the nation's largest, catapulted Washington to the third-highest biodiesel-production capacity of any state.

Ambitious startup Propel Biofuels has begun selling the fuel in pumps around the city, and such firms as EnerG2 are working on nanomaterials to improve fuel cells for hybrid cars.

Clean Edge founder Ron Pernick said the alternative-energy industry may not be destined to have a single dominant hub, as it stretches from solar technology to agriculture. Many regions have different advantages and are emerging as significant players.

The Seattle area has all the ingredients necessary to propel the industry, he said: prestigious academic institutions, an activist government, a pool of managerial talent and "wealthy folks that are coming out of Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon and other companies who could invest."





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