Clean Tech Innovation from Geeks to Wonks

With jargon like thin-film photovoltaics and carbon capture and sequestration, it may seem that clean tech innovation is all about science and esoteric technology–a pretty different place than, say, digital media and e-commerce, where much of the action has been in marketing and business model innovation.

So I’ve been thinking about how different industry sectors present different opportunities and imperatives for innovation.

A company like Bloo Solar, which uses nanotechnology and advanced manufacturing techniques to create solar cells that are dramatically more efficient than those in commercial production today, is fundamentally about applied science and state-of-the-art engineering. Eden Park Illumination has an ultrathin lighting technology that allows for the creation of illuminated panels little thicker than a credit card and which can last for 50,000 hours. Beacon Power places the ancient flywheel together with the 100-year-old concept of AC power generation in a 21st century package that should be the delight of any high school physics geek. They have thousand-pound flywheels, suspended by magnets and spinning frictionlessly in a vacuum chamber, to store electricity and then regenerate it on demand.

All this may make it seem like clean tech is all about innovation on the geek end of the innovation spectrum.

Innovation Spectrum

But I’ve also come across some companies where the action is on the Wonk side of the spectrum. You’ve got companies like the Chicago Climate Exchange providing a market for trading greenhouse gas emission allowances. Another example of applying a tested business model to this new sector is Sungevity, while uses its Web site to collect, qualify and distribute leads for residential solar panel installation projects, reducing the time it takes for consumers to get a quote and connect with a qualified installer, and reducing the installers’ cost of doing business.

One of the most radical examples of business model innovation in the clean tech domain to hit the news is Better Place, a company that has excited Thomas Friedman’s enthusiasm. Better Place’s vision of a mass-produced electric cars automatically swapping batteries at a network of battery exchange stations or being recharged at a network of charge spots does depend on technology, of course. But it hinges on a novel business model that seeks to align the interests of car companies, consumers and power utilities and enables consumers to buy miles of transportation rather than gasoline.

It is a cool concept, winningly explained on the company Web site.  Whether or not ever attains mass adoption, it is a good reminder that clean tech success requires more than technology innovation. It will require innovation on the business model front as well.

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4 Comments

Filed under energy storage, illumination, solar, transportation

4 responses to “Clean Tech Innovation from Geeks to Wonks

  1. Interesting post. What’s the source for your graphic and the idea it illustrates?

    • David Schatsky

      Thanks. The graphic is mine. I’m playing with the idea that there is a spectrum, from science to the more mundane crafts of marketing, sales & distribution where companies can find competitive advantage. I put policy/regulation on the spectrum as well, since it’s a big factor in clean tech and elsewhere. But it doesn’t seem really to belong at one end of the spectrum. Rather, it kind of spans everything. If the general concept resonates with you and you have a better idea for how to represent it, I’d love to hear it. Thanks.

  2. Hopefully Better Place gets a seat at the table when Obama starts doling out all of this money to jump start the economy. It is a truly ingenious approach to solving the transportation portion of the carbon issue. Although I think Agassi is going at it the right way in attacking it state by state, island nation by island nation. Prove out the concept and then all the skeptics will jump on board.

    As your post clearly explains, it is going to take all kinds of people from the “Geeks to the Wonks”, in order to drive this planet into our next evolutionary stage. Thank you for covering this most important topic.

    • David Schatsky

      The more I learn about clean tech, the more I appreciate the complexity of the challenges and their solutions and how you need smart technology plus smart policy, politics, economics, marketing and strategy. Thanks for reading.

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