View from the White House on Energy Innovation

by Richard T. Stuebi

On behalf of the President of the Cleveland Foundation Ronn Richard, I was privileged to attend an all-day bull session on May 7 hosted by the White House on energy innovation. With support from the Kauffman Foundation, the White House convened this meeting to spur brainstorming among people who participate across the cleantech spectrum, presumably to surface actions that can dramatically increase the velocity and success of energy innovation.

Alas, I can’t say that I saw evidence of any concrete next steps, but I did hear a number of interesting comments from the morning sessions at the meeting:

Diana Farrell, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council: Throughout U.S. history, major acts can actually spawn and renew markets, rather than thwart them. We are at that point today with energy: energy and environmental debates have grown stale and a new policy paradigm is necessary to cut through them. Oil price spikes have preceded 10 of the last 11 U.S. recessions, so we need to eliminate this vulnerability. The history of great nations shows an ability to anticipate crises before they become too critical. But, as important as policy reforms are, it is not enough for economic robustness: entrepreneurs and innovation are essential.

Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG): Google is working on all three critical dimensions of cleantech: capital, technology and policy. While Google’s actions on capital and technology for cleantech are well-known, their work on policy is aimed at accumulating and providing more and better information for policy-makers to set better policies.

Desh Deshpande, serial entrepreneur, including Chairman of A123 Systems (NASDAQ: AONE): In cleantech, the center of gravity for innovation is not at the national laboratories, and is reverting away from the private sector, instead focusing in the universities. The big challenge is not so much inadequate amount of funding on cleantech innovation, but rather inefficient commercial capture of the innovation that actually happens.

Carl Schramm, President of the Kauffman Foundation: Lots of challenges ahead for cleantech entrepreneurship. Angel investors as well as venture firms stand to be severely punished by proposed regulations aiming to “reform” hedge funds. Businesses of all sizes are becoming too reliant on the government, blunting their intimacy with actual market needs. The link between university and commercialization is broken and needs to be reset, as the rate of new business spin-outs from universities is plummeting. To help combat these challenges, Kauffman is sponsoring an Energy Innovation Network, which aims to help “connect the dots” in faciliating entrepreneurship in the cleantech sector.

Tom Baruch, Managing Director at CMEA: Universities (not corporations) will be the center of innovation for the foreseeable future. Successful cleantech business models will need to be much more capital efficient than many of the most prominent cases to date. Cleantech entrepreneurs cannot assume any “green premium”: their products/services must stand on their own to deliver real economic value to paying customers.

Dr. Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University: Universities can no longer afford to suffer from the delusion that being smarter is sufficient to be the best. University excellence in the future will be defined by five mantras: (1) local relevance, (2) speed, (3) connectivity, both within university and to outside, (4) entrepreneurship, and (5) intellectual innovation.

Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, Founder of A123 Systems and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT: True freedom to innovate at a university only occurs after professors gain tenure. To dramatically increase innovation, universities must restructure how they evaluate professors for tenure: at MIT, new products/services are now part of the review, but jobs created should also be a criterion. Fast-tracking of green cards for promising talent is also critical: over the past 5 years, 86% of foreign graduate students at MIT indicated a desire to stay in the U.S., but only 56% have stayed – and the 44% that left departed mainly because of an inability to stay, not because they didn’t want to stay, in the U.S.

As interesting as these comments from the morning discussions were, the workshop in the afternoon got bogged down in very wonky policy topics that frankly bored me.

And, also interesting was who was NOT at the workshop: little or no representation from big energy companies (petroleum or utilities). Is the White House (along with Kauffman) saying that incumbent energy players are not viewed as part of the cleantech solution?

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

2 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Richard, For a real energy savings idea to be put into use right now, please have a look at http://www.yanengines.com We can retrofit internal combustion engines today to save a projected 30% minimum on fuel. We do need some help on the capital side of things to get this off the ground.

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