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Crowdfunding Coming Of Age In Cleantech

With early stage capital for cleantech innovation becoming increasingly scarce, crowdfunding sites like KickstarterIndiegogo and a new crop of clean/green ones are beginning to emerge as significant sources of funding for selected next-gen clean technologies.

Hurdles remain, particularly for investors seeking returns, but I’m more optimistic about these sites’ usefulness to cleantech entrepreneurs than I used to be.

Asked a year ago by a publication about how significant crowdfunding was likely to become in fostering disruptive cleantech innovation, I wasn’t exactly effusive. As GE’s Ecomagination Magazine wrote, “’When it comes to the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars needed for new breakthrough science, that still best comes from institutional investors,’ says Kachan. Kachan says big investors like to get seats on a company’s board and hope to get a sizable chunk of profits. Clearly, someone who plunks down a small pledge on Kickstarter has different motivations.”

Today, a year later, a lot has changed. Cleantech venture investment worldwide in 2012 was two thirds of what it was the year previous, with early stage funding particularly hard hit. And now with good, relevant success stories like Adapteva and BioLite, at least some startups are starting to find today’s crowdfunding options emerging as a source for the equivalent of friends & family seed capital. While it’s unlikely to ever produce the millions that institutional or corporate deep pockets will continue to provide, it may—just may—serve entrepreneurs seeking early stage money in a time when early stage money has become harder to come by than ever.

And then there’s new, fledgling policy support. In America, today is coincidentally the one-year anniversary of House passage of a bill known as the JOBS Act, which is intended to make it easier for companies to raise money through crowdfunding. Charities have used crowdfunding for years to raise money. The new bill is to streamline the process of companies raising up to $1 million a year in equity, not the simple donations as in today’s crowdfunding, but U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations to govern the process are still forthcoming as of this writing. Today, small businesses wanting to raise money from more than 500 investors have to go through a long and often expensive process of registering documents with the SEC.

Barriers to equity investors aside, it’s clear that crowdfunding activity has been ramping up in cleantech. A random smattering of latest developments:

  • This week, a startup called Velkess launched a Kickstarter campaign looking for $54,000 to build a large prototype of a new type of less expensive flywheel for energy storage. The company seeks to build a large 750-pound prototype of its fiberglass flywheel. The company’s founder has bootstrapped the company to date, but says he needs more money to buy larger magnets needed by the new prototype.
  • Lucid Energy, which produces power from gravity-fed water pipelines, received undetermined financing this week from Israeli venture platform OurCrowd. The Portland, Oregon-based company has commercial traction in Israel, and plans to use the capital to launch a wider roll-out of its technology. OurCrowd is a combined venture capital firm and crowdfunding platform. Lucid was formed in 2007 and has invented an in-pipe turbine that captures energy from fast-moving liquid inside water pipelines without affecting operations.
  • It only has a few weeks to go and is far short of its target, but Potential Difference of Las Vegas is seeking $50,000 through an Indiegogo campaign to produce a first run of fast chargers for consumer electronics devices such as cell phones and tablets. The company’s patented power management algorithms, licensed from Georgia Tech and with applicability to EVs and plug-in hybrids, it says, aim to reduce the charge time of lithium ion battery packs from 30 minutes to 12 minutes.

Entrepreneurs and project developers of all walks are being increasingly drawn to crowdfunding sites. Especially those without a university education, who don’t have government backing, or, for whatever reason, choose not to go traditional venture or debt routes.

And, for clean technology startups, there are now no shortage of sites to cater to them. In addition to Kickstarter, Indiegogo and their general ilk like RocketHub, Seedmatch and Crowdfunder, Greenfunder is a crowdfunding platform for green, sustainable and related projects. Germany-based SunnyCrowd launched late in 2012 to support (mostly) local German renewable energy projects. On its heels, Mosaic has launched its solar crowdfunding site, and within 24 hours, its first four projects sold out. More than 400 investors put up amounts ranging from $25 to $30,000 (the average was nearly $700), for a total investment of more than $313,000. Similarly, SunFunder has introduced a “crowdfunding platform to connect individual investors with quality, vetted, high impact solar businesses working on the ground in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.” Next week at the South by Southwest (SxSW) conference in Austin, social enterprise CarbonStory, based in Singapore, is to formally introduce its crowdfunding platform, where participants are to contribute as little as a few dollars a month to sponsor green projects that have been selected by CarbonStory.

The final remaining barrier, however, is reconciling returns on investment and crowdfunding. There’s more of a provision for, and expectation of, returns for investors in the more-established microlending mechanisms pioneered by Kiva and others than there is in crowdfunding as it’s known today.

Because crowdfunding today is essentially a metaphor for “donation,” establishing a mechanism for investor returns as is being attempted via the JOBS Act, and blurring the lines with what we currently know and think of separately as microfinance, will be critical to unlock the vast amounts of private capital waiting to be applied to innovative cleantech innovation and products by you, me, our rich uncles and other private investors seeking returns on our hard-earned money. Only then will crowdfunding really get its day in the clean/green tech sun.

This was originally published here and is republished by permission. Agree? Disagree? Weigh in on our original article.

 

A former managing director of the Cleantech Group, Dallas Kachan is now managing partner of Kachan & Co., a cleantech research and advisory firm that does business worldwide from San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver. Kachan & Co. staff have been covering, publishing about and helping propel clean technology since 2006. Kachan & Co. offers cleantech research reports, consulting and other services that help accelerate its clients’ success in clean technology. Details at www.kachan.com.

A New Cleantech Taxonomy

Classic definitions of cleantech, and the industries under its umbrella, have gotten long in the tooth. The sector has changed, and taxonomies haven’t kept up.

Why is a clean technology taxonomy important? As a list of nested categories, it shows where a clean technology “fits”. It helps vendors understand their competitive sets. It defines and helps investors understand the breadth of the sector and its sub-categories, and helps research and data organizations report consistently.

So if it’s so important, why haven’t leading cleantech taxonomies kept pace with the sector’s evolution? Because it’s hard. Especially for cleantech data companies like Dow Jones, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, GTM Research, PwC/NVCA MoneyTree, or Cleantech Group. Any edit could mean having to re-tag years of data in difficult-to-change back end systems. And, truth be told, there are usually more profitable things for a data company to do than pay people to sit around and think about what cleantech is, what it’s not and how the industries it spans should be organized.

Ah, but it’s a different story for a fledgling new cleantech research and advisory shop. At our firm, the taxonomy of cleantech is something many of us have been itching to dig into for years. We’ve seen the limitations in today’s taxonomies. And so, the last few months, I and the high profile consulting, analyst and writer colleagues I’ve been lucky to work with in the cleantech research and consulting team at Kachan & Co. have been quietly working on our own take, which I now get to share with you for your feedback.

[Click here to view this post with embedded taxonomy graphics view]

As a new firm, it was an important exercise for us:

  • It gave us a brand new framework for tagging and scheduling current and future research and analysis
  • We were able to rethink what many organizations have been holding up as 11 hallowed categories of cleantech (we think there are only 8 that deserve to be high-level categories. See our detailed classification, below.)
  • We were able to use our collective dozens of years in this sector to make some logical changes that we’d all been wanting to make, e.g. categorizing smart grid as a subset initiative within the larger phenomenon of energy efficiency. Or collecting green building-related materials under a category we call clean industry, recognizing that these materials are used more widely than just in structures for green building.
  • We adopted terms the market has settled on, and did away with outdated terminology
  • We chose not to categorize projects financed. Therefore wind, solar, even aquaculture farms don’t appear here as categories. We intentionally framed this as a taxonomy of technology and business model innovation.
  • It required discipline to remember the exercise was a classification for technologies, i.e. when hardware/software or other systems are involved. It was not a categorization of larger climate change initiatives, for instance… just where tech that’s supposed to get commercialized is involved, and where entrepreneurs and investors hope to make a return.
  • It forced the internal discussion of whether nuclear is a clean technology. While some argue nuclear has no place in cleantech, we opted to include it, as we’ve recently been made aware of nuclear-related innovations being pursued to derive power from non-weaponizable fuels, and other new R&D aimed at cracking that other historical nut of nuclear power: waste. But those are other stories.
  • It forced a focus on cleantech-related innovation. For instance, just because recycling is a category doesn’t mean that everything in the recycling industry is cleantech. Likewise semiconductors. Or hydro. But these areas are ripe for clean technology innovation, and there are new cleantech breakthroughs happening in each there today. Hence their inclusion.

[Click here to download the taxonomy as PowerPoint slides from the Kachan & Co. website]

After years of writing thousands of clean technology articles and reports, our team proposes this categorization as a cleantech category taxonomy. But consider this a ‘crowdsourced’ first draft. We’re interested in industry feedback before calling this done. Weigh in with comments on this same taxonomy posting on OUR site, and we’ll incorporate your best thinking in a final version we’ll publish on our website here a few weeks from this writing. We’ll then start using the final as a framework for other forthcoming cleantech information products, and invite you to use it, too.

(Credit: dozens of others’ frameworks were reviewed in this process, but special acknolwedgement to taxonomies from Cleantech Group, China Greentech Initiative, StrategyEye, Greentech Media, Skipso and Wikipedia, all of which informed our final structure below.)

In outline form, Kachan & Co’s taxonomy of what fits where in cleantech:

  • Renewable energy generation
    • Wind
      • Turbines
      • Components, incl. gearboxes, blades, towers
    • Solar
      • Crystalline silicon
      • Thin film
      • Thermal
      • CSP
        • Thermal
        • PV
      • Organic
      • Nanotech
      • PPA providers
      • Systems
    • Renewable fuels
      • Grain Ethanol
      • Cellulosic Ethanol
      • Biodiesel
      • Biogas
      • Algal-based
      • Biobutanol
      • Hydrogen [when produced from non-fossil sources]
    • Marine
      • Tidal
      • Wave
      • Run-of-river and other new hydro innovations
      • Ocean thermal
    • Biomass
      • Wood
      • Grasses (e.g. miscanthus, switchgrass)
      • Algae, non-fuel
    • Geothermal
      • Hardware & systems
    • Waste-to-energy
      • Waste heat recovery
      • Anaerobic digestion
      • Landfill methane
      • Gasification
      • Plasma torching
    • Nuclear
      • New designs
      • Non-uranium fuels
      • Waste disposal
    • Emerging
      • Osmotic power
      • Kinetic power
      • Others
    • Measurement & analysis
      • Software systems
      • Sensor and other hardware
  • Energy storage
    • Batteries
      • Wet cells (e.g. flow, lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, sodium -sulfur)
      • Dry cells (e.g. zinc-carbon, lithium iron phosphate)
      • Reserve batteries
      • Charging & management
    • Fuel cells
      • PEM
      • DMFC
      • SOFC
      • MCFC
      • Zinc air
    • Thermal storage
      • Molten salt
      • Ice
      • Chilled water
      • Eutectic
    • Flywheels
    • Compressed air
    • Super/ultra capacitors
    • Hydrogen storage
  • Energy efficiency
    • Smart grid
      • Transmission
        • Sensors & quality measurement
        • Distribution automation
        • High voltage DC
        • Superconductors
      • Demand management/response
      • Management
        • Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) & smart meters
        • Monitoring & metering
        • Networking equipment
        • Quality & testing
        • Self repairing technologies
        • Power conservation
        • Power protection
        • Software & data analysis
    • Green building
      • Design
        • Green roofs
      • Building automation
        • Software & data analysis
        • Monitoring, sensors and controllers
        • Metering
        • Networking & communication
      • Lighting
        • Ballasts & controllers
        • Solid state lighting
        • CFLs
      • Systems
        • HVAC
        • Refrigeration
        • Water heating
      • Consulting/facilities management
        • ESCOs
    • Cogeneration
      • Combined heat and power (CHPDH)
    • Electronics & appliances
      • Efficient power supplies
      • Data center virtualization
      • Smart appliances
    • Semiconductors
  • Transportation
    • Vehicles
      • Improved internal combustion
      • Hybrid ICE/electric
      • All electric
      • Rail transport innovation
      • Water transport innovation
      • Components
    • Logistics
      • Fleet management
      • Traffic & route management
      • Lighting & signals
      • Car, bike, equipment sharing systems
      • Parking management systems
    • Fueling/charging infrastructure
      • Vehicle-to-grid (V2G)
      • Plug in hybrids
      • Induction
    • CNG
      • Engine conversion
      • Storage improvement
  • Air & environment
    • Carbon sequestration
      • Carbon capture & storage
        • Geological
        • Ocean
        • Mineral
        • Bio capture, incl. algae
        • Co2 re-use
      • Geoengineering
      • Biochar
      • Forestry/agriculture
    • Carbon trading/offsets
      • Software systems
    • Emissions control
      • Sorbents & scrubbers
      • Biofiltration
      • Cartridge/electronic
      • Catalytic converters
    • Bioremediation
    • Recycling & waste
      • Materials reclamation
      • New sorting technologies
      • Waste treatment
      • Waste management & other services
    • Monitoring & compliance
      • Toxin detection
      • Software systems
      • Sensors & other measurement/testing hardware
  • Clean industry
    • Advanced packaging
      • Packing
      • Containers
    • Design innovation
      • Biomimicry
      • Software
    • Materials innovation
      • Nano
        • Gels
        • Powders
        • Coatings
        • Membranes
      • Bio
        • Biopolymers
        • Biodegradables
        • Catalysts
        • Timber reclamation
      • Glass
        • Chemical
        • Electronic
        • PV
      • Chemical
        • Composites
        • Foils
        • Coatings
      • Structural building material
        • Cement
        • Drywall
        • Windows
      • Ceramics
      • Adhesives
    • Equipment efficiency
      • Efficient motors
      • Heat pumps & exchangers
      • Controls
    • Production
      • Construction/fabrication
      • Resource utilization
      • Process efficiency
      • Toxin/waste minimization
    • Monitoring & compliance
      • Software systems
      • Automation
      • Sensors & other measurement/testing hardware
  • Water
    • Generation
      • Desalination
      • Air-to-water
    • Treatment
      • Filtration
      • Purification
      • Contaminate detection
      • Waste treatment
    • Transmission
      • Mains repair/improvement
    • Efficiency
      • Recycling
      • Smart irrigation
      • Aeroponics/hydroponics
      • Water saving appliances
    • Monitoring & compliance
      • Software systems
      • Sensors & other measurement/testing hardware
  • Agriculture
    • Crop treatment
      • Natural fertilizers
      • Natural pesticides/fungicides
    • Land management
      • Erosion control
      • Sustainable forestry
      • Precision agriculture
      • Soil products/composting
    • Aquaculture
      • Health & yield
      • Waste management
      • Containment

Thoughts on how to improve? Please leave a comment on the official comment thread for this discussion on our site.

A former managing director of the Cleantech Group, Dallas Kachan is now managing partner of Kachan & Co., a cleantech research and advisory firm that does business worldwide from offices in San Francisco, Toronto, Vancouver and London. Its staff have been covering, publishing about and helping propel clean technology since 2006. Kachan & Co. offers cleantech research reports, consulting and other services that help accelerate its clients’ success. Details at www.kachan.com.