Leaping into the 6th Technology Revolution
We're at risk of missing out on some of the most profound opportunities offered by the technology revolution that has just begun.
Yet many are oblivious to the signs and are in danger of watching this become a period of noisy turmoil rather than the full-blown insurrection needed to launch us into a green economy. What we require is not a new spinning wheel, but fabrics woven with nanofibers that generate solar power. To make that happen, we need a radically reformulated way of understanding markets, technology, financing, and the role of government in accelerating change. But will we understand the opportunities before they disappear?
Seeing the Sixth Revolution for What It Is
We are seven years into the beginning of what analysts at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research call the Sixth Revolution. A table by Carlotta Perez, which was presented during a recent BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research luncheon hosted by Robert Preston and Steven Milunovich, outlines the revolutions that are, unexpected in their own time, that lead to the one in which we find ourselves.
- 1771: Mechanization and improved water wheels
- 1829: Development of steam for industry and railways
- 1875: Cheap steel, availability of electricity, and the use of city gas
- 1908: Inexpensive oil, mass-produced internal combustion engine vehicles, and universal electricity
- 1971: Expansion of information and tele-communications
- 2003: Cleantech and biotech
The Vantage of Hindsight
Looking back at 1971, we know that Intel's introduction of the microprocessor marked the beginning of a new era. But in that year, this meant little to people watching Mary Tyler Moore and The Partridge Family, or listening to Tony Orlando & Dawn and Janis Joplin. People would remember humanity's first steps on the Moon, opening relations between US and China, perhaps the successful completion of the Human Genome Project to 99.99% accuracy, and possibly the birth of Prometea, the first horse cloned by Italian scientists.
"Every day, we see American companies with promising technologies that are unable to deploy their products because of a lack of debt financing. By filling this gap, the government will ignite the mass deployment of innovative technologies, allowing technologies ranging from industrial waste heat to pole-mounted solar PV to prove their economics and gain credibility in the debt markets."
Flying beneath our collective radar was the first floppy disk drive by IBM, the world's first e-mail sent by Ray Tomlinson, the launch of the first laser printer by Xerox PARC and the Cream Soda Computer by Bill Fernandez and Steve Wozniak (who would found the Apple Computer company with Steve Jobs a few years later).
Times have not changed that much. It's 2011 and many of us face a similar disconnect with the events occurring around us. We are at the equivalent of 1986, a year on the cusp of the personal computer and the Internet fundamentally changing our world. 1986 was also the year that marked the beginning of a major financial shift into new markets. Venture Capital (VC) experienced its most substantial finance-raising season, with approximately $750 million, and the NASDAQ was established to help create a market for these companies. Leading this charge was Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Beyers (KPCB), a firm that turned technical expertise into possibly the most successful IT venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. The IT model looked for a percentage of big successes to offset losses: an investment like the $8 million in Cerent, which was sold to Cisco Systems for $6.9 billion, could make up for a lot of great ideas that didn't quite make it.
Changing Financial Models
But the VC model that worked so well for information and telecommunications doesn't work in the new revolution. Not only is the financing scale of the cleantech revolution orders of magnitude larger than the last, this early in the game even analysts are struggling to see the future. Steven Milunovich, who hosted the BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research lunch, remarked that each revolution has an innovation phase which may last for as long as 25 years, followed by an implementation phase of another 25. Most money is made in the first 20 years, so real players want to get in early. But the question is: Get in where, for how much and with whom? There is still market scepticism and uncertainty about the staying power of the clean energy revolution. Milunovich estimates that many institutional investors don't believe in global warming, and adopt a "wait and see" attitude complicated by government impasse on energy security legislation. For those who are looking at these markets, their motivation ranges from concerns about oil scarcity, supremacy in the "new Sputnik" race, the shoring up of homeland security and - for some - a concern about the effects of climate change. Those who see that we are in the midst of a fundamental change in how we produce and use energy are sometimes looked at askance. Milunovich, for all these reasons, is "cautious in the short term, bullish on the long."
The Valley of Death
Every new technology brings with it needs for new financing. In the sixth revolution, with budget needs 10 times those of IT, the challenge is moving from idea to prototype to commercialization. The Valley of Death, as a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance whitepaper, Crossing the Valley of Death pointed out, is the gap between technology creation and commercial maturity. But some investors and policy makers continue to hope that private capital will fuel this gap, much as it did the last. They express concern over the debt from government programs like the stimulus funds (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) which have invested millions in new technologies in the clean energy sector, as well as helping states with rebuilding infrastructure and other projects. They question why the traditional financing models, which made the United States the world leader in information technology and telecommunications, can't be made to work today, if the Government would just get out of the way. But analysts from many sides of financing believe that government support, of some kind, is essential to move projects forward, because cleantech and biotech projects require a much larger input of capital in order to get to commercialization. This gap not only affects commercialization, but is also affecting investments in new technologies, because financial interests are concerned that their investment might not see fruition -- get to commercial scale.
How new technologies are radically different from the computer revolution.
This revolution is highly dependent on an existing -- but aging -- energy infrastructure. Almost 40 years after the start of the telecommunications revolution, we are still struggling with a communications infrastructure that is fragmented, redundant, and inefficient. Integrating new sources of energy, and making better use of what we have, is an even more complex -- and more vital -- task.
"The events of the past few years confirm that it is only with the public sector's help that the Commercialization Valley of Death can be addressed, both in the short and the long term. Only public institutions have 'public benefits' obligations and the associated mandated risk-tolerance for such classes of investments, along with the capital available to make a difference at scale. Project financiers have shown they are willing to pick up the ball and finance the third, 23rd, and 300th project that uses that new technology. It is the initial technology risk that credit committees and investment managers will not tolerate."
Everything runs on fuel and energy, from our homes to our cars to our industries, schools, and hospitals. Most of us have experienced the disconnect we feel when caught in a blackout: "The air-conditioner won't work so I guess I'll turn on a fan," only to realize we can't do either. Because energy is so vital to every aspect of our economy, federal, state and local entities regulate almost every aspect of how energy is developed, deployed, and monetized. Wind farm developers face a patchwork quilt of municipal, county, state and federal regulations in getting projects to scale. Incentives from government sources, as well as utilities, pose both an opportunity and a threat: the market rises and falls in direct proportion to funding and incentives. Navigating these challenges takes time and legal expertise: neither of which are in abundant supply to entrepreneurs.
Though microchips are creating ever-smaller electronics, cleantech components -- such as wind turbines and photovoltaics -- are huge. They can't be developed in a garage, like Hewlett and Packard's first oscilloscope. A new generation of biofuels that utilizes nanotechnology isn't likely to take place out of a dorm room, as did Michael Dell's initial business selling customized computers. What this means for sixth revolution projects is that they have much larger funding needs, at much earlier stages. Stepping up and supporting innovation, universities -- and increasingly corporations -- are partnering with early stage entrepreneurs. They are providing technology resources, such as laboratories and technical support, as well as management expertise in marketing, product development, government processes, and financing. Universities get funds from technology transfer arrangements, while corporations invest in a new technologies, expanding their product base, opening new businesses, or providing cost-benefit and risk-analysis of various approaches. But even with such help, venture capital and other private investors are needed to augment costs that cannot be born alone. These investors look to some assurance that projects will produce revenue in order to return the original investment. So concerns over the Valley of Death affects even early stage funding.
Time line to completion
So many of us balk at two year contracts for our cell phones that there is talk of making such requirements illegal. But energy projects, by their size and complexity, look out over years, if not decades. Commercial and industrial customers look to spread their costs over ten to twenty years, and contracts cover contingencies like future business failure, the sale of properties, or the prospect of renovations that may affect the long term viability of the original project.
"GE Energy Financial Services supports the creation of CEDA or a similar institution because it would expand the availability of low-cost capital to the projects and companies in which we invest, and it would help expand the market for technology supplied by other GE businesses." Kevin Walsh, managing director and head of Power and Renewable Energy at GE Energy Financial Services
Michael Holman, analyst for Lux Research, noted that a $25 million investment in Google morphed into $1.7 billion 5 years later. In contrast, a leading energy storage company started with a $300 million investment, and 9 years later valuation remains uncertain. These are the kinds of barriers that can stall the drive we need for 21st century technologies.
Looking to help bridge the gap in new cleantech and biotech projects is a proposed government-based solution called the Clean Energy Deployment Administration (CEDA). There is a house and senate version, as well as a house Green Bank bill to provide gap financing. Recently, over 42 companies, representing many industries and organizations, signed a letter to President Obama, supporting the Senate version, the "21st Century Energy Technology Deployment Act". Both the house and senate bills propose to create, as an office within the US Department of Energy (DOE), an administration which would be tasked with lending to risky cleantech projects for the purpose of bringing new technologies to market. CEDA would be the bridge needed to ensure the successful establishment of the green economy, by partnering with private investment to bring the funding needed to get these technologies to scale. Both versions capitalize the agency with $10 Billion (Senate) and $7.5 Billion (House), with an expected 10% loss reserve long term. By helping a new technology move more effectively through the pipeline from idea to deployment, CEDA can substantially increase private sector investment in energy technology development and deployment. It can create a more successful US clean energy industry, with all the attendant economic and job creation benefits.
CEDA funding could be seen as beneficial for even the most unlikely corporations. Ted Horan is the Marketing and Business Development Manager for Hycrete, a company that sells a waterproof concrete. Hardly a company that springs to mind when we think about clean technologies, he recently commented on why Hycrete CEO, Richard Guinn, is a signatory on the letter to Obama:
"The allocation of funding for emerging clean energy technologies through CEDA is an important step in solving our energy and climate challenges. Companies on the cusp of large-scale commercial deployment will benefit greatly and help accelerate the adoption of clean energy practices throughout our economy."
In his opinion, the manufacturing and construction that is needed to push us out of a stagnating economy will be supported by innovation coming from the cleantech and biotech sectors.
As Will Coleman from Mohr Davidow Ventures, said, "The Devil's in the details." The Senate version has two significant changes from previous proposals: an emphasis on breakthrough as opposed to conventional technologies, and political independence.
"The clean energy sector can be a dynamic growth engine for the US economy, but not without thoughtful government support for private capital formation. **[Government policy] promises to serve as a valuable bridging tool to accelerate private capital formation around companies facing the challenge, and can help ensure that the US remains at the forefront of the race for dominance in new energy technologies."
Neil Auerbach, Managing Partner,Hudson Clean Energy
Coleman said that "breakthrough" includes the first or second deployment of a new approach, not just the game changing science-fiction solution that finally brings us limitless energy at no cost. The Bloomberg New Energy white paper uses the term "First of Class." Bringing solar efficiency up from 10% to 20%, or bringing manufacturing costs down by 50%, would be a breakthrough that would help us begin to compete with threats from China and India. Conventional technologies, those that are competing with existing commercialized projects, would get less emphasis.
Political independence is top of mind for many who spoke or provided an analysis of the bill. Dr. Holman expressed the strongest concerns that CEDA doesn't focus enough on incentives to bring together innovative start-ups with larger established firms.
"The government itself taking on the responsibility of deciding what technologies to back isn't likely to work--it's an approach with a dreadful track record. That said, it is important for the federal government to lead -- the current financing model for bringing new energy technologies to market is broken, and new approaches are badly needed."
For many, the senate bill has many advantages over the house bill, in providing for a decision making process that includes technologists and private sector experts. Quoting Coleman:
"I think both sides [of the aisle] understand this is an important program, and must enable the government to be flexible and employ a number of different approaches. The Senate version empowers CEDA to take a portfolio approach and manage risk over time, which I think is good. In the House bill, CEDA has to undergo the annual appropriation process, which runs the risk of politicizing every investment decision in isolation and before we have a chance to see the portfolio mature."
Michael DeRosa, Managing Director of Element Partners added,
"The framework must ensure the selection of practical technologies, optimization of risk/return for taxpayer dollars, and appropriate oversight for project selection and spending. **Above all, these policies must be designed with free markets principles in mind and not be subject to political process."
If history is any indication, rarely are those in the middle of game-changing events aware of their role in what will one day be well-known for their sweeping influence. But what we can see clearly now is the gap between idea and commercial maturity. CEDA certainly offers some hope that we may yet see the cleantech age grow up into adulthood. But will we act quickly enough before all of the momentum and hard work that has brought us this far falls flat as other countries take leadership roles, leaving us in the dust?
Google's Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, has been a supporter from the inception of CEDA. He has testified before both houses of Congress, and was a signatory on the letter to President Obama. Google's interest in clean and renewable energies dates back several years. The company is actively involved in projects to cut costs of solar thermal and expand the use of plug-in vehicles, and has developed the Power Meter, a product which brings home energy management to anyone's desktop--for free. Financial support includes corporations like GE Energy Financial Services, Silicon Valley Venture Capital such as Kleiner, Perkins Caulfiled and Byers, and Mohr Davidow Ventures, and Energy Capital including Hudson Clean Energy and Element Partners.