The more dire the climate change predictions, the louder the calls for new and disruptive technologies. While it’s a great aspiration, as a theory disruptive innovation provides dangerous guidance on how disruption really happens. Continue reading
Working with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, I’ve just completed an study of companies that have already successfully developed and launched new low-carbon strategic initiatives. The resulting report, “The Business of Innovating: Bringing Low-Carbon Solutions to Market,” was released today. The study documents the challenges and best practices to inform other businesses developing their own low-carbon innovation strategies. Innovation is challenging regardless of company or industry but, as the study found, low-carbon innovation has distinct challenges—and requires particular capabilities—that reflect the distinct nature of the technologies, opportunities, and environments involved.
The Solyndra debacle raises significant questions about how to best pursue a clean tech revolution. As I argued before, most of these questions will go ignored in the scramble for political advantage but several others are raising the same questions (E.G., Real Solyndra Scandal). A good post by Bruce Krasting actually brings testimony from an engineer with Solyndra that makes the company look very much like any other venture-capital backed business—consuming cash as fast as possible to grow as quickly as possible to meet a rapidly closing window of opportunity.
In particular, the Department of Energy’s recent loan guarantee program, through which Solyndra received its loan guarantees. has backstopped roughly $2 billion to venture-capital backed clean tech startups with the honorable motive of fostering a clean tech revolution. In a search for means to foster a clean tech revolution, the Obama Administration made venture capital a cornerstone of its energy policy. Yet, despite venture capital’s leading role in clean technology this past decade, we don’t really know when it works well and, as importantly, when it doesn’t.
Last spring, my colleague Martin Kenney and I completed a research paper that looked at the boundary conditions underlying venture capital’s success and its appropriateness in pursuing a clean tech revolution: “Misguided Policy: Following Venture Capital into Clean Technology.” The paper looked directly at the funding of Solyndra, Tesla, and other new ventures. It is forthcoming in California Management Review but, given the circumstance, wanted to introduce it here.
LED lighting is clearly a path forward. The challenge, as with all "promising but currently too expensive" new clean energy technologies is how to get from here (low volume, high costs) to there (high volume, low costs). The bulk of cost reductions typically come from economies of scale, which moves industries down the learning curve. So what brings us the larger volumes? Is it more government subsidies for research? Is it regulations or rebates that drive market demand? In a recent Technology Review article (LEDs Are Getting Ready for the Spotlight), Josie Garthwaite describes another option, which follows on my earlier post about finding new problems for old solutions.
Two particular articles in today's NYT provide a nice comparison between investing for innovation in greentech versus internet startups.
Some recent (bad) news from VC investments in greentech raise more questions about whether this is the best model for pursuing innovation. Despite its glory days in the halls of the Obama administration in general and the DOE in particular, venture capital is not the cure for all ills. In particular, the factors that make venture capital successful are not always those that make new ventures successful. Understanding the difference is critical for national policy makers, venture capitalists, and scientist-entrepreneurs alike.