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Energy Entrepreneurship and Innovation: Today's Challenges, Tomorrow's Opportunities

05/07/2009 4:30 PM Sheraton Boston
William Aulet, SM '94, Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management; Jacques Beaudry"Losique, SM '92, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy; U.S. Department of Energy; ; Christina Lampe"Onnerud, Founder and CEO, Boston"Power; ; Robert Metcalfe, '68, General Partner, Polaris Venture Partners; Founder, 3Com Corporation; Matthew Nordan, President and Co"Founder; Lux Research Inc.;

Description: There are ample opportunities for new energy entrepreneurs, these panelists agree, but motivation and certain kinds of know"how play key roles in bringing new ventures to fruition.

Idealism led Christina Lampe"Onnerud to "go into the energy space" at 23, but "inertia" surrounding the energy business may intimidate today's entrepreneurs. Her Boston"Power company, which makes "green" lithium"ion batteries, has forged good relations with policymakers, and now hopes that these politicians will be "brave enough" to "put frameworks out 20 years." In addition to long"term policy changes, Lampe"Onnerud is counting on a continuous influx of good scientists and engineers to drive her company forward. She encourages everyone with new ideas or the capacity to provide leadership to respond "to the biggest opportunity and threat we have."

Jacques Beaudry"Losique warns would"be energy entrepreneurs they're up against a highly regulated environment. An offshore wind turbine might require 39 different permits, and it can take as long as 14 years to get approval for a transmission line. Beaudry"Losique promises that government is now working "to better align interests so we can move faster bringing these solutions to the table." Energy entrepreneurs should arm themselves with experienced staff who can navigate regulatory channels. They should also build consortia and partnerships with foundations, government and university labs, other manufacturers and buyers. The administration "is making a huge commitment to energy efficiency and smart buildings" and views wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, as "all hot."

Compared to entrepreneurial ventures in IT and life sciences, clean energy startups demand "more money, more time and more late stage risk," says Matthew Nordan. Biomass or coal gasification technologies might require a billion dollars for a pilot plant, which "is a level of risk so high that investors won't sign that check." Many technologies intended to solve one problem end up creating another, or encounter bottlenecks as they scale up, such as the limited supply of precious metals required for the magnets of wind turbines. Some entrepreneurs find success in unique niches, though, such as those seeking to recover waste metal byproducts of tar sand operations. But Nordan warns of a big shake up, as the recent discovery of a massive pocket of natural gas in the U.S. will make competition even steeper for new energy contenders like solar and wind.

Robert Metcalfe finds a lack of "human capital" in current energy ventures. The talented CEOs "who have started five companies" are in short supply in energy, which also haven't widely adopted partnering as a useful model. To Metcalfe, the energy problem "looks more and more like a networking problem," which demands a smart grid with lots of storage. This should present entrepreneurs with novel areas to explore. Large utilities may prove obstructive: "We must find ways to get around them, either recruit them or destroy them." He's optimistic there will be breakthroughs in such technologies as fuel cells, and that "when we solve energy, it will be cheap and abundant, and we will use much more of it."

About the Speaker(s): William Auletis also Entrepreneur in Residence at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center. He has 25 years of experience in technology business operations and financing. He started his career at IBM and then ran two private companies, Cambridge Decision Dynamics and SensAble Technologies. Aulet now works with students and start"up companies to build strategies and operating plans that will create sustainable value.

He currently has a specific interest in energy where he conceived, developed and teaches a new graduate class at MIT called "Energy Ventures," writes on the topic for Xconomy.com, and consults for large and small companies in the field. Aulet also conceived, created and serves as the Chairman of the MIT Clean Energy Prize. He has given workshops to many corporate and government entities on innovation, entrepreneurship and corporate venture capital including the US Department of Energy where he has served on their Review Board for Entrepreneurship Grants. In Janaury 2008, Aulet was a featured speaker at the seminal first World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. He has an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a graduate degree from the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he was a Sloan Fellow.

Host(s): Alumni Association, MIT Enterprise Forum

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