Clean Energy Council Launches Fellowships to Retrain Entrepreneurs for the Cleantech Industry

It’s hard to kick-start a new regional industry if there’s a shortage of entrepreneurs who understand the business. That’s the problem the New England Clean Energy Council (NECEC) is taking on with a new fellowship program designed to retrain entrepreneurs experienced in the software business and other industries so that they can venture into cleantech.

The Clean Energy Fellowship Program, announced today, is one element of a five-year, $50 million proposal floated by Massachusetts House Speak Sal DiMasi last month in an effort to boost the state’s clean energy sector. But that proposal is just at the beginning of its journey through the legislature—in a year when support for renewable energy technology could well take a backseat to other budget priorities. So the NECEC is plowing ahead with a pilot version of the fellowship program, which, in its first session, will bring 10 to 15 experienced executives to the Boston area for three and a half months of classroom sessions, energy lab visits, and entrepreneurial projects.

But interested entrepreneurs need to act fast: Applications for the fellowships are due May 1, and the program gets underway May 29. According to NECEC’s call for applicants, candidates need to have experience as CEO or key early business leader of at least one venture, as well as experience raising at least $3 million in capital for previous ventures, and a “proven ability to embrace/manage new technology.”

Nick d’Arbeloff, NECEC’s executive director and an Xconomist, explained some of the rationale behind the fellowship program to me when I talked with him last month about the DiMasi proposal. “One of the key weaknesses of many clean-energy ventures is an inexperienced team,” he said. “So for this sector to grow rapidly in Massachusetts, we must provide one critical ingredient, and that is experienced entrepreneurs who understand how to build companies, how to raise capital, and how to make the venture succeed.”

But while leading an energy venture demands a lot of special skills—as Xconomist Bill Aulet has pointed out—part of the goal of the fellowships, d’Arbeloff says, is to show professionals from other fields that it may not be quite as hard as they think. “I think that one of the issues faced by the sector is that many entrepreneurs from what I’ll call ‘classic’ technology industries are intimidated by the different shape of clean energy technology,” he says. “In truth, the similarities outweigh the differences. So while a software entrepreneur is not going to reach a comfort level overnight, the skills that he or she has in building companies are desperately needed. These fellowships will address that need head-on.”

D’Arbeloff and Peter Rothstein, an executive in residence at Flagship Ventures, will coordinate the fellowship. “A successful fellowship program could accelerate the transition of CEO-caliber entrepreneurs into leadership roles with dozens of new clean energy companies in our region,” Rothstein said in NECEC’s press release about the program today. “This will result in keeping local capital in our region, creating thousands of new high-paying jobs and establishing another important market sector to keep Massachusetts’s economy vibrant.”

NECEC will hold an information session about the fellowship program at Boston University’s Stone Science Building, Room 453, at 5:30 p.m. next Tuesday, April 22.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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