Oh Friendly Day: Boston VCs Launch National Network for Renewable-Energy Entrepreneurs

As I wrote last year in a piece entitled “Go East, Young Man,” cleantech investors Rob Day and Andrew Friendly both left California around the same time in early 2007—Day to become a principal at Wilmington, MA-based @Ventures and Friendly to become a senior associate at Waltham, MA-based Advanced Technology Ventures. The two men already knew each other from the Renewable Energy Business Network (REBN), a professional networking group they had helped to establish in San Francisco. And when they got here, one of their first moves was to set up an East Coast chapter of the outfit, which held its first happy hour last July and has been meeting almost monthly ever since.

Day and Friendly were tapping into serious local interest in energy entrepreneurship: a LinkedIn group they started last fall already has 3,000 members. And now they’re taking the network nationwide. At a reception at the Clean Technology 2008 conference in Boston Monday night, the pair announced that REBN is relaunching as a national non-profit organization with ten chapters, located in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, New York City, Portland, and Washington D.C.

As before, the group’s goal is simple—to bring together entrepreneurs, investors, academics, and other professionals interested in creating new businesses around renewable energy technologies and cleantech. Day and Friendly have rounded up a few founding national sponsors who will help to underwrite gatherings and to set up a central social-networking website; the sponsors include executive search firm Hobbs & Towne, national law firm Holland & Knight, Boston-based law firm Mintz Levin, Silicon Valley Bank, the Houston-based financial services conglomerate Stanford Group Company, and Boston-based public relations firm Weber Shandwick.

I caught up with Friendly by phone yesterday and asked him for a five-minute download about how the new REBN came together and what purpose the group will serve. “We were getting pinged all the time by people [in other cities] asking us if we could set something up for them, or if they could set up something in their town,” he explains. “So we decided now would be a good time to get a handful of corporate sponsors to help us not only to create chapters in at least 10 different cities around the country but also to build out the website to take advantage of the interest and to build in some online networking tools, to make it user generated.”

Friendly says the website will be “the Craigslist of cleantech, for lack of a better analogy. It will have job listings, events, and profiles of members who will identify themselves as experts in certain areas.”

There are plenty of other groups dedicated to advancing cleantech entrepreneurship, and Friendly emphasizes that REBN won’t be in competition with them. “The idea is to be collaborative with all these existing organizations such as the New England Clean Energy Council. It’s an effort to form connections between cleantech and renewable energy business folks—not pure environmentalists, but people who are going to create businesses, researchers who are looking to commercialize their technologies, investors, a handful of students, et cetera.”

Friendly says REBN will form a partnership with the American Council on Renewable Energy, a non-profit industry think tank and lobbying group based in Washington, D.C., though the form of the relationship is still being worked out. “They are an umbrella group with a mandate to push all renewables,” says Friendly. “We’ll be looking to work with them more closely in a yet-to-be-defined way.”

Whatever happens, REBN is likely to retain its informal character—the majority of the group’s gatherings are held over drinks at local pubs and pool halls. “It’s a light-touch, low-effort organization that is entirely dependent on the people who put it together,” says Friendly. “We already have a handful of the city chapters up and running, and more are in formation with groups that have taken responsibility for managing their first meetings.”

Day, in a press release about the national launch yesterday, said, “This is just the beginning of a lot of exciting things we’re pulling together for REBN members. We’re dedicated to helping the development of renewable energy clusters all across the country, supporting existing efforts and welcoming researchers, entrepreneurs and businesspeople into the renewable energy community. When we bring all these great minds together, we know good things will happen.”

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

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