Countdown to Michigan 2031: All In On Cleantech

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Jennifer Baird thinks so. Baird, founder and former CEO of Accuri Cytometers, is now running Accio Energy, a startup in Ann Arbor, MI, designing a wind energy system that requires no moving parts. (EDM Ventures and Resonant Ventures are backing Accio.)

Baird, who had no previous experience in wind power, says there are more opportunities in clean energy for entrepreneurs like her.

“There are quite a few tech entrepreneurs getting involved in this space,” she says.

Draths, a promising biochemical startup backed by Khosla Ventures, recently moved back to Michigan from Minnesota. The Lansing, MI-based company, founded by Michigan State University professors John Frost and Karen Draths, was named by AlwaysOn, an online technology magazine, as one of the country’s top 100 green companies in 2009.

BoraPharm, another MSU spinoff, is expanding its operations at the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex. The company, the first private tenant at the former Pfizer R&D facility, has developed an efficient, more environmentally friendly way of making boranic acid, a key building block in organic chemistry. In 2008, BoroPharm won the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award, administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In Saginaw, MI, a solar energy manufacturing cluster has begun to emerge, led by Dow Corning (a joint venture between the Dow Chemical Co. and Corning to develop silicon-based technology) and Hemlock Semiconductor Group. In 2008, Hemlock, which is partially owned by Dow Corning, said it will spend up to $3 billion to expand production of polycrystalline silicon (polysilicon), a key raw material used to manufacture solar cells and semiconductor devices.

Jeff Bocan, managing director of Beringea, a venture capital/private equity firm in Farmington Hills, MI, says he sees strong possibilities in LED lighting and electronic waste recycling. Beringea has invested in Relume Technologies in Oxford, MI, which is developing more energy efficient outdoor lighting, and Recellular in Dexter, MI, a large recycler of cellphones and other electronics.

Looking ahead, Michigan could lead the nation in developing smart grids, says Ron Gardhouse, president and CEO of NextEnergy, a non-profit research organization in Detroit. Such technology enables household devices and electric cars to use only the energy they need while “returning” excess power back to the grid.

While all of this sounds exciting, Rizik of Renaissance Ventures urges caution. Not all cleantech technologies will attract venture capital, he says. Clean energy technologies, like solar, wind, and biofuels, require expensive physical equipment and could took a while for investors to turn a profit. Remember ethanol?

“Cleantech may not offer as meteoric growth as other industries,” Rizik says. Over the years, “there has been a lot of money forced into a lot of things called cleantech.”

Baird of Accui Energy thinks the biggest obstacle to cleantech is political.

“We need good policy, funding, and smart people,” Baird says. “We’ve got a lot of innovation capability in this state. But [cleantech] doesn’t always align with the political process. Energy development has to be [complemented] with clear policy. China does a much better job than the U.S. [The Chinese craft] 20 year plans. We have trouble with two week plans.”

One of our main aims for Michigan 2031 is to get people thinking in that critical 20-year timeframe. And with only two days to go until the event, the time to register is now. So click here to sign up, and I hope to see you there.

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