Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Clean energy VC panel, and AWWA conference

Yesterday I had the pleasure of moderating an "investing in clean energy" panel for the VC Task Force, graciously hosted by Heller Ehrman -- a panel which included a great set of speakers: Scott Benner of Heller Ehrman, Ira Ehrenpreis of Technology Partners, Dave Pearce of Miasole, and Elton Sherwin of Ridgewood Capital. A tremendous set of experiences between them.
  • Scott is an expert in international energy projects, especially with an international angle, having worked extensively with clients across a wide range of private equity transactions both here and in Asia
  • Ira is an always entertaining and informative speaker, whose energy investments include PolyFuel (mentioned recently here) and PowerGenix, among others (look for more info out of Technology Partners soon, too!); and he's been playing a leading role with the Cleantech Venture Network for some time
  • Dave is an experienced "serial entrepreneur" who's made his mark already in hard disk drive manufacturing and the fiber optics industry, and is now making some great progress in the solar world
  • Elton, whom I've just gotten to know recently, has made some smart technology investments in the past and is now jumping into cleantech investing with both feet, recently investing in both Comverge and Oryxe
It was a pretty intimate (20 or so venture investors, plus panelists), informal, engaging session, with a lot of good comments and questions from the other participants in the room. Without going into any specific comments, I'll just say:

a) There was a strong sense that this is a fast-growing area of interest among VCs, many of whom are just starting to look at the sector now;
b) There was a variety of points of view about the opportunities for a lot of "home run" investments in the space -- some investors view this as a ripe for a next Google, etc., while others look at this as more of a trade-sale-exit kind of industry (not that the two views are necessarily mutual exclusive, note);
c) Much healthy and informative discussion about the drivers and sustainability of the recent growth in the sector, typical stumbling blocks for companies, and different investors' particular strategies and investment criteria

All in all, it was a treat to be able to participate


Today, had the opportunity to cruise the American Water Works Association conference here in SF. Given some of the recent press about water technology investing, I wasn't too surprised to hear from several people I spoke with that I wasn't the first investor-type they'd seen wandering the booths this year... As one exec told me, "I've been going to these things for years, and this is the first year I've seen any VCs, but it seems like I've seen several of them this time. What is that all about?" I think the word is getting out.

While an interesting technology investment area that is getting more attention, this industry remains "low tech" in many ways. There were a lot of large pieces of metal and machinery on the exhibition floor... Admittedly, this conference was aimed at utility customers much more than it was designed for investors, but it was still striking when compared to other industry conferences in other sectors. It does strike the outside observer that there might be a lot of mid- to small-market M&A opportunities to be seen in consolidating a lot of these very fragmented vendors in very mature markets/ technologies...

Regardless, there were also some interesting technological and market developments that were clear to see. The new standards for arsenic in drinking water, due to come into effect in January, are clearly getting a lot of attention both from vendors and customers. New disinfection, filtration, sensor, and other technologies are showing some interesting developments as well. And for what it's worth, I found myself thinking often about machine-to-machine communications while looking at the vendor offerings -- a lot of technology on display that assumed such communications links would be in place, but who's going to provide them? And how?

In all, an interesting conference. Some things to get excited about, and also a good chance to reality check -- nothing like walking through a few displays of specialty hammers, shovels, and fire hydrants to remind you what makes most of the industry really tick.


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