Cleantech-less in Seattle


Xconomy Seattle — 

Every entrepreneur or executive would like to “do well by doing good.” That is the dream of being socially responsible and financially successful at the same time.

After working in venture capital and selling Internet advertising for eight years, I decided to focus on cleantech for my next career adventure. Though I live in Seattle, I was approached by a venture capital firm called XSeed Capital from San Francisco to be CEO of a next-generation biofuels and renewable chemicals called Bio Architecture Lab, founded by a professor from the University of Washington named David Baker, a post-doc from his lab and an MBA from UC-Berkeley.

Though our market timing in 2008 was challenging, given the financial and energy market crashes, we had a great run. We raised $35 million in financing, received the largest ARPA-E grant in the country for advanced energy research from the Department of Energy, and established partnerships with DuPont, Statoil in Norway, and the Chilean oil company ENAP. As of 2011, Bio Architecture Lab is a 40-person company located in Berkeley, CA and Chile, making great progress commercializing seaweed (or macroalgae) as a next generation sugar source for biofuel and chemical production. In 2010, we hired a fantastic, “been there, done that” energy CEO from Shell named Dan Trunfio to take the company to the next level. Dan has the much-needed experience in complex energy infrastructure, operations, and supply chain that I do not. As everyone knows, start-ups are all about people. Dan is the right guy at the right time for the next phase of growth for the company.

After a year of commuting to the Bay Area, I returned to Seattle to seek the next adventure. With young kids and a love for Seattle, I was focused on doing something local. I was equally open to another cleantech or Internet adventure.

We are almost five years into the “cleantech” revolution and, unfortunately, a cleantech cluster has yet to evolve in Seattle. There has been a lot of discussion of the importance of clusters in the evolution of industry and technology in general. For those interested, here are two good articles on technology clusters from Hosein Fallah at the Stevens Institute of Technology and another on industry clusters by Mercedes Delgado of Temple University and Michael Porter of Harvard Business School. San Francisco and Boston have established technology and biotech clusters. San Francisco is probably the dominant cleantech cluster, which is why our board decided to move Bio Architecture Lab to San Francisco in late 2009, even though it was founded in Seattle.

Why has Seattle not achieved critical mass in cleantech? Though Seattle has a lot going for it, I point to a number of factors:

• Finance: Raising money for cleantech in Seattle is hard. The venture capital community in Seattle is small, in general, AND cleantech is a very different industry from biotech and tech, requiring knowledge of energy and basic materials. Most Seattle venture capital firms and angel investors are focused on software and Internet investments, based on our Microsoft and Amazon roots. The only local funding source in Seattle that has been consistent to cleantech is the Northwest Energy Angels. Pivotal from Portland has also been making some small investments throughout the Northwest. OVP has made a number of cleantech investments but only EnerG2 in Seattle. Off the top of my head, most other VCs in Seattle have taken a similar approach of opportunistically looking at cleantech, but not making it a priority in Seattle. Arch, Vulcan, Polaris, Cascade, Second Avenue, and Voyager all have at least one cleantech investment, but most are not located in the greater Seattle area.

• People: Seattle is a GREAT software and Internet town, but it does not have … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2

Nikesh “Niki” Parekh is CEO and Co-Founder of Suplari, an AI-driven insights platform. Previously, he was VP of New Ventures at Trulia, in charge of rentals, mortgage and new construction. He is the former CEO of Seattle-based ActiveRain. Follow @nparekh00

Trending on Xconomy

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

5 responses to “Cleantech-less in Seattle”

  1. Nikesh makes solid insights into the cleantech industry in the NW. Yet, there is a consistent and passionate group of entrepreneurs that we see coming through to present to the NW Energy Angels, a private angel investment group in the Seattle area. And, the investors are equally passionate about cleantech even though many of them have come from successful careers in software, internet, or other technology sectors. It’s a group that is highly engaged together, has a world-class advisory council,and sees a vibrant cleantech sector in the NW as its vision.

    Other industry clusters have taken years to develop and, through persistence, the NW will find its cleantech center of focus. Once we see some successes and exits, it will solidify. I remember that the software industry grew over many years and that many companies needed funding from outside the NW even after there were NW investors established in that sector. Investors like to collaborate that way as well.

    Furthermore, through the Cleantech Open, a national business competition, we see many new startups coming out of the NW across a number of subsectors.

    So, we have momentum, some cleantech funds such as Chrysalix and Yaletown in Vancovuer, B.C. (still the NW) and Pivotal in Portland, some key capability building blocks, and much work to do. I suspect when a cleantech VC bases in Seattle, we will take a significant step forward.

    Byron McCann
    Co-Chair NW Energy Angels
    Regional Director, Cleantech Open
    Ascent Partners Group

  2. Rob says:

    Byron, I agree Seattle and the northwest have much going for it. That’s a big part of the frustration I hear from many of the founders. We are so close. I enjoy feedback from the front lines, even if it is difficult to hear. Identifying the missing components, finding the barriers, is a necessary part of the process. Onward and upward.

  3. Absolutely, Rob! The front lines are where it matters and helping these entrepreneurs succeed is critical.