Clean Up with Clean Tech

There are plenty of ways to get involved with the expanding range of clean technologies. Find out how.

If clean technology is any indicator, things are definitely looking up. According to a recent report by the Cleantech Group and Deloitte, clean technology venture investments in North America, Europe, China and India totaled $1.9 billion in the first quarter of 2010, up 83 percent from a year ago and 29 percent from the fourth quarter of 2009. That represents the strongest start to a year ever recorded by the Cleantech Group.

In part, this might be due to the expanding range of clean technologies. Once comprising primarily renewable energies, clean tech now encompasses a number of other areas, including: air, water and waste, energy efficiency, green building, smart power and transportation. This expansion has led to opportunities for many entrepreneurs, including Samantha Simonnet, who recently started the Cleantech Management and Organization Network, an executive search firm that specializes in clean technology and alternative energy.

Simonnet first became involved in clean tech in 2007, while working for an executive search firm based in Singapore. An avid diver, she developed an awareness of environmental issues as a result of her passion for the ocean. "My interest initially was in marine conservation--how climate change is affecting the quality of coral, sustainable fisheries and that type of thing. Then we started seeing companies in Europe looking to expand into Asia and looking for executives in that area; so I volunteered [to lead that search], specifically in renewable energy."

When she came to the United States, Simonnet found a dearth of clean-technology development and decided to become actively involved with organizations that promoted education and funding for clean-tech entrepreneurs. Currently, she serves as the Orange County, Calif., chair for the Clean Tech Open, an organization dedicated to finding, funding and fostering entrepreneurial solutions to energy, environmental and economic challenges.

Since 2006, the Clean Tech Open has organized a national competition for "ecopreneurs" with early-stage clean technology. Registration for this year's competition ends May 22. Regional finalists will receive $30,000 in cash and services, and the national winner will receive a $250,000 prize package. In addition, all semifinalists are eligible to participate in an extensive training program that includes seminars, business clinics and an accelerated course in business planning and pitching to investors.

In addition to her work with the Clean Tech Open, Simonnet also serves as an outreach committee member for Clean Tech OC, a trade association that promotes economic growth in the Orange County, Calif., clean-tech industry. Long associated with the high-tech and biotech industries--Southern California has been known as the "Tech Coast" for years--Simonnet hopes to see that industry base expand to include clean technologies.

"San Diego is pretty well-positioned for anything in biofuel because of [its] industry base. Orange County is well-positioned for anything involving manufacturing or process manufacturing--transportation and energy storage are two areas that might work. Los Angeles could be anything--manufacturing, solar, energy storage--really, anything. Which ones are going to prevail? That's difficult to predict," Simonnet says. "If we don't make a leap forward in energy storage, then wind and solar aren't going to advance as quickly as we would like. Transportation also has the issue with energy storage. Storage, basically, is the platform for everything else at this stage."

Simonnet credits the recent economic downturn for culling some of the less-viable technologies. "In 2008 there were too many companies jumping into too many industries, and they just weren't viable. They didn't really evaluate the technology. Now investors really understand what it takes to do this; they have scientists and other experts on their boards. They aren't just dumping money into it. In the end the recession will have streamlined some technologies, and only the ones that will really make a difference will be selected." Still, she says, there are significant obstacles to overcome. "Only people who are really passionate about the area will stay. It's going to take time before it works, but there are people coming out with great technologies that are going to make a difference."

Clean Tech Tips
If you really want to get involved in clean tech, take note of these three tips:

  1. Take stock of your core competencies. "You're not going to invent yourself with a scientific or engineering background overnight," Simonnet says. "But clean tech still needs core competencies in business development, marketing and finance. For example, I met a lady in San Diego who was from a traditional finance background. She became the COO/CFO of a solar startup."
  2. Attend classes and get certification. Several organizations offer professional training and certification. For example, The U.S. Green Building Council offers LEED certification education resources, and the Residential Energy Services Network offers information and standards for becoming a home energy rating systems rater or a home energy survey professional. In addition, many colleges and universities offer sustainability certification courses and even "Green MBAs." Simonnet offers an online "Future of Energy" class through the University of California, Irvine, Extension program.
  3. Get involved in trade associations in your area and volunteer your time. "You'll meet others who have core competencies that complement yours, and maybe something will happen," Simonnet says. "You get access to professionals at solid companies and, if a position opens, why would they go look for someone else if you're right in front of them? It's really a step away from networking; it's professional activities within networking. That's what works nowadays. They need to trust you and know who you are and then they'll hire you, especially in a job-constrained market."
Kimberly B. Keilbach is the author of Global Warming I$ Good for Business, winner of the 2009 National Indie Excellence Award. Kimberly has more than 20 years' experience writing for and about entrepreneurial and high-tech companies. She also has a studied interest in natural ecosystems, which has had a strong influence on her own business and life practices. Her ability to examine environmental issues from a business perspective has allowed her to demonstrate how today's most sustainable businesses can make a profit while benefiting the environment and adding value to their communities.
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