Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sam Jaffe: Thoughts on the Cleantech Fellows Institute

Sam Jaffe is one of the Cleantech Fellows Institute’s invaluable Department Heads, leading the Storage Technologies curriculum. We asked Sam to share his thoughts about the program.

Your background is in journalism with publications such as Bloomberg and Business Week.   What brought you into the cleantech arena?

I went into journalism because it’s a great way to witness history. However, in the end, your role as a journalist is as an observer, not as a prime mover of change. I went into cleantech because I felt that making energy clean and cheap is the fundamental challenge of my generation and I wanted to be part of it–as an actor, not as an observer.

You’ve worked with some of the premier energy and cleantech research firms.  Has your research and work with these firms led you to have any industry “ah-ha” moments that you can share?

As a science journalist, I was always interviewing fascinating people who made significant discoveries. But when I asked them when their breakthrough would be turned into a product, the answer was always the same: “In five years.” I wanted to find out what was so magical about five years. The “ah-ha” moments have usually been when I’ve had a chance to peek inside the screen and find out that “five years” is usually short-hand for “this will never work, but we’re going to milk it for as much capital and prestige as we can for as long as we can”. When a concept described in a scientific paper really, really works and solves a significant business problem, it usually finds its way to market much earlier than five years. The majority of cleantech concepts out there, however, simply don’t work as promised. There might be published data and a team of people with great C.V.’s, but the data is usually wrong.

Where do you see the greatest challenges and opportunities facing the cleantech and renewable energy industries in 2013?

The single biggest problem that cleantech faces is the “Silicon-Valley-ization” of venture capital that flowed into the sector. It led to a lot of high-fliers that in turn led to a lot of spectacular flameouts. The sector needs a venture capital outlook that measures time in decades, not quarters. I know that that is asking the impossible, but I’m convinced that such investors will see favorable returns over the long term if they can afford that kind of timespan.

As the Institute’s Department Head for Energy Storage, what do you think are a few of the most important take-aways for anyone looking to enter the storage industry?

Number one: NEVER, EVER, EVER cut corners on safety. It’s been the downfall of several promising energy storage startups. One fire – and the future of the company is gone.
Number Two: Anything that is obvious will be done by existing market players that have billions of dollars in cash and thousands of researchers. There is simply no possible way that a small startup can compete with the Samsungs and Panasonics of the world. An energy storage startup’s only hope is to leverage the one barrier to entry that excludes the big guys: small market niches. There aren’t a lot of them, but the good news is that they haven’t all been determined yet–that’s where a smart and hard-working entrepreneur can make a difference.

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