7 things every environmental entrepreneur should know

A lot is happening at the intersection of environmentalism and entrepreneurship these days, and it’s creating a hybrid form: the environmental entrepreneur. Some are coming from the entrepreneurial community. Many more are environmentally driven and, realizing that “commerce is the engine of change,” are starting new ventures. Here’s some quick advice based on having a front row seat at the intersection for the past few years.

  1. Solve the right problem first.
    That problem has to be the customer’s. Your project will, by definition, benefit the environment and coming generations (you’re an environmental entrepreneur, right?). But if it doesn’t also benefit the people who have to pay for it in the first place, it will die. If the first slide in your presentation doesn’t clearly describe a living customer and a real pain they are feeling now (and you could solve), then you’re not ready. Don’t lead with global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, or wetland protection unless you’re talking to the people who feel this pain directly (like foundations and policy makers). Instead, talk about how your solution will help the customer–help grow market share, reduce costs, improve quality, increase margins, reduce weight, grow hair, or get their kids into Princeton. Solving the customer’s problem first focuses you on the here and now, forcing you to be the one person who understands better than even your customers, what they need.
  2. Always solve more than 1 problem.
    Good ideas solve someone’s problem. Great ideas solve more than one problem. Don’t waste your time pushing one-dimensional solutions, the successful ventures, green or otherwise, that you hear about solve multiple problems at once. That means solving the problems of suppliers, distributors, retailers, and regulators, and investors. Powerlight developed a solar panel system that clicks together, has a layer of insulation underneath, doesn’t require penetrating the existing roof, and is durable enough to walk on. This reduces the efficiency of their panels (as they don’t tilt toward the sun) but it makes installation easy, and installers recommend them. Whose cooperation do you need? What do they get out of the deal? Run the numbers. If everyone doesn’t win, go back to the drawing board until you find a solution where everyone does.
  3. Embrace style.
    Somewhere along the way, style became the antithesis of substance. Nearly 100 years of Madison Avenue advertising has made style a cheap substitute for substance (just look at the US auto industry). But you can’t blame them. Consumption is as much about identity as it is about performance. Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple, and Chevy all sell identity as much as the products their names are on. The Prius was helped by images of celebrities filling the gas tank; Willy Nelson’s name scored style points for biodeisel among truckers; even Gore is revamping his style to great effect. Think about your new venture: Style has a substance all its own. What’s yours? What’s your company’s identity and who wants to share it with you?
  4. Don’t make leaps.
    Most environmental entrepreneurs have visions of fixing entire systems–after all, that’s what’s broken–and design solutions that promise wholly new technologies enabling (and requiring) wholly new behaviors. Think hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which require innovations in fuel cells, fuel, fueling stations, fuel companies, and fuel distributors, to mention just a few. But that’s where most promising ideas fail. Innovations succeed when they offer evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in behavior. Create a design that provides small steps, easy changes, for your customers. Edison designed his electric light to look and act just like the gas lighting existing customers were used to. Only later did people start using electricity for other uses. Natura non facit saltum: Nature does not make leaps. Neither will customers.
  5. Know when good enough is good enough.
    You will always have two choices: keep working on the product or get it into the hands of customers and see what happens. Hundreds of millions have been poured into perfecting the Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, all based on what people think the automobile industry will want in 15-20 years. Jadoo Power Systems, on the other hand, found a way to put hydrogen fuel cells into the hands of customers today. How? By taking the technology that exists today and designing products that people need now. Jadoo sells power solutions to video crews, rescue workers, and the military–all of whom will pay right now for something than provides the same power for less weight. And by doing so, they are learning dramatically (doubling performance while halfing costs). Get to the market as soon as you can–there is no substitute for learning what people will pay for, and how they’ll actually use it.
  6. Forget the better mousetrap.
    Emerson had it wrong. Build a better mousetrap and the world will not beat a path to your door. The better mousetrap–or whatever your solution–is the beginning, not the end. Once you have that, you need to market it. You need to get the word out to your customers quickly and effectively by building a website, sending out a press release, writing an editorial (or better yet, an article describing the problem, the market, and the opportunity better than anyone else has yet). Who needs to know about your product? How are they going to hear about it? How can they reach you? The light bulb was 40 years old by the time Edison started marketing his version. The steam engine was over 100 years old before James Watt found the investors, distribution channels, and manufacturing partners to bring it to the mass market. We remember Edison and Watt because they built successful business around existing mousetraps.
  7. Remember, success makes you the new problem.
    Careful what you wish for–you just might get it. Any company that succeeds grows, and any company that grows needs to worry about managing cash-flow, making payroll, paying creditors, and staying around in the long-term. Compromises start to creep in, waste starts to add up, and pretty soon you’re part of the problem. For environmental companies, this is especially challenging. A world filled with electric cars would be a world littered with lead-acid batteries and darkened by coal-burning power plants. Look to companies who, like Patagonia in the last decade or Hewlett-Packard in the 1950s, turned away from growth in order to remain the companies they wanted to be in the first place. Just remember, when you succeed, why you started in the first place.

Launching the Energy Efficiency Center

Yesterday, we launched the first academic Center focused on the commercialization of energy efficient technologies. The Energy Efficiency Center (EEC) was created with a $1M grant from the California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF) represents a rather unique and interdisciplinary collaboration across the colleges of Engineering and Agriculture and the Graduate School of Management. California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the opening remarks (for related articles, I’ve provided links below).

The Center represents a new direction in the development of energy efficiency and, I hope, other sustainable technologies, as it brings the perspectives and resources of the entrepreneurial community into the conversation–the voices not only of the end-user, but also of investors, suppliers, resellers, and countless others.

As the founding Director of the Center, I gave these brief remarks:

In 1882, Thomas Edison threw the switch at his Pearl Street Station and created an energy revolution. But history can be deceiving. Edison neither invented the light bulb nor perfected its performance. That technology was 40 years old by the time Edison got to it.

Edison’s impact came not from inventing a new technology but, instead, from finding the right business model that would bring this emerging technology into the marketplace–a business model that would be embraced by customers, yes, but also investors, suppliers, regulators, and a host of other eventual stakeholders.

Thanks to the vision and support of the California Clean Energy Fund, the Energy Efficiency Center at UC Davis represents the first effort solely focused on bringing the emerging technologies of energy efficiency into the marketplace.

With the support of CalCEF and in partnerships such as we have now with PG&E, this center will be a catalyst for raising energy efficiency and reducing energy costs in California transportation, building, and agriculture—by bringing rigorous science and practical solutions together with sustainable business models.

Researchers at UC Davis and partner institutions already lead the nation in much of the science and technology of energy efficiency. This work can be seen, for eample, in the Institute for Transportation Studies where innovations are bringing the power of information technology and the internet to problem of traffic congestion and trucking logistics.

Other similar innovations are coming from the California Lighting Technology Center, where they are working in partnership with utilities, manufacturers, and customers to develop new technologies and standards for lighting—some of which can be seen in this building. And from research in Agriculture and Food Processing, where new sensors can improve the efficiency of irrigation pumps and reduce water consumption.

Dan Sperling, in particular, has been a driving force behind the formation of this center and his work has made UC Davis a national and international leader in energy-related research. He will play a key role in this center as its Associate Director.

This center will change the way we study energy efficiency, the way we teach it, and the ways in which we work together with the public and private sector to develop real and lasting innovations in energy. Keep an eye on us.

Here is some of the initial press reporting on the launch:

A mousetrap in hand versus in the bush?

What’s the value of a mousetrap (or two) in the bush? Hitting the road to spread his message of energy independence, Bush announced that the US was on the verge of an energy breakthrough (story):

“Our nation is on the threshold of new energy technology that I think will startle the American people,” Bush said. “We’re on the edge of some amazing breakthroughs — breakthroughs all aimed at enhancing our national security and our economic security and the quality of life of the folks who live here in the United States.”

I’ve spoken about the fallacy of better mousetraps before (mousetraps), but to recap–the numbers just don’t pan out. Of the 4400 mousetraps patented in the last 170 years or so, only a few dozen have made any money, and only 2 dominant designs are on the market (the snap trap and sticky trap). The world does not, it turns out, beat a path to anyone’s door for a better mousetrap. Nor will it for a better energy technology: solar, nuclear, hydro, geo, biomass…these were and are all good technologies. But that’s not enough.

Technological revolutions don’t happen overnight. to take hold, they require relatively slow and incremental changes in the behavior of individuals and markets. Edison’s light bulb (arriving as it did 40 years after the first incandencent bulb) still preceded the true age of electricity (in the homes and factories) by another 40 years.

So here’s the dilemma: the more we talk about a great technology just around the corner, the less we take responsibility for the harder work of changing our behaviors to exploit the alternative energy technologies that are out there today. The danger of believing in an energy mousetrap–that a technology will suddenly rescue us from our addiction–is that such a belief only enables our complacency. Don’t worry, be happy, and a solution will be along shortly.

The Corporate Citizen

In explaining why he grilled Sec’y of State Condoleeza Rice in Davos, Dr. Daniel Vasella, chief executive of Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, offers these words of wisdom–and perhaps warning–to CEO’s who feel they can and should abdicate their own beliefs and values to further the corporate mission:

The first responsibility of a C.E.O. is to run his company successfully and generate products which are useful to your customers, resulting in economic value creation. We also have to act responsibly, respecting not only the law, but also fulfilling legitimate expectations that society has of us. Today these expectations in most instances go beyond short-term profit maximization. What people want is that businesspeople behave in a responsible way in communities in which they live, that they treat employees fairly, respect the environment and demonstrate sensitivity to the problems of other, disadvantaged people in the world. I think corporate social responsibility has taken a much more important role than it used to.

And later:

…some of my fellow C.E.O.’s believe they should not express themselves on political issues at all. They should just do business. I think that is not the right attitude. First of all, we are citizens of whatever country we are from. We have a citizenship responsibility. Secondly, I do believe we have to examine our own beliefs and value systems regularly. We cannot act in a void. I think there is very clear responsibility.

As global power migrates from nation-states to corporations, the behaviors and expectations of these corporate citizens will become increasingly central to peace and prosperity.

World wide web of good

Posting for Always On, Scott Lenet, Co-founder and Managing Director of venture capital firm DFJ Frontier offers a compelling case study of corporate citizenship. As William McDonough argues, “Commerce is the engine of change.” One of DFJ Frontier’s funded ventures,World of Good, is attempting, and so far succeeding, to change the ways that first world consumption affects third world production (and social) systems.

When consumers can get information easily that allows them to compare alternatives, prices reach equilibrium and unfair advantage tends to disappear.

But imagine this model turned upside down, where the power of the internet could be used to help uninformed suppliers in a market where buyers have all the control. Craft producing villages around the world have little access to market information on the selling price of their goods as they move through the global supply chain. These producers rarely have the ability to assess the value of their labor and are unable to negotiate prices to ensure that they live above the poverty line.

This is why World of Good founder Priya Haji has introduced web-based floor pricing technology for worldwide distribution to craft producers. Literally anywhere in the world, a producer, their representative, or a buyer can test pricing in real time. This calculator shows how the price of goods compares to United Nations indicators of poverty and international labor wage data. Immediately, artisans can use this information to negotiate market prices while buyers with conscience can see how their pricing policies compare to their intentions. Using the internet, World of Good embodies a key requirement for free markets: the free flow of information.

When the solution is part of the problem

In my last post, I described the dangers of assuming a moonshot or Manhattan project could solve America’s energy crisis. The Bush administration, releasing some of their text for the upcoming state of the union address, perpetuates the myth that large-scale projects are effective solutions:

“America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world,” Bush said in the excerpts. “The best way to break this addiction is through technology.”

Not to be crass, but most moonshot projects work because, to be effective, their output (rockets or bombs) requires little to no changes in individual behavior or social values. Changes in energy production or consumption, on the other hand, will require changes in what we buy, drive, eat, etc… The danger lies in believing there is a single technological solution out there which, if found, would make all of our problems go away, because that belief prevents us from making harder choices, and taking on greater challenges at the local levels.

The more we believe someone else will bring us a (technological) solution, the less responsibility we feel for solving the problem ourselves. The real solution, if history is any guide, will come from the emergence and confluence of many local solutions.

Sustainability in the Cathedral and Bazaar

One of the problems with expecting technological innovation to solve social problems–like expecting energy research to solve the energy crisis–may be our perpetual confusion between the means and ends. It’s alright to have a moonshot goal (the end-game), but the means for getting there need not, and likely should not, be NASA-scaled, centrally-controlled, and monstrously-funded projects.

Thomas Friedman, for example, recently described Texas Instrument’s green chip factory in Richardson, Texas recently (A Green Dream in Texas). TI’s plant was designed and built in a “cost-saving, hyper-efficient green manner.” It’s not clear how efficient is efficient but, in any case, what’s interesting is how Friedman uses the green factory to call for an “energy independence” moonshot:

In 1961, when President Kennedy called for putting a man on the moon, he didn’t know how – but his vision was so compelling, his expectations of the American people so high, that they drove the moon shot well after he died. The Bush-Cheney team should be inspiring our generation’s moon shot: energy independence. But so far all they’ve challenged Americans to do is accept a tax cut.

Friedman supports the goal of moonshot. The end he has in mind is exactly what we need. But in reality, what’s harder–putting one man on the moon or a million men and women into hydrogen-powered cars? And why?

Governments are organized well to build cathedrals, but not bazaars. Unfortunately, some of the greatest leaps forward are too complicated to be solved by one single project or person; instead they take place over time and across countless, nameless people (as Jean Henri Fabre once said, “History records the names of royal bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat”). Throwing money at creating the single best solution, like building one rocket, or one bomb, is easy compared to creating a technological revolution that requires an accompanying social revolution to succeed. For these problems, it’s better to build bazaars–the open source communities where ideas and behaviors co-evolve. And from which spring the real revolutions.

Toys in the attic

While the rest of the world awaits Google’s $200 pc, Technology Rescue has produced and is offering a free way to get some more–very useful–miles out of your old PC’s.

At work or at home, we now have plenty of old computer lying around. EPA estimates roughly 60 million computers in the US turn obsolete each year. In the Wintel world, these machines become pretty useless fast–unable to run the latest versions of Windows or Office Suite.

But times have changed. We spend most of our time on the web now anyway, and doing that requires very little processing power. Technology Rescue–my brother’s company and the ones who initiated the disaster-relief CD produced by PublicWebStations.com (see my earlier post), has produced a downloadable CD-ROM program, EZWebPC. Download it, burn it to a CD, and use it to boot your old PC:

You can download EZWebPC for free. While the .iso image is approximately 170MB, once downloaded it can be copied and used on an unlimited number of computers.

Once EZWebPC is loaded, the program opens up just a Firefox web browser window from which you can browse the web. Obviously, the computer needs an Internet-ready network, but that’s pretty much it. The individual user data is deleted when the window is closed, which then reopens to Firefox again.

What can you do with these? We put an old computer in our kitchen, and it’s surprising how often we turn to it to get directions with googlemaps, to resolve trivia debates, to check movie listings or sports, and to watch the occasional movie trailer (and now google video) during dinner. But wait, there’s more:

Otherwise unused computers can be re-used as extra “WebStations” on home networks or in small-business waiting rooms, or as a public-access information terminals in libraries, cafes, town halls, civic centers, or trade shows.

A vital perspective on technology, innovation, and design

Have to recommend the Canadian documentary, The Corporation, which offers a vital and powerful perspective on the nature of corporations and, particularly, their institutionalized structure, role, and obligations in society. Sure, it ignores the social benefits of organized accomplishments, but a “fair and balanced” approach does not help if you want to get a glimpse into the heart of darkness. And the corporation’s heart is pretty dark. Whether you’re an activist or an aspiring capitalist, a designer or a consumer, in academia or in business, you need to answer (for yourself) the questions this documentary poses. For example, “what am I going to do about it.”

The film takes an “organizational design” perspective to diagnose the corporation and its structurally-induced pathologies. The film argues persuasively that organizations are the way they are because their decision-makers are obliged (often legally) to maximize profit by, among other things, ignoring the social and environmental costs for which they can not currently be held accountable. This creates the both the tragedy of the commons, in which individuals and firms plunder common, or shared, resources because they are “free,” and it’s inversion, where individuals and firms dispose back into the commons newly created and harmful resources (e.g., carcinogens, pollutants, emissions, &c) because, again, it’s relatively costless to do so.

Anyone hoping to make a difference in the world through technology and its design should watch this flick.