Is it time to redefine cleantech?

“How is your company cleantech?”

It’s something we ask each new team at Greentown Labs to share at their first Town Hall meeting, a third-Friday-of-the-month gathering of members over pizza and beer.

Increasingly, the sophistication of the answers surprises us. These teams, mainly made up of scientists and engineers, have clearly thought through the benefit that bringing their technology to market will have on the environment. For some companies it is a fairly obvious answer (“we are building a more efficient system for harnessing wind energy…”). But I was blown away by the response of one new company, Accion Systems, that is building a cheaper, faster, more lightweight satellite technology than is available today.

One of the founding team members said “Small satellites enabled by our technology are monitoring deforestation activities, groundwater tracking, and power grid monitoring for avoiding/predicting blackouts. One of our partners is even working on harvesting asteroids for spacecraft fuel away from the Earth. Also, our propellant, traditionally used for CO2 capture, is one of the first non-toxic, green liquid propellants for small satellites.”

The irony of cleantech is that for some, it’s a dirty word. Cleantech has come to stand for renewable energies like solar and wind; even worse, it’s been tarnished by a few high-profile failures. But the industry has grown and prospered, begetting an immediate need for us to redefine what we think of as “cleantech.”

When visitors come to tour our facility, they’re surprised to see such great variety in our companies. Take Bevi, for example, a company born out of MIT and RISD. The founder was in graduate design school when she learned about the large mass of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean, growing bigger every year. Building from her background and teaming with an engineer and a business student, she developed a new beverage system that eliminates the need for the ubiquitous plastic water bottle, millions of which are thrown away daily after a single use.

Yes, a cleantech company is defined by what it does, but it also must stay true to its mission, even as it’s tempted to chase profits.

What do all of our companies have in common? There is a clear and strong environment benefit to each technology getting to market. And yet, not all of them would be considered cleantech by its traditional definition. I’d argue that in these cases it is not the vertical that is defining the company’s impact or fit with cleantech, it is the benefit that accrues to our environment and replaces existing dirtier incumbent technologies.

I see multiple arguments for being more inclusive when defining cleantech. This would bring more ideas, more voices and more multidisciplinarity into the mix, which is critical to solving really big challenges. It helps bring together a set of people with a common passion not just for building technology or making a profit, but for having a positive impact as well. Helping these people find a community is critical since they can be motivated and feel empowered by the fact that they are not the only entrepreneur out there with this as a mission.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we worry about greenwashing? Shouldn’t we be worried that every startup will start calling themselves cleantech? Unfortunately, as most startups trying to raise venture capital know, there is little financial advantage to calling one’s company cleantech. Memories in Silicon Valley go back to the period between 2006 and 2008 when we had a mini-boom in funding for solar and wind startups. VCs jumped in with both feet, sometimes without looking, and what came out of it was a lot of lost cash. The few VCs who continue to invest in cleantech demand “capital light” business models, which is often a difficult proposition for this industry. The now infamous 60 Minutes article from nearly two years ago that showed the losses taken by Silicon Valley and the Federal Government in regards to Solyndra, continues to be called back as an example of how “cleantech” has failed.

Yet, if we were to look at a single high-profile failure and declare the death of an industry, then ecommerce would have stopped at Pets.com.

While one option would be to come up with an alternative word or phrase to define “cleantech,” as many have suggested, we suggest reclaiming the word. The term “cleantech” best defines the work of our industry, the scientists, engineers and business professionals who work within it, and the millennials who are infusing it with a new kind of energy and idealism.

When we at Greentown Labs look at companies applying to be part of our incubator, we first look at their mission and intent, but then we examine how they approach broader energy or environmental problems. That is, are they:

Trying to improve the efficiency of a process? — NBD Nano makes condensation more efficient, which comes into play when making power plants more efficient. But this isn’t just using less raw fuel to make power, it’s also about using less water.

Enabling cleantech implementation? Autonomous Marine Systems has developed a sailing drone that can spend extended periods of time on the ocean to help monitor ocean dynamics. This makes it possible to measure meteorological conditions, wind, waves, and other parameters to help site wind turbines.

Reducing greenhouse gases in the environment? — Dynamo Micropower focuses on turning methane flare gas into power. Flare gas is a huge issue in oil production, as its waste gas that often gets burned off. Using that waste as power helps mitigate a growing problem that has a huge environmental impact. Methane is a larger threat to global climate change than carbon dioxide. Focusing on an industry problem like this helps oil producers reduce their environmental footprint even as they save money.

As an industry comprised of like-minded innovators who wake up every day and try and make a positive impact on the world, we need to help organizations feel empowered to call themselves cleantech. We need to show them how cleantech will change society as we know it. We need to help them believe in labeling themselves cleantech and feel proud of that identification.

It is time to redefine cleantech.