Building Cleantech CEOs in Colorado

It’s not easy being green.

Kermit the Frog sang it, but cleantech entrepreneurs live it.

Cleantech is more challenging for entrepreneurs than, say, software, said Richard Adams, director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo. NREL is the only Energy Department lab devoted to cleantech and alternative energy, and Adams’ job is to commercialize the research done there.

“We’ve been through this learning curve where we’ve found that cleantech is not that easy,” he said. “It’s a regulated environment that people are trying to sell into. It’s very expensive, the cost of capital is very high. You need enormous amounts of capital if you’re going to build out certain things . . . and as a result we’ve seen a tipping point in terms of participation in and enthusiasm for the sector.”

The expertise and experience needed for most cleantech industries deter many entrepreneurs. Others are scared off by the lack of a cohesive, consistent national energy policy. Federal support for manufacturing and R&D in various industries, such as solar, has been inconsistent and expiring tax credits and subsidies have left companies stranded.

Though cleantech is in a slump currently, between 1999 and 2009, the sector grew at twice the rate of the state economy, according to the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association (CCIA). The trade group estimates Colorado has more than 1,700 cleantech companies employing more than 20,000 people.

So what’s an industry to do when it doesn’t have enough C-suite executives? Make them.

The CCIA in 2012 created Energy Fellows Institute, which takes seasoned entrepreneurs from a variety of fields and gives them a crash course in clean tech and alternative energy in hopes they’ll start companies or join existing ones in need of guidance. NREL is a supporter.

“Cleantech has been around for about 10-15 years; it’s relatively new. Not yet long enough to have serial entrepreneurs in the same space with those skill sets. So we’re trying to build that cohort of executives through our program,” said Jeff Lints, managing director of Energy Fellows.

Tom McKinnon has joined that cohort.

The retired professor of chemical engineering and serial entrepreneur once traveled to Mongolia to use a drone to drop a net on a vulture, so you know he’s not afraid of risky ventures.

And, though his effort to capture and band the Mongolian Black Vulture on behalf of the Denver Zoo failed (too windy), McKinnon has turned his experience with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into a new business.

Agribotix uses drones to survey crops and ranchland. Regular and near-infrared cameras mounted on UAVs can detect the health and abundance of crops, allowing for more precise and efficient use of pesticides and herbicides as well as more accurate crop insurance claims. McKinnon is convinced the business will succeed, but he’s also waiting for federal regulations on the commercial use of drones, which is now illegal.

McKinnon was in the inaugural class of Energy Fellows. Over the course of 175 curriculum hours, he listened to lectures from visiting experts, visited solar installations and wind farms and learned about the various facets of cleantech, including securing capital.  

“The most valuable part was just contacts,” said McKinnon, noting that the former head of Energy Fellows is joining Agribotix and the company found its lawyer through the program. “I would do it again.”

Duer Reeves was in the same class as McKinnon. Since graduating, Reeves, a veteran of Sun Microsystems, has started WeatherCloud, which uses vehicle-monitored sensors to provide highly localized weather and traffic conditions. It was during the Energy Fellows program that he met a team at the National Center for Atmospheric Research working on the vehicle-mounted sensors.

A year ago, Reeves formed a company with the researchers. WeatherCloud already has a contract with the Colorado Department of Transportation to gauge the effect of snow plowing on traffic.   

“I could have built the twelfth photo sharing app or a nifty website or widget, but what the Energy Fellows Institute gave me was a bridge to apply these technologies to what I consider a more real problem — transportation,” he said.

He said he has recommended the program to others. 

“We had an opportunity to understand the cleantech ecosystem from soup to nuts. It was a very well-constructed program. I found the whole spirit behind the program to be very cooperative, very collegial,” he said.

With only two classes and 12 graduates under its belt, it’s too soon to tell if Energy Fellows will succeed in its mission to create a new class of cleantech entrepreneurs and executives. A number of alumni are launching companies

“We’re a new organization and we’re still trying to get the word out, but we’ve attracted some very high-potential executives and, as long as we keep the caliber high, I think the program is really going to shine,” Lints said.

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