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IBM follows the money to clean tech

IBM's Venture Capital Group is placing its own bets on clean tech in energy efficiency and water conservation.

Perhaps it's not surprising that a company founded on the idea of automation hones in on efficiency when it comes to clean tech.

Over the past year, IBM has started working with a handful of energy efficiency and water conservation start-ups, betting that those technologies will find steady demand.

"So far, we've seen a trickle of the capital needed to make scalable changes. One thought is to see if we can dramatically increase efficiency and reduce waste to free up capital," said Andrew (Drew) Clark, director of strategy at IBM's Venture Capital Group.

Around 10 years ago, IBM began establishing formal relationships with venture capital groups in an effort to get access to innovative technology from start-ups that could fit into larger IBM deals.

As part of its Big Green Innovations initiative, IBM has started scouting out and working with clean tech start-ups. Buoyed by a rush of venture capital, clean tech companies are springing up in many areas.

But while solar power and biofuels tend to grab the most headlines, IBM is staking out ground primarily in conservation, Clark said.

That's because electric utilities are looking at energy efficiency technologies--one of the most successful areas of clean tech thus far--to reduce the peak demand on the power grid.

"Utilities are asking us, how would you architect this so we could manage the information from all federated energy devices," Clark said. "We're able to tap our IT expertise...and apply it in very different areas."

For example, IBM is working "in earnest" with GridPoint, a company that builds a system for generating renewable energy and storing it at people's homes. Utiltities can play an important role in getting this relatively expensive product--which costs over $10,000--into the market, Clark said.

In the area of water conservation, IBM is starting to work with start-ups that have developed systems that can monitor and collect information on water quality. Municipalities are potential customers, Clark said.

IBM, of course, loves collecting data that it can feed to its high-end servers to generate sophisticated analysis.

In the case of water, it can build models that track changes to water quality over time, or create a dashboard that provides a real-time display of different factors.

Other areas on IBM's clean tech watch-list include calculating corporations' "carbon footprint" and working with green building companies for better energy efficiency.