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My Cleantech Journey: From California to Texas and Beyond

I have been told that blogs somehow have more importance and greater connection when written in first person. I often tire of writing “analysis pieces” that seem cold, dry, and impersonal even though they are incredibly important. I somehow have been bottling up the need to write my personal perspective on where cleantech is today and why my opinions and actions in it are as well. It pretty much comes down to this…

I dedicated my entire career since business school to helping bring technologies to market and towards the birth and growth of the clean technology. I have been incredibly fortunate to have learned from the best at MIT in how to bring ideas from lab to market and got to work alongside some of the best technologies and companies while there in learning this trade. I then got to practice this in Silicon Valley with some of the best venture capitalists, best research universities and national labs, and was motivated by my experience being stuck in NYC on 9/11 to make my priority clean technology. I was fortunate to band together with like minds to form durable organizations, policy, and funding mechanisms that popularized and accelerated the growth of cleantech. I have led an enchanted life in being one of the early innovators and actors in this sector. But it was not enough.

I have long stated that technology innovation alone was not going to solve our shift to a clean energy infrastructure. My Silicon Valley compatriots, especially the ones that could risk their limited partner’s money into an arena they had no experience investing into, thought that if they built a cleantech company, it would be adopted as widely, quickly, and capital efficiently as their semi, software, and semi investments. Unfortunately this was a naïve assumption and I quickly harkened back to my Texas roots upon realizing this. The fact was that Texas is the energy expert and energy capital and that if the energy capabilities in Texas weren’t leveraged – project capital, project development, infrastructure deployment, industrial scalability, energy trading, and energy risk management – then we would not have sufficient expertise or capital to make this transition. So, I went back to Texas to see if I could bridge this divide. My tagline became “If Texas becomes a renewable energy state, then there’s hope for the planet.” So if we can show traditional energy companies and investors how to make money in new energy, they would move more of their money and expertise there.

I was well on my way to doing this when I took a side trip to Colorado with the invitation of Kleiner Perkins to be their Entrepreneur in Residence at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. What I found at KPCB were the excesses of the Silicon Valley that I was trying to shift away from. It was a portfolio that had limited prospects for success and an attitude that “Texas doesn’t matter” – that (before the economic downturn) there would be so much follow-on capital that the masters of Silicon Valley alone could re-make the energy marketplace. At NREL on the other hand, there was tremendous resistance to want to commercialize technologies. I found there that indeed there were a tremendous set of incremental innovations that could lower the cost of renewables, but these should be broadly licensed to industry (an quickly and freely) in order to bring down their costs. There was a limited set of “disruptive” innovations that were potential game-changers in the energy marketplace, but needed 5-15 years each to mature to a point of being competitive. There were no venture capital firms at that time, including my employer at the time, that were organized and capitalized to invest into the long haul for these applications.

What to do? To fill the gap, I intended to set up a firm that crossed the divide between innovation and deployment, between California and Texas, leveraging maturation centers like NREL, Pecan Street Project, and others to accelerate demonstration and deployment. Unfortunately, we hit the market window at the worst time possible and I faced a divorce in the process. Therefore, this fund never came into existence. The beauty in this is self-reflection. For those of you who have been given the opportunity to completely re-evaluate everything in life through a traumatic life event, I found clarity, beauty, focus, and realization…

My realization was this: Technology investing alone was not going to turn the corner on averting climate catastrophe. What was needed were more large scale economic demonstrations that renewables are more cost effective today than coal, gas, or nuclear energy. I was fortunately invited by a friend and one of the architects of the Pickens Renewable Energy Plan to form a new renewable energy development firm called Brightman Energy. We quickly modeled and demonstrated that a fully-depreciated coal plant in Texas could be replaced at a lower cost (and with greater long term price stability) with a well-designed, geographically dispersed renewable energy portfolio. This also led me to realize that renewables should be the baseload energy of choice in almost any geography in the US with natural gas providing the balancing or storage mechanism (at least until DSM, efficiency, and other storage solutions became cost effective with natural gas). I also realized that Texas is the deregulated market of choice to demonstrate and scale these solutions – with the most advanced nodal market, transmission infrastructure, system wide preference for generation efficiency, efficient renewable energy trading market, and its own grid, Texas had already created the ideal market for renewables and had already become the largest renewable market in the US.

So where do I go from here? With Brightman, we are building the case and project portfolio for integrated renewable deployment at a scale that can replace coal or natural gas plants (or could take advantage of the latter in order to balance increasing levels of renewables). At the same time, I continue to look at other scalable business models, financial models, and deployment models that will accelerate renewable energy and clean technology deployment – things that will take huge slugs out of our carbon emissions and hopefully avert climate catastrophe. And, yes, I still love disruptive technology – I continue to watch the ones that I think will make the greatest difference on the planet, because they will and they will replace the first generation of massive renewable deployment at an even lower cost more pervasively.

My Year as NREL’s Entrepreneur in Residence

by Joel Serface

I just spent an amazing year at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), but have no start-ups to show for it (yet).

A year ago, I was asked by
Kleiner Perkins to be the first Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at NREL. As a person who has been into energy and environmental technologies since gradeschool and as an early cleantech investor, it was an opportunity of a lifetime to become the first NREL EIR. It was a fantastic time spent with some of the best cleantech researchers in the world. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I tremendously added to my depth and breadth of cleantech history and knowledge.

The program itself was a grand experiment that I commend the Department of Energy for attempting. DOE’s calculus was that if they inserted a serial entrepreneur/investor backed by a brand-named VC firm into a lab that magic would happen and that an innovation would turn immediately into a company. At worst, DOE would learn a lot about what it and its labs need to do better to in order to accelerate ideas to market.

In the 11 months that I had the privilege to work inside NREL, I met with more than 300 researchers, identified around 30 promising technologies that I thought could reach commercial potential over the next several years, and honed in on 3 technologies that showed imminent promise. Unfortunately, the EIR program was timed too short to reach its full potential and to get the first one of these ideas set up as a company.


When building a new program into a research institution, timing is critically important. Based on my experience running the
Austin Clean Energy Incubator at The University of Texas, it took almost 11 months to start my first company. In 18 months, I had helped start 5 companies. In total, these companies raised more than $200 million, but none surpassed KP’s investment hurdle.

When I agreed to become NREL’s EIR, I set the expectation with DOE, NREL, and KP that starting a company that KP would back within one year should not be expected. While there are a tremendous number of opportunities for commercialization at NREL, they need to temporally match a VC firm’s thesis, meet its perceived portfolio needs, or surpass its hurdle for innovation. Given enough time, many of the 30 technologies described above could be built into companies, but not necessarily into ones KP would fund over the period of the EIR Program.


A more reasonable expectation for all was to use this program to begin developing long-term relationships with VCs and start-ups that helped the lab and DOE develop better tools and processes. If successful, this could help NREL deliver more companies or successful collaborations for the entire industry. With this approach in mind, there were many things learned by all parties that could benefit the entire venture capital and start-up industry. Here is what I learned…


First, NREL truly is “The National Renewable Energy Lab”. There is more breadth and depth of renewable energy and energy efficiency knowledge at NREL than any other institution on the planet. This alone is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, the admission price has never been posted and there have only been secret alley entrances with secured doors to gain access to the lab. The lesson here is that new interfaces need to be developed by the lab to better expose its collective knowledge and translate it to the marketplace more effectively (thus EIR and other programs).

Second, the value in NREL is not just in its innovation, but more importantly in the value it can deliver across the life cycle of a technology…

  • Innovation – Yes, NREL has a great pool of researchers and ideas. They also have a network of other labs and universities they collaborate with (MIT, Stanford, University of Colorado, etc.). They will also soon be the hub of all DOE renewable energy intellectual property by managing DOE’s IP Portal.
  • Acceleration – NREL’s experience allows them to solve critical issues for external technologies and companies. Success stories abound from NREL helping First Solar, Uni-Solar, Clipper Wind, and many others. Identifying new ways to open up NREL to solve critical issues in start-ups is critical to the VC industry.
  • Analysis – NREL has a large division that does market, techno-economic, scaling, integration, policy, and plant design analysis. This primarily is developed for DOE and Congress (which really does not take advantage of this tremendous asset), but needs to be exposed to the financial services and venture capital sectors. I would encourage any thesis-driven VC firm or investment bank to review the work that has already been delivered by NREL.
  • Testing / Validation – NREL provides the service of testing all flavors or renewable energy, storage, transportation, building, and energy efficiency technologies. They even integrate multiple technologies as systems and perform accelerated testing. NREL’s validation not only helps get products designed into projects, it also provides critical feedback for future development.
  • Deployment – NREL has a cities and states program that helps advise on local policies, design parameters, and integrated solutions. NREL will increasingly be involved in regional test and implementation centers that will help scale technologies into cities and integrated pilot facilities.


Finally, NREL will only get better; now is the time to begin forging long-term relationships with them. With additional funding, increased DOE support, stronger linkage to national priorities, and new management focused on commercialization and market needs, NREL will deliver increasing value to the cleantech community. By becoming more intertwined with our imminent national priorities and community needs, the lab will increase its “NRELevance” in our nation’s day-to-day existence.


So, what next’s next for the NREL EIR? Over the short run, I will help deliver a national energy efficiency initiative focused on schools with the help of NREL. I will also continue supporting NREL as an entrepreneur/investor and as an advocate of the lab’s potential. I will also continue nurturing the many wonderful relationships I began forging through this program. And, yes, there will be start-ups forthcoming, unfortunately not within the short period of the EIR Program.


Thanks again to DOE, NREL, and KP for inviting me into this unique and invaluable experience. I hope that my time at NREL has made a difference there. If NREL is successful with its new management team and tools, then the entire cleantech community and nation will benefit.

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.