May 29, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Tech vets making leap to green tech
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In general, people who have worked in the semiconductor industry or at hardware companies are the ones who have successfully made the transition, said Ray Fortney, president and managing partner at Cleantech Search, which recruits for clean tech companies.
Enterprise software company veterans are less common among those making the jump, except in fields that are very software-intensive such as smart grids or hosted applications related to energy efficiency, he said.
But that's not for lack of interest. Fortney said that he has seen a lot more people exploring energy-related technologies in the past two years.
"Five or six years ago when we talked about (energy technologies), it was hard to get people to comprehend what it was even about," he said. "It's amazing the effect that $60-per-barrel oil and $4-per-gallon gasoline has had."
In many cases, the combination of IT people at clean tech companies makes perfect sense from a technical point of view.
Novazone, for example, has designed a system that uses sensors and wireless networking, combined with the application of ozone, to purify water and preserve food. Similarly, smart grid start-ups, like Silver Spring Networks, are applying software and Internet networking to power grids.
As businesses, clean tech start-ups can make use of the latest IT advances to run their business operations.
Even consumer-facing green companies are tapping Internet executives. TerraPass, which provides an online service for consumers to buy carbon offsets , earlier this month hired Erik Blachford, the former CEO of online travel site Expedia.
"When I first encountered the (carbon credits field), it was thick with acronyms and hard to follow, but as I get deeper into it I found that it's not any more confusing than the travel industry," Blachford said. "If you squint a little bit, (TerraPass) looks a lot like an e-commerce company...it's not so different from people booking reservations online."
Good marketing or hype?
One downside to the influx of venture investing into the clean-tech arena is the creation of what many people consider an investment bubble and, potentially, overinflated expectations, which is a steady pattern in the high-tech industry.
To some degree, company failure and some hype are to be expected with every technology investment wave, executives said. On the other hand, many of these new fields require marketing--something that's highly tuned in high tech but not typically applied to energy-related technologies or science.
"There are whole new categories being created," said Novazone's Cope. "There is a tremendous amount of brand equity and corporate value in defining terms. That takes aggressive marketing and communication skills."
Who will be dominant players in the different segments of clean tech has yet to play out, but the initial public offerings this year of two energy efficiency companies--EnerNoc and Comverge--indicate that marrying IT and the energy industry technology and people can pay off.
"This is a marketplace that will reward a lot of first movers like a lot of emerging markets," said Foundation Capital's Holland. "We want this fast clock rate executive--to use a chip industry term--who has worked in the IT environment...and to marry that with people who have expertise in industries like agribusiness that historically have had much longer cycle times for new products and innovations."
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