When Green is Not Enough: Lessons from a Cleantech CEO

Funding for clean technology startups has increased substantially in recent years, with 323 U.S. companies raising a total of $4.3 billion in 2011, according to the recently released MoneyTree Report. In the San Diego area, the same report shows that four cleantech startups raised $78 million last year, including $15 million that went to SG Biofuels in the fourth quarter.

But sometimes it’s not enough to be green. Many cleantech startups face a basic challenge in competing against existing products that might not be as environmentally friendly, but are nevertheless well-established—even commoditized—in their respective markets.

In San Diego, sustainable design architect (and Xconomist) Robert Noble has led the development of clean manufacturing methods and technologies for manufacturing a green replacement for medium density fiberboard (MDF) structural panels—a standard material used in building construction and other industries. Noble says the proprietary process makes panels from any kind of fibrous, cellulosic material, such as recycled paper, cardboard, wood chips, corn stalks, and even cow manure. The big difference is that the replacement product, which Noble calls 3-D Engineered Molded Fiber (3DEMF), requires no petroleum-based glues or addititves, or vapor-emitting chemicals.

Ecor samples

Now Noble Environmental Technologies, a company he founded in 2005, is overseeing installation of a 3DEMF factory, showroom, and design lab in downtown San Diego to manufacture the company’s Ecor brand panels. “The tide has turned for sustainable materials,” says Jim Torti, the company’s chief operating officer.

After personally funding the company through 2009, Noble says he now has about 15 individual and institutional investors, and he’s in the process of raising another $4 million to help equip the 10,000-square foot factory and to provide some cash flow. Noble adds that he has no plans to seek venture capital. He says the time required to build large-scale manufacturing and their primary market—the building industry—“doesn’t easily fit the venture capital model for a quick exit,” which is an issue for many cleantech businesses.

Torti and Noble say they wanted to establish the company’s first production plant in an urban, mixed-use setting—an apartment building is across the street—to demonstrate … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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