Northwest Energy Angels Executive Director Margo Shiroyama on Her First Six Months, and the Future of the NW Cleantech Scene

After years in the technology industry, Margo Shiroyama recently made the transition to cleantech. As the new executive director of the Northwest Energy Angels, Margo spends her days meeting with potential investors, coordinating with local cleantech companies, and brainstorming ways to marry the financial side of the industry with the innovation side.

“You’re working during the day, catching up at night, doing events and programs at different hours, having to participate in different organizational meetings or industry meetings whenever it might be,” she says of her first six months on the job. “It’s a big commitment.”

I caught up with Shiroyama a few weeks ago to talk about her first half year in her new role, her experiences taken from years in local tech industry associations, and what she envisions for the future of the Northwest Energy Angels. We sat outside of a coffee shop on a late summer afternoon, and she was all smiles as she spilled about her past work with the Washington Software Alliance (now the WTIA), technology consulting, and learning the ropes of facilitating cleantech investments. If she’s overworked, she didn’t show it. Maybe that’s because she’s used to having her plate more than full, that and there’s no denying she loves what she does.

As for the sustainability of her role, Shiroyama jokes that her workplace footprint is smaller than ever. “I’m very sustainable,” she says. “I walk from my bedroom to my office, and I immediately get to work—no carbon wasted, no commuting time!”

Before joining the Northwest Energy Angels in March, Shiroyama spent 10 years at the WSA, helping to grow the staff from a mere five to 20, and laying the groundwork for its transformation into the all-technology-encompassing Washington Technology Industry Association it is today. By the time she left, she had worked her way up to chief operating officer, and developed a passion working the trade association circuit.

“That was I think where I got this love for innovation, and technology, and working with many companies at one time, versus being in a company where you see R&D for one product, or a suite of products,” she says.

After the WSA, Shiroyama served as interim director of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network, and did strategy and marketing work for enterpriseSeattle and the Washington Biomedical Device Innovation Zone (both of which she still consults for). According to Shiroyama, making the leap from focusing on software and biotech to clean technology wasn’t as tricky as one might think—over the years she had developed a lot of connections who, like her, had dabbled in many of Washington’s tech-centered industries. And this tight knit network, she says, is advantageous for Washington’s budding cleantech sector.

“It all comes full circle, at least in this town anyway,” she says. “We have a lot of people in the Northwest Energy Angels that come from software and life science, that have an interest in cleantech now.”

In fact, Shiroyama says it was the people already involved in the Northwest Energy Angels that piqued her interest, and ultimately aided in her decision to take on the leading role. The organization, started four years ago by local serial entrepreneur Martin Tobias and state representative Jeff Morris, is dedicated to connecting and facilitating investments in local cleantech startups and companies. The group currently has 53 active members, who have, to date, invested over $3 million in 20 cleantech companies, according to Shiroyama.

“It was something I’d been interested in, the cleantech space—I’d been following it for some time. I had done some work at the WSA with an annual investment forum, I knew the venture community fairly well, but was interested in working in the angel space, kind of really early on in the investment with entrepreneurs,” she says. After she met the board, Shiroyama said she was sold. “I really admired the board, and I saw some opportunity for growing the organization,” she said. “There’s just this idea of a greater good that they have as their mission that was appealing to me.”

Shiroyama says she’s spent the first six months familiarizing herself with the territory—companies, investors, who’s looking for a new deal, and which angels have particular expertise in which technologies. This included a number of field trips with NWEA members—to Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, GCL Solar, Infinal Technologies, and Battelle and Washington State University’s Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory (“Bessel”).

“I took probably the first six months just to better understand the organization, what they were looking to do, and what were the skill sets that I could bring from my past experiences working with associations to strengthen the program—how could we increase attendance at our meetings, or active participation by our members?” she says. “Like anything else, it’s an investment of dollars and time, and we want to make sure that the members, as well as the companies, are benefiting from that. These visits were key—I really wanted to connect with the different research organizations, and we hadn’t done that in the past.”

The goal is to grow the scope of the organization, while keeping the size small, manageable, and more relationship-based. While she encourages local angels interested in getting involved in the cleantech space to join their ranks, Shiroyama isn’t planning for the organization to grow larger than 80 members.

“We still want to have that ability to never get beyond a point where we can’t have a relationship, because that’s at the heart of it,” she says. “That kind of relationship that I can build is different than some of the other organizations—even the Northwest Entrepreneurs Network is [such] a pretty large organization that it’s hard to connect with everyone all the time.”

As she looks toward the future, Shiroyama wants to position the Northwest Energy Angels as a resource—not just for existing cleantech companies, but for research organizations and other local technology organizations. “I want to establish relationships so that the research institutions—and certainly the tech transfer groups within them, and the different researchers—understand that we’re there as a resource as companies in the cleantech are looking for funding, or are starting to move down the commercialization path,” she says.

In order to do this, Shiroyama says she plans to continue the member field trips she led over the last few months. She also expects to bring on new member programs and workshops that will expand the group’s collective knowledgebase. The industry is so diverse, she says, that the organization has an opportunity to capitalize on the respective expertise of each of its members, creating a collaborative database of cleantech, startup, and investing knowledge that the group can tap when looking over potential opportunities. She calls this collaborative knowledge “group think.”

“The metric for success is actual investment, and making that connection, or providing value. It’s not going to always be cash that transfers hands, it’s going to be opportunities that are passed on, and that could be just as valuable—connections that they might now otherwise have,” she says.

Rather than forging ahead as a singular organization, Shiroyama also plans to work with neighboring associations, and has already talked with the Tom Ranken at the Cleantech Alliance about how the two groups can collaborate.

“One of the things that I learned working at the WSA, or working at trade associations, is that you can’t do it all—it really is a collaboration that is going to build a successful industry. We’re all interdependent—we all depend on each other to provide a service that will bring about a stronger industry, by virtue of all the different roles we play. That’s no different here at the NW Energy Angels,” she says.

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