Man on a Cleantech Mission: A VC Visits the U.K. (Final Day)

Manchester & Newcastle: Thursday, June 12

Final day on the trip for me—the remainder of the group will spend the final day in Newcastle tomorrow, which I am sorry to miss as it will include a tour of NaREC (New and Renewable Energy Center) and a boat trip out to an off-shore wind farm. Perhaps we can get a report on that excursion from another of my traveling companions.

We left the hotel in Manchester early and jumped in a couple of vans heading west into the English countryside. After a route that made me feel like I was being kidnapped (short of the blindfold, that is), we visited a couple of startups located in places that would seem right at home in Kendall Square (the dodgier parts). It is good to see the frugal nature of startups is a global phenomena.

We spent the better part of the mid-day with EA Technology, which is playing a central role in launching the Capenhurst Energy Innovation Centre (EIC)—which will be a unique new facility designed to enable startup companies to turn innovative ideas into commercially successful products and services for the energy industry. The EIC is supported by a consortium of industry, technology, financial, and startup players focused on bringing to market a wide range of high-value cleantech companies.

This set of discussions prompted our group to explore whether we could use such a facility and mechanism in New England. We are soon to have the newly minted Massachusetts Clean Tech Center (currently more a virtual concept than a physical facility), which when formed will facilitate the Clean Tech Fellows and the Clean Tech Seed Funding Programs. These are innovative and important programs, but there definitely seems to be wisdom in creating a physical place and a defined process to create and facilitate cross-functional teams focused on cleantech innovation. We committed to revisiting this upon our return to Boston.

We then took a train to Newcastle, traversing three hours worth of quaint English towns. Arriving in the city I found one of the coolest river scenes I have ever seen, especially at night when the main footbridge cycles through a set of color schemes (powered by LEDs—more energy efficient, of course). This bridge was the centerpiece of a very unique riverfront worth visiting. The only disappointment I experienced in visiting Newcastle was learning that the locals aren’t so keen for their Brown Ale. In fact, the local nickname for the Ale is “Dog.” I am not sure what that means, except that we are probably paying way too much for it in the U.S; kinda like a Brit paying $5 for a bottle of Rolling Rock in the U.K..

Dinner was with Andrew Mills, CEO of NaREC, a world-class innovation and test facility with particular emphasis on off-shore wind and wave & tidal. Also at dinner were a handful of entrepreneurs and folks heading the various cleantech research centers around the Northeast of England. The U.K.’s cleantech efforts are aligned regionally, with a handful of centers and agencies responsible for managing the intra- and inter-regional efforts. This seems to work pretty well and facilitates a range of interactions for which there does not seem to be an analog in the U.S.. DOE does a pretty good job of centrally managing efforts, but much could be gained by creating an increased dialogue across the various centers of excellence in the U.S. and also by focusing more on international collaboration.

A few final observations from a day and week filled with people brandishing fresh ideas and a clear sense of purpose and passion for solving climate change. The technology innovation continues to be interesting and fairly deep; in one case today, the inventor has been working on lighting technology for decades and has created a quite compelling set of LED-based lighting solutions. All these companies have a character cast as the Financial Director (i.e. CFO), who seems to play a much more front and center role than his counterparts play in the U.S.. The crucial role the CEO plays in U.S. companies is less poignant in the U.K. which may help explain the discontinuity in venture capital flows, especially from U.S.-based investors. In addition to the pervasive hunger for venture funding, there is a palpable desire to tackle the North American market. These myriad possible interconnects at the technology, financing, and business levels bode well for a rich set of collaborations with the U.K. and other international centers of excellence moving forward.

The day ended with a ride on a mechanical bull, the second attempt in my life, which was no more successful than the previous one, decades earlier in Oklahoma City. I suppose there is some appropriate metaphor around the importance of getting back in the saddle despite being thrown off, or perhaps more importantly, unlike riding an angry mechanical bull, with global climate change there is no padded landing area if we don’t get it right.

It’s been fun to share this journey, hopefully it was useful to any of you that took the time to read it!

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