Thursday, March 12, 2009

A proposal for government seed stage funding in cleantech

From Rob Day's Cleantech Investing blog
March 9, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I wrote up a few thoughts on the chatter about government money being directed to cleantech venture capital firms (and then discovered I’d given fodder to the Globe, who knew?). At the end of the column, I mentioned that I wished to see more government support for cleantech startups at the early end, too early for many venture capital investors. It prompted some thoughtful replies from several readers.

One reader pointed me to Sustainable Development Technology Canada. This is a non-profit, quasi-governmental corporation that makes direct investments in Canadian cleantech companies to help them in later-stage growth or for initial project development purposes. It has taken in $1B from the government and has already made investments in 144 projects to date — they’re looking to issue their 15th round of funding later this year. So here’s a model for some to look at, but it doesn’t really address that seed-stage gap I pointed to.

Another reader reminded me about OnPoint and In-Q-Tel, two government-sponsored firms whose missions are to invest in startups that are developing technologies of interest to the Army and the CIA respectively. These groups are investing in some early stage opportunities, but also are coming in later stage in some cases as well. But it’s certainly a good model to draw upon for inspiration when it comes to government financing of cleantech.

Of course, a couple of people reminded me about the proposals for an “ARPA-E”, a counterpart to the Department of Defense’s DARPA research grant program. DARPA is another good tool to consider, and has certainly been the source of grants for a number of cleantech startups. It’s not an investment, however, and so it comes with a very specific set of requirements (and bureaucratic headaches) for the grantee. It’s useful, but no panacea.

Finally, Reem Yared wrote to bring up a DOE program that was in place to support seed-stage companies up until a couple of years ago:

In fact, the DOE used to run a program called Inventions and Innovations, where they funded promising clean technologies with grants of $50,000 and $250,000. The grants went to inventors who were still at the patent-filing stage, helping them go through the patent process and on to commercialization. There was a whole selection process which worked quite well.

I was one of the consultants hired by the DOE (working for Vista Ventures) to help seven of the start-ups develop their commercialization strategy. Another company was DOE-sponsored market research services. The DOE had enough experience with the program to know that simply funding the research would not be enough: the patents would just be filed and shelved. The inventors/entrepreneurs really did need the hand-holding through the commercialization process.

The start-ups I worked with were all over the country and in all different fields: wind, glass manufacturing, paper manufacturing, LP gas distribution, biofuels, car engines, AC pumps. The irony, of course, is that the year Pres. Bush mentioned a focus on cleanTech in his state of the Union address, the administration pulled the plug on the program (April 2007).

I don’t think it would take too much effort to restart it, rather than creating something from scratch.

Government-run investment programs have historically been challenged for a) having unintended consequences like the patent-shelving Reem mentions, and b) not being able to bring on board top investment talent because the government salary structure and even profit-sharing aren’t possible. That latter objection also points to operational challenges — such simple questions as “are we looking for jobs growth” versus “are we looking for strong investment returns” become pretty fundamental to the exercise.

But merging a few of these ideas together, a quasi-governmental, independent corporation sponsored (and funded) by the DOE could be launched, to focus on seed stage companies commercializing technology out of the DOE labs and DOE-funded research. It wouldn’t have to be a huge amount of capital to have a major impact — a few tens of millions of dollars would be very significant in this context, but relatively small in comparison to the “billions” being discussed by Krugman et al. Then the questions to be answered around staffing and incentives and compensation would be very similar to those faced by OnPoint and In-Q-Tel, which have been able to bring in experienced, motivated investors. So no need to reinvent anything at all, we can borrow from what’s already working elsewhere.

I bet right now we could get some of the brightest investors in the cleantech venture capital world to support this and even join such an effort.

No comments: