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.
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.