By Joel Serface – July 2, 2009
In June, I took a great camping trip to a truly unique feature that many outside the state of Colorado know little about. It was the Great Sand Dunes National Park – the tallest sand dunes in North America with the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I arrived at the perfect time of the year when the temperature was warm enough to simulate a beach environment (small waves included), but before the snowmelt ceased over the course of the summer. It was a fantastic experience, but few other than Coloradans knew about this well-kept secret nestled in the interior of a beautiful state.
I found this a good analogy for the Colorado cleantech opportunity. While I have been in Colorado for only a year, I feel that I arrived at that perfect time when all the conditions were right for a unique experience that could only happen here and that few outside of the state know about. Could it be the perfect time for everything to converge in Colorado allowing it to become the leading cleantech state?
When I arrived to Austin in 2006, I conducted an inventory of local cleantech companies. I found around 20 of what I considered viable cleantech start-ups in Austin and over the time I was there helped grow this to around 40 through starting, recruiting, or coaching companies into the community. When I arrived to Colorado, I found a very surprising thing. In the Front Range – the area stretching from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins – alone, I was able to inventory almost 200 cleantech companies (not including the many services companies that comprise almost 1,778 reported by the Pew Center / Cleantech Group in Colorado). After meeting with many of these companies and delving deeper, I found that there was an incredibly fertile environment for these companies in Colorado with only a few key limitations.
Let’s start with the strengths of Colorado that created this environment…
- Research – Colorado boasts among the highest renewable energy research budget per capita in the United States. This primarily comes to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), but also to several cooperative national labs including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), and several defense laboratories. In addition, three major research universities in the state collaborate with NREL including the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, and Colorado School of Mines. Each of these institutions works closely with one another through the Colorado Collaboratory and the Alliance for Sustainable Energy, NREL’s management company.
- Energy and technology industry expertise – The Colorado Front Range boasts something that no other major population center does… A location where the technology industry and traditional energy industry coexist. This translates into one of the few centers where both talent for cleantech company development and project development can both be executed.
- Ease of recruitment / low cost of doing business – Colorado is a state that carries significantly lower costs than other tech states such as California and Colorado. Colorado also boasts among the of the most highly-educated workforces. Because of the low cost of living, highly-educated workforce, and an environmentally-friendly culture that values outdoors and quality of life, it is not difficult to recruit people from all over the United States to move here.
- State leadership – Colorado has had strong leadership at the state and national level for a number of years around renewable energy. By setting a 20% Renewable Portfolio Standard and a statewide solar rebate, the state has signaled that it is open for clean energy business. Bill Ritter, the Governor of Colorado, is one of the most progressive governors on renewable energy issues that I have met and has an excellent supporting executive team in its Governor’s Energy Office and Office of Economic Development. Because of their leadership and other factors above, Colorado has attracted major new renewable energy companies including Vestas, Siemens, ConocoPhillips, Abengoa Solar, and others to the state. They have also been successful in this despite the lack of other tools (see below) that other states have in place.
- Thought leadership – In addition to research and state leadership, Colorado has a legacy of thought leadership in a number of areas such as green building, energy efficiency, smart grid, and energy analysis. Most already know the great work of Amory and Hunter Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, but several other leading analyst firms exist. eSource, IDC Energy Insights, and Architectural Energy Corporation are all located in Boulder. NREL also maintains one of the largest renewable energy and energy efficiency analysts corps in the world in its Energy Analysis group.
- City / community leadership – Boulder and several other communities have taken on leadership in vital areas such as its Smart Grid City efforts with Xcel Energy and in building efficiency standards and protection of open space. It is community and city leadership that are going to provide test beds for the integration of larger technologies at the city level. Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, and many smaller communities (including mountain communities that are seemingly off grid) each have their respective efforts around energy and environmental leadership.
It’s not all rosy in Colorado. One of the major complaints at the state level are that they have limited economic development funds to help attract or re-locate companies. In my conversations with leaders in the state, I have expressed that their leadership is much more important in creating markets for clean technologies than in providing cash incentives. Leadership, markets, and environment all combine to attract companies to the state; having a little bit more economic development funding could be helpful in rounding out that portfolio, but not a requirement in moving major companies to the state.
A further weakness in building early stage companies in the state is its lack of “domestic” venture capital. Given the ideaflow, creativity, and talent here, it is disappointing that there are no cleantech-focused investing professionals on the ground here to help build early-stage companies providing the coaching and governance necessary to move them to their next stage of development. Several local generalist firms have tipped their feet in the water, but have not made this a large portion of their portfolios. A leading energy technology fund in the state makes very few investments in the state and even fewer in early-stage clean technology companies. There is a robust angel community of former entrepreneurs in Colorado, and a few of them are ramping up their cleantech investments. But still, most of the cleantech venture capital in the state today still comes from coastal VCs.
Like Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado is a relatively unknown commodity in cleantech. Many investors on both coasts suspect it has tremendous potential and will occasionally make it to the state to look at opportunities. Unfortunately, unless the investor is on the ground or has native ties here, many of these opportunities will be overlooked.
After a year here, I can attest that this will become one of the best places to build clean technology companies in the United States as all the above conditions converge and successful role model companies emerge.
Joel Serface served as NREL’s first Entrepreneur in Residence with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. As an investor and entrepreneur, Joel has planted cleantech seeds in Massachusetts, California, Texas, and now Colorado. Since 2000, Joel has started or invested into more than 20 cleantech companies with 5 liquidity events so far and has catalyzed the formation of numerous supporting cleantech institutions and regional and national policy initiatives.