Cleantech is dead. Long live Cleantech!

At the beginning of the cleantech era, every idealistic entrepreneur had a dream of the big idea.  Paradigm shifting, carbon saving, giant beating – these were big technologies with big futures and in a fast changing big new world.  Entire new industries were envisaged, new prime movers in energy conversion technologies, fuels, materials, geo-engineering and nano-particles.  It was all potential, all about creating a company with a big idea – I know, I started one.

And now?  Is cleantech dead?  Where are the big ideas?

Well, those paradigms have shifted, and some of the technologies created then have made a real impact on carbon. The giants proved remarkably resilient, but they were changed even if not beaten.  Some of those new industries have matured and technologies that were cutting edge then are now project financeable by some of the most risk averse bankers and investors.  Some prime movers made it, many sunk without trace, a few solidly progress on as the medium-sized opportunities they probably always were.  Almost without exception every big idea has taken far longer to mature than expected.  We were all inspired by the pace of the dotcom boom, but industrial technologies take far longer to develop in reality than the quick big wins of the virtual world.  Many investors learned this lesson the hard way, and investment available for new cleantech ideas is considerably reduced.

So, is cleantech dead?  Yes.  But paradoxically it continues to thrive.  Cleantech was always a bit of a misnomer.  Never an industry in itself, or a discipline or science, it was a convenient title for a wide range of companies and technologies broadly focused on reducing energy and other operating costs.  It’s dead because it won the battle, it had built-in obsolescence. All industries consider ‘cleantech’ as a part of their business, and higher energy users consider it more than most.  Cleantech entrepreneurs can revert to being, well, entrepreneurs again – finding opportunities to make money through meeting customers’ objectives.

And where are these opportunities, in the post-Cleantech world?  No more the prime movers and the big ideas, but the small enabling technologies, connections, monitoring and measurement, telemetry, behaviour models, evolution not revolution.  New business models, finance approaches, ways to enable roll out, to reduce risks.  The transfer of technologies, materials and approaches from one sector – where they are proven – to another.  The incremental improvements in efficiency rather than game changers.  Led by defined industry needs not technology potential.  There are real opportunities within the large but sleepy industrial markets, but the lesson learned is that we need to work with the giants not try to kill them.

The entrepreneurs have matured, the industries have matured.  The ambitions may seem smaller, but the actual impact is far greater.  To make money in cleantech today, think small.  It may be less exciting, but it is more profitable.  And that alignment between profit and positive impact on the environment is what got many of us into cleantech in the first place.