A week ago, I returned from the 2017 Clean and Cool Mission to San Francisco and the Bay Area. Twenty of the best young UK clean technology companies, selected by open competition, spending an intensive week studying, debating and learning, and looking for customers, partners and investors. The companies ranged from materials science to waste management, and from energy to transport. The group included well established businesses looking to expand, and companies looking to build prototypes or first field demonstrators.
Why San Francisco?
In 1967, the Summer of Love was a brief intense flowering of art, music and experimental lifestyles in San Francisco (and yes, I am old enough to remember it). Fifty years later, that spirit of passionate experimentation still lives in San Francisco.
It seems like every other city block has a co-working space, maker space, incubator or accelerator. I don’t know how many there are across the Bay Area, but it is thought worth publishing lists of the 40 best co-working spaces and the 25 most successful incubators.
One quarter of total global venture capital comes from the Bay Area.
“One quarter of global venture capital comes from the Bay Area”
Every café has its clusters of intense people pounding on their laptops, talking on the phone or huddled in meetings.
San Francisco is a fabulous tourist destination, but if you are interested in innovation and start-up culture this is the mother-lode. You feel it in the air; a mixture of creativity, passion, speed, energy and decision. This is where stuff happens.
What did we learn?
One of the advantages of locating the mission in San Francisco is the opportunity to access thinkers who challenge our easy assumptions. We heard from The Long Now Foundation about planning on a 10,000 year horizon. Their projects include building a mechanical clock that will work for 10,000 years, bringing extinct animals back to life, creating a new Rosetta stone that will record all known human languages, and a library of key information to reboot civilisation after a catastrophe.
Singularity University talked about big long-range technology trends, and using technologies with exponential growth potential to address global challenges.
On a shorter timeframe we heard from Project Drawdown about 80 established technologies and 20 emerging technologies that could be used to transform the global economy so that within 30 years CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere start to fall. Project Breakthrough ran a workshop to challenge the business models of the companies. Were they future-proof? Could they have more impact?
But it was not all about long-range thinking, there was plenty of practical advice and inspiring companies to talk to.
From Early Growth Financial Services we learned about the practicalities of setting up a business in the US. Environmental Resources Management hosted a panel on how to engage with the public sector as a customer in the US; particularly focusing on cities.
At GSVlabs CIO Alec Wright gave an update on the VC scene for cleantech. He said there was currently a lack of capital going into cleantech, because many investors made big bets a few years ago and got burned. Investors are now looking for comfort and familiarity of business models. They don’t like long investment cycles, the need for large upfront capital investment, and the risk of unexpected market shifts. We are now seeing fewer ‘pure play’ cleantech investments. For example, Lyft is being promoted as a cleantech investment as it will remove cars from the road.[For more on the supposed ‘cleantech crash’ see this 60 minutes programme from 2014 and responses from the cleantech community 1, 2].
What was more encouraging was the continuing commitment of large corporates and their venture arms; “every Fortune 500 I am talking to is trying to transition to a sustainable business model…looking for long term economic viability”. Corporates are using start-ups as a way to test out technologies, and to gain access to great entrepreneurs who can evangelise new ideas from outside the current corporate thinking.
“every Fortune 500 I am talking to is trying to transition to a sustainable business model…looking for long term economic viability”
As an example of this approach Dan Ateya of 3M talked about their strategic technology platforms and how they invest in and work with start-ups to strengthen those platforms.
At Indie Bio, a biotech accelerator, Program Director Ryan Bethencourt explained how they work intensively with new companies, often the first to bring a new technology to market, to switch them from technology development to making money as quickly as possible – “It’s hard to turn scientific discoveries into products the market wants”. Companies get a $250k investment, access to lab facilities and expert support, and typically stay with them only 4 months.
At Hampton Creek CEO and co-founder Josh Tetrick gave us an insight into the excitement and challenges of rapid scaling in fast moving consumer goods, and how you need to scale innovation as well as operations to keep a lead. The tour of their R&D facility was an eye opener.
In addition to these opportunities to hear from others, there were networking and pitching events every evening and space for one-to-one meetings with interested parties.
Quite a week!
What difference has it made to the companies?
It’s hard to turn scientific discoveries into products the market wants”
It will be some time before we know what impact the mission has had on the twenty companies.
We know that the 75 companies from the previous five missions have secured over £650m of follow on funding, and that 92% said the mission helped their business to grow faster. Having watched them in action, I am sure the results will be at least as good for this group.
Being together as a group, learning from each other and having time to think about their business strategy has been a real boost.
Over the week their pitches got stronger and sharper, and by learning each other’s pitch they were able to hunt as a pack in networking events to help each other make the right connections.
The companies were able to get quality follow up meetings, and several are already planning return trips for further discussions.
The missions show that UK cleantech SME’s can hold their own amongst the best in the world, and have the potential to grow and scale into globally important companies.
For more thoughts from the participants and organisers on Clean and Cool Mission 2017 check out twitter #cleansf