Mission To Frisco | April 23, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 17 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 17 | p. 24
Issue Date: April 23, 2012

Mission To Frisco

Sixteen U.K. cleantech start-ups experience the investor scene in Silicon Valley
Department: Business | Collection: Green Chemistry, Entrepreneurs
Keywords: cleantech, start-up, venture capital, membrane, green building
Leaders from U.K. cleantech start-ups descend on San Francisco.
Credit: U.K. Technology Strategy Board
A photo of the representatives sent to San Francisco from 16 UK cleantech firms to connect with cleantech investors.
Leaders from U.K. cleantech start-ups descend on San Francisco.
Credit: U.K. Technology Strategy Board

After two weeks of coaching and preparation and a 15-hour flight, representatives from 16 U.K. green technology firms had the opportunity last month to present their companies to the savviest cleantech investors in the world. They would each have five minutes.

The travelers were part of the Clean & Cool Mission to San Francisco, an effort sponsored by the U.K.’s Technology Strategy Board, a national innovation agency. The agency chose companies from an applicant pool of 100 to send to an industry event called the Cleantech Forum, which is organized by the Cleantech Group, a market research firm. The 2012 forum was the show’s 10th anniversary and attracted more than 100 venture capital investors.

The U.K. group included innovators in membrane separation, green buildings, photovoltaics, small-scale hydropower, hydrogen production and storage, and efficient motors. Some firms are still at the prototype stage; others are selling products but hope to access the U.S. market, says Richard Miller, head of sustainability at the strategy board. Each firm is poised for growth and looking for investors and partners.

“We selected firms that are ready for that breakout moment,” Miller says. By bringing them all in a group—a kind of British invasion of Silicon Valley—the strategy board sought to achieve what Miller calls a mass effect. Making a splash helped get them in front of investors and potential technology or business partners.

And the chosen target was no surprise. “San Francisco is both a major technology market and an investment area; something like 40% of cleantech investment originates there. It is deal central—where it’s all happening, a great place and opportunity to sell ideas, talk about what they are doing, make the contact,” Miller says.

To prepare for their big moment in the spotlight, company executives had to learn a new communication style. “There is an obsession with us in the U.K. to talk forever about the technology, but it doesn’t necessarily open doors in the U.S.,” explains Thomas Lipinski of Green Structures, which makes passive thermal energy storage systems. “We were put through a boot camp where we had to present in front of each other and were completely rubbished.”

After many repetitions of that experience, each presenter whittled his or her presentation down to five or six slides. “The whole purpose of the presentation is to get the next meeting,” says Trond Heggenhougen, business development director for Whitefox Technologies, a manufacturer of membrane systems for the biofuels industry. “You try to create interest in some members of the audience who will say, ‘I really liked what I saw; can I have a meeting?’ ”

Heggenhougen says he was told one important cultural difference is that “in the U.S. people don’t talk about CO2, but in Europe people talk about that first. We were told that in the U.S. you start with the dollar. Then you discuss energy efficiency, and greenhouse gases are third. People are bold, and they want to know about the money aspect.” Also, participants were advised not to wear ties.

The warm-ups paid off, Lipinski says. “After I gave the presentation I was pleased, because people understood what I was talking about, thanks to the coaching.” He believed that the audience was listening for information about markets the technology is targeting. He fielded questions about what the firm needs to grow and where it would set up a facility.

Peter M. Roberts, managing director with VerdErg, also was ready for such questions. His firm, which is at the prototype stage, is developing small devices to generate power from slow-flowing rivers or tides. “I have a one-line answer: Our immediate need is one investment of around $4 million.” He explains that his firm is “planning prototype completion this summer. Our business model is selling electricity, so we have to finance the projects ourselves.” The company needs to fund both working capital and project finance for the three to five years before it begins to bring in revenues, Roberts adds.

Heggenhougen’s firm is at a more advanced stage. Whitefox installed its first industrial unit in 2002 and started full-scale commercialization in 2006. That history is helping the firm document how its membrane process lowers energy and water consumption during ethanol production. Few biofuels investors were at the forum, he reports, but they understood the value of his technology. After the presentation, Heggenhougen was sought out for meetings by industrial conglomerates, venture capitalists, and an investor from China. In addition to funding, he is looking for strategic partners with connections to U.S. markets and manufacturing capacity.

The lessons learned for the San Francisco trip will also help the firms grow in the U.K., the strategy board’s Miller says. “A lot of it is getting clarity around what you want and working hard to talk to the right people.” Even if an encounter is with someone who is not a likely investor, he or she might know someone who is, Miller points out. For now, the companies have a handful of immediate actions to pursue. “Hopefully they will continue to be a team and a support group for each other,” he says.

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