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Where will clean tech companies find funding?

BOSTON (March 10, 2009)—If tomorrow's economy is to be sustainable both environmentally and economically, many new “clean tech” technologies and companies will need to arise. But where will they come from and how will they attract the capital they need to mature, particularly in the short-term during the financial crisis?

I’m here at the AlwaysOn Going Green conference this week to find out. I'm here both as a curious audience member and as the moderator of a panel this morning on sustainable biochemistry. The conference aims to help incubate those new enterprises by bringing together greentech CEOs, investors, researchers and others “to identify and debate emerging trends, build high-level relationships and create new business opportunities.”

(Scientific American is a partner with the AlwaysOn network in presenting the meeting, which is the first East Coast edition of an event held twice before in California.)

Tony Perkins, the CEO of AlwaysOn, kicked the meeting off with a "pep talk" for concerned entrepreneurs. Perkins -- whom you might also remember as the founder of Red Herring, one of the publishing icons of the dot-com era -- suggested that notwithstanding the chaos and dysfunctions on display in the financial community, the economy seemed to be in the midst of “the first major shift in a generation.” The last one, he said, was the computer revolution that put a PC on everyone’s desk and opened up the Internet. The new “greentech steamroller,” he argued, promised to change the economy and the culture much as the Internet had, because a new generation of entrepreneurs were aiming to build their businesses around a state of mind that focused on improving the state of the planet.

So how what does it look like on Wall Street at the moment? Morgan Stanley managing director Kevin Genieser, the managing director of Morgan Stanley, said in a talk on “Cleantech: Boom to Bust and Back Again?” that the optimistic period of investment and growth for clean technologies that had stretched from about 2005 to early 2008 led to a massive proliferation of companies; Morgan Stanley had tracked 120 solar companies in the Bay Area alone. Then a combination of factors—financial pressures, falling fossil fuel prices, the recession and so on—slammed on the brakes. Since then, $200 billion in market capitalization had been lost from the green sector industries.

On the other hand, said Genieser, some of the fundamental energy and environmental issues that had been forced out of the headlines by the financial crisis were (for better or worse) going to resurface: oil prices would go back up, the demand for new energy sources would rise, and so on. Moreover, the Obama administration’s new policy initiatives energy and climate, not to mention the stimulus package, would favor renewed interest in green sector technologies again over the next few years.

One of the meeting's highlights is the announcement of the GoingGreen East Top 50 Private companies. Four hundred greentech companies based east of the Mississippi were evaluated in terms of the disruptive potential of their technology, its market potential and readiness, its credibility as part of the greentech revolution and so on.

The overall winner was GreatPoint Energy, which converts coal into natural gas by a non-combustion-based chemical process—that is, it “turns the dirtiest and most abundant fossil fuel into the cleanest,” in the words of Ed Ring, the editor of EcoWorld and one of GoingGreen’s organizers. GreatPoint CEO Andrew Perlman will be delivering a keynote address today. Stay tuned for more about their technology.

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