May 16, 2017

Sounding the alarm on cleantech venture capital

Ben Geman, author of Generate

Trends in venture capital funding decisions are hindering commercialization of next-wave green energy technologies, according to a new Brookings Institution analysis.

Why it matters: Despite the urgency of climate change, the cleantech VC funding woes—especially for early-stage companies—will get worse if Trump succeeds in gutting Energy Department initiatives, the authors say.

Here are some of the headwinds Brookings identifies . . .

  • VC funding on cleantech companies fell from $7.5 billion in 2011 to $5.2 billion last year, and there were almost 200 fewer deals in 2016.
  • VC cleantech investment is concentrated in a few regions (check out the chart below), leaving other areas "starved for participation."
Expand chart
Data: Brookings analysis of Cleantech group's i3 Connect database; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios
  • Taken in tandem with a prior Brookings analysis on the wide geographic distribution of cleantech patents, report co-author Mark Muro tells Axios that the relatively narrow concentration of VC dollars suggests that promising climate-friendly ideas aren't getting VC money.
  • The vast majority of VC funding goes to more mature companies, while there's a declining slice of the pie over the last decade for riskier, early stage companies trying to create "radically" better climate-friendly tech. That means "fewer novel and potentially game-changing technologies are getting past the early stage."
  • On a related note, a handful of tech areas—efficiency, smart grids, storage, solar, bioenergy, and transportation—received about 80 percent of the funding between 2011-2016, while technologies including advanced nuclear are missing out.

What Brookings recommends: Support for federal programs that Trump wants to ax, like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and loan guarantees. It also makes the case for programs like the Cyclotron Road incubator at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.At the state level, one suggestion is having existing "green banks" in places like New York and Hawaii expand operations to finance riskier technologies.In the private sector, cleantech money should experiment with new financing models, like greater funding by corporations and corporate VC arms.The good news: There's some reason for optimism for early stage cleantech funding, via developments like the $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund recently launched by Bill Gates and other investors.

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