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Combing the World for Cleantech Entrepreneurs

Jonathan Ortmans, President, Public Forum Institute

This year has brought a lot of productive give-and-take of ideas on clean energy innovation by people around the world who saw opportunity rather than doom in the combination of environmental and financial challenges. Last May, for example, I joined over 140 participants from all sectors at the White House Energy Innovation Conference to discuss how to accelerate energy innovation and support entrepreneurs and small businesses in the energy sector. During follow-up regional meetings in June, scientists, entrepreneurs, innovators, venture capitalists, military and government experts, and others discussed policy and processes that can enhance all stages of the energy innovation pipeline. Earlier this month, the United Nations Environment Program and the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century showed concrete results (at least in terms of effort) when they revealed in a pair of new reports that by early 2010 more than 100 countries enacted policies to boost the development of a green economy and businesses in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Scientists and entrepreneurs have also mobilized. Take the work of MIT’s Angela Belcher, who appears to have worked out how to genetically engineer viruses to build both the positively and negatively charged ends of a Lithium-ion battery that has the same capacity and performance as the state-of-the-art battery that A123, an MIT startup, will start rolling out in plug-in hybrids next year. Last week, I witnessed firsthand more history of clean energy in the making at the 2010 Cleantech Open Conference in San Jose, CA. This important gathering stemmed from a group of California-based entrepreneurs who decided it was time to get serious about building a new green economy through clean technology innovation. Members of the Cleantech Open decided to expand their business plan competition program around the world through a global Ideas Competition, which I had the pleasure of launching last week. This competition follows a trend of a global cleantech mindset that detects market opportunities beyond the artificial grid of national boundaries by engaging thousands of individual minds working on other innovations (for an example of this trend, listen to Erik Straser talk about Clean Tech's Global Opportunity).

Third sector organizations in turn have been offering strategic thinking about innovation commercialization. For example, to help facilitate connections among energy innovators, the Kauffman Foundation has created the Energy Innovation Network to help entrepreneurs connect with researchers to develop new technologies, assist start-ups in finding customers and connect public and private entities, share policy and other information. To further inform policy, the Kauffman Foundation released a report summarizing the discussion and recommendations made at the Energy Innovation Conference held at the White House the previous month.

One of the main policy challenges identified is to make deployment of new technology easier. Too often, the technology will have been developed and can get stuck getting to market. In this post, I mentioned two breakthrough technologies that were born in a university research lab, specifically at MIT.  Imagine if more innovations could make the transition from research labs to the marketplace. Recently, the Cleantech Group ranked the top 10 cleantech universities and top 10 cleantech states.  Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between the two lists. Examining chemical and engineering labs around the nation looking for "a pipeline of collaboration of businesses, universities, state initiatives, investors and research dollars,” MIT, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin came out on top. Examining states for "cleantech jobs and job growth, cleantech companies, and VC dollars invested" as well as public policy environments, California, Texas and Massachusetts led the list. Universities are clearly crucial in building a green economy and removing bottlenecks in the innovation pipeline from these institutions to the market is key.

Clean energy has plenty of untapped potential to drive the economy and create the jobs of the future in America and elsewhere. I encourage young entrepreneurs around the globe to leave their handprint on the changing shape of the world by joining the global movement of cleantech entrepreneurs. If we can implement policies that allow these entrepreneurs to lead the way to a green economy, this might be only the beginning of the clean-tech innovation and jobs creation era.


Jonathan Ortmans is president of the Public Forum Institute, a non-partisan organization dedicated to fostering dialogue on important policy issues. In this capacity, he leads the Policy Dialogue on Entrepreneurship, focused on public policies to promote entrepreneurship in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, he serves as a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation. 

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