People power in short supply for green tech

Tech-industry veterans who have traded bits and bytes for clean electrons say getting up to speed and making fresh contacts are key.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

WELLESELLY, Mass.--In the burgeoning clean-energy business, there's a clear need for technical breakthroughs and investment dollars. A less visible resource that's also badly needed is seasoned entrepreneurs.

One of the biggest challenges facing newly formed green-tech companies--and the field overall--is a lack of people with the appropriate technical and business skills, say experts. That's not surprising given that so many industries, such as energy storage or solar, were relatively quiet the past two decades.

To meet that skills gap, people from IT and other fields are streaming into green tech, much the way people jumped into telecom or Internet software development in the past. In addition to technical know-how, many fledgling green outfits need people experienced in growing companies.

The latest high-profile IT executive to jump into the energy field is Gary Bloom, the former head of storage software company Veritas, who on Tuesday joined smart-grid software company eMeter as CEO. He follows former Seagate CEO Bill Watkins, who now heads up LED maker Bridgelux, and many others over the past five years.

Obviously, it's important to get up to speed on the specific business environment, be it the power generation market or buildings, before making the transition. But people who have made the jump say that who you know in your new chosen field matters at least much as what you know.

"Fifty percent of it is the entrepreneurship, but the rest is all connections. The reason why you want a person with 15 years of experience in solar is because they know other people," said Peter Vandermeulen, the CEO of start-up 7Solar Technologies, who spoke on a panel at here at the Babson Energy & Environment Conference on Thursday. "It just takes time to build up a whole different set of contacts."

Vandermeulen was one of 37 executives in Massachusetts to go through two fellowships organized by the New England Clean Energy Council over the past two years. The three-month "clean-energy boot camp" gives experienced entrepreneurs a crash course in different energy technologies and introduces them to people in the field.

The fellows learn about clean energy by taking classes in technology, markets, and policy, said Nick D'Arbelloff, the president of the New England Clean Energy Council. They also have taken field trips to places like the the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Colorado, and work on a project that could lead to a new venture.

It's a model that's being tried at the national level as well, which reflects how people skills are so sorely needed. In December, the Department of Energy's ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) announced a fellows program. The competitive program, which has a limit of two years per fellowship, is part of ARPA-E's efforts to attract the "best and brightest" researchers and entrepreneurs in clean energy, according to the agency.

Close enough
So far, the New England fellowship program, which had oversight of the DOE, has yielded a number of new ventures.

Steve Kropper, a former telecom analyst, started a company called Windpole Ventures which combines his experience in the IT industry with wind: it gathers wind speed data for wind farm operators by placing sensors on poles. He estimates that he saved two years of making a career transition by going through the fellowship.

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In addition to making contacts, the technical education has helped him out. Kropper recently found himself in an investor meeting where a question about how storage will affect wind energy came up. Rather than get bogged down and sidetracked, he was able to supply a quick, informed response and move on.

Of course, there are limits to the number of people who can take fellowships. The first two New England Clean Energy Council fellowships were funded by the state of Massachusetts and foundations; program organizers are currently looking for permanent funding. People who are already in energy companies expect to hire people from different fields, panelists said on Thursday.

Michael Bayer, whose last company was in social media, is now the chief financial officer of Nexamp, which offers consulting and installation services for wind and solar projects. He is currently looking for a controller, but doesn't expect to find somebody with many years of experience in the energy industry.

"I have to find someone who fits most of the bills and has to learn some things about this industry, as they have done before," he said. "That's what we have to do as an industry--create the environment where people can repurpose their skills and have a mechanism to transfer knowledge."

It's a very similar situation to the telecom industry in the 1980s and 1990s, where people from different fields jumped in to the fast-growing area, he added.

Not always a good fit
In many cases, venture capital companies backing young green-tech companies are mining their existing set of contacts in IT and other fields to make hires. That's an approach that doesn't always work out, given how different energy is from IT.

Cellulosic ethanol maker Range Fuels, which is backed by Vinod Khosla's investment company, brought on Mitch Mandich, who previously worked at software company Edify and Apple, as CEO. In late 2008, Mandich was replaced as CEO by an oil industry veteran with more direct experience in fuels.

There are other differences between IT and energy: some energy-related ventures can require far more capital and time than an IT company, making them an awkward fit for venture capitalists' typical investment time line. In addition, policy plays a huge role in energy markets, so entrepreneurs may find themselves lobbying politicians for the first time.

Even with those challenges, clean energy is attracting many tech entrepreneurs because many trends are leading in that direction--be it concern over the environment, energy security, or national competitiveness.

"Energy is clearly one of the sectors where huge amounts of money are being spent so the opportunities are there," said Rick Daniels, the CEO of fuel cell membrane start-up Advent Technologies during Thursday's panel. "And there's a huge amount of nascent technology that hast not been able to be brought to bear until now."