Cleantech Impact: From Cleantech Vision to Sustainable Market Solutions

We’ll never give up on saving the planet. We’re just doing it with more pragmatic, market-driven solutions that are delivering both environmental sustainability and measurable success.

By John Metzger | CEO, Metzger Albee Public Relations

Colorado’s cleantech industries continue driving sustainable solutions into the marketplace, which in turn fuel the state’s growing cleantech cluster. From the early years of the renewable energy movement’s spirit of visionary environmentalism, businesses are maturing and settling in with more predictable revenues, production and supply chains, and shifting from startup risk-and-reward chaos to the perpetual momentum of commercial success. Capital allocations have progressed from roll-the-dice emotional venturing to more experienced investors picking winners – equity-play businesses that can reliably forecast profitability in synergy with positive cleantech impact.

An industrial “cluster” requires enough growing businesses in a similar market space and physical location to recruit and retain talent. Educated, well-paid engineers, managers and executives don’t want to move their families for a job only to leave the state if that job goes away. Opportunities for upward professional mobility are imperative, and we’ve got them – Colorado’s workforce may represent one of the world’s deepest cleantech talent pools.

Workforce Impact

Colorado enjoys some of America’s strongest employment numbers, with substantial contributions from cleantech. Utilities and manufacturers are adapting to advancing clean energy economies, and along with the first generation of emerging growth companies, many are hiring.

Few companies have weathered the winds of change as well as Tendril. No longer a startup after 10 years, the Boulder smart-grid pioneer pivoted from connected-home hardware company to software-as-a-service provider of big data energy intelligence for utilities and ESMs (Energy Services Management companies). Tendril has fought its way to steady revenues and a stable workforce.

“As one of the longest-standing cleantech companies in Colorado, we’ve matured through hiring and layoff cycles,” said Chief Operating Officer Chris Black. “We started out as an Internet-of-Things smart-home device maker burning lots of cash and generating excitement, but not enough revenue. The recession, oil prices and slow adoption rates were big let-downs, but we’ve come out the other side as a profitable software company.”

Today, “Tendril 2.0” is a complete refresh of everything from its powerful technology stack (which doubles as a recruiting tool for the best and brightest programmers), to a complete retooling of operational and HR processes. “We have at times been the fastest growing and fastest shrinking company in Colorado,” said Black. “Today we have the best and happiest employees anywhere.”

From a high of 220, down to as low as 50 and now back up to nearly 100 high-profit employees, the company’s enlightened management is paying dividends. Laser-focused policies around culture, technical excellence and customer satisfaction make employees feel empowered and trusted. “Our turnover rate is very low, and in addition to career growth opportunities, everyone knows we’re having an impact on saving the planet,” said Black.

“Tendril is a great example of a startup surviving, then maturing into a nationally recognized employer of choice,” said CCIA Executive Director Chris Shapard. “Our established cleantech talent base gives employers the luxury of longer hiring horizons, and more candidates with specialized training.”

In addition to advanced-degree recruits, the need for trained technicians parallels maturing industries. In cleantech, a shining example is Ecotech Institute, the nation’s first trade school that prepares students for careers in renewable energy with programs in wind technology, solar technology and five other degrees. “More cleantech companies are on their feet now, and this growing infrastructure needs technical specialists,” said Ecotech President Chris Gorrie. “Working on wind turbines and solar installations requires special skill sets that can be developed and certified with our rigorous two-year programs.” New additions to the school’s course offerings include a power utility technology degree program, which focuses on high-voltage electrical generation and transmission, and an online business program, with an emphasis on sustainability.

Ecotech’s Aurora campus attracts a diverse mix of students, some who already have education in other fields, some who are right out of high school and some who are looking to launch a second career. The school’s career services department works with a number of large utilities, manufacturers and even smaller companies like rooftop solar contractor Namaste in Boulder to achieve an almost 80-percent job placement rate.

“A renewable energy future means more distributed power and more skilled jobs as utilities import new power sources to the grid,” said Shapard. “Ecotech is preparing for that growth by training the workforce of the future today. High school and college students are very interested in environmental sustainability, and the training opportunities for well-paid, stable careers that can have this kind of impact are very appealing.”

Economic Development Impact

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development has a high success rate in recruiting companies to Colorado. You just can’t beat the lifestyle, and Colorado’s generally business-friendly climate. And there’s that talent pool…

Renewable fuel and bio-ag chemical company Cool Planet is a great example of the kind of cleantech business that has found a new home in Colorado. Originally based in Southern California, the company conducted an exhaustive search and decided to move its global headquarters to Colorado two years ago. “We narrowed our choices to Denver and Houston, the two best cities in the country for traditional and renewable energy,” said CEO Howard Janzen. “What won us over to Denver was the talent we found coming out of the universities, NREL and the established companies. There is already a wonderful workforce in place that understands energy. On top of it, we can recruit around the world – people are willing to move here because of the lifestyle and the opportunities for career growth and mobility.”

Further testament to the company’s value proposition is the quality of investment it has attracted. Google is a top shareholder, and Cool Planet fits their criteria for investing in game-changing, paradigm-shifting technologies that can change the world for good. “What investors see with Cool Planet is the ability to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere via nongrain biomass, and turn that into high-octane transportation fuels and a valuable carbon-sequestering soil amendment called CoolTerra™,” said Janzen. “We have the potential to not just mitigate climate change, but to actually reverse it through our CoolTerra product.” That’s a big, hairy audacious goal happening right here in Colorado, with some of the best people in the world on the case.

Environmental and Social Impact

Part of the cleantech evolution is the impact it’s having on society and consumer behavior. For instance, when confronted with the fact that it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton tee shirt, today’s consumers see an unacceptable problem that needs fixing. Companies are now defining the very core of their existence – their brand – on helping to solve such problems, and the mass market is responding in kind by choosing brands that reflect this shared value of environmental stewardship.

One of the best-known brands leading the cleantech charge is Patagonia. The California outdoor apparel maker has taken on full corporate social responsibility for the impact it has throughout its supply chain, from cotton fields and water sources to manufacturing and recycling on the road to retail. Customers love them for it, and trust Patagonia to put their money where their mouth is, taking every step and taking every risk toward sustainability.

“Processing textiles and apparel requires huge amounts of energy and water – and both are in crisis,” said Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario. Last year, PatagonAMP-CO2Nexus-Event-83ia invested in a Colorado company to begin reducing the water used in clothing production, and to start setting new standards within the world’s vast textile industries. Littleton-based CO2 Nexus has developed a mechanical platform and chemistry called the TERSUS Solution that replaces water with liquefied carbon dioxide in the textile cleaning, disinfecting and coating process. Patagonia believes in the potential of TERSUS enough to have made a strategic investment in the company, and to begin integrating the technology into their processes.

“Most textile manufacturing takes place overseas, as the amount of water and downstream waste would be unacceptable here in the U.S.,” said CO2 Nexus CEO Richard Kinsman, whose TERSUS Solution recently received a Colorado Advanced Industries Grant. “TERSUS’ sustainable processing solution uses zero water, less energy, and could help bring jobs and manufacturing back to America. Patagonia is the perfect partner for us.”

Perhaps the most significant impact that cleantech is having on society is the “quiet revolution” taking place in thousands of businesses where a cleantech consciousness has infiltrated nearly every policy and process. Wells Fargo & Co. may be all about financial services, but its business strategy is completely aligned with this philosophy. The company’s enterprise-wide environmental journey started 10 years ago, focusing on the basics that we’ve come to expect with large corporations such as recycling and other energy-saving tactics. Wells Fargo’s environmental manifesto became more sophisticated in 2012, starting with a focus on real estate. The company’s building footprint covers 100 million square feet, and it now has the most LEED-certified building space of any financial institution in the world.

“We’ve taken enterprise environmental stewardship to new levels, well beyond the traditional operational goals of reducing energy consumption and water waste, and looking for savings deep into our supply chain,” said Ashley Grosh, Denver-based Business Initiatives Manager for Environmental Affairs at Wells Fargo. “We are now very proactive in lending to green building projects and cleantech businesses, and have become the largest lender in tax equity financing for large commercial solar projects.” One of the first of these was with the large solar farm at Denver International Airport.

Grosh was instrumental in creating another signature program, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator in partnership with NREL. The goal is to help more cleantech companies test their technology in the lab and get it into the commercial marketplace as quickly as possible. Wells Fargo is a big company, making a big cleantech impact in Colorado, and setting an example for other large companies around the world.

Global Impact

As cleantech develops in the U.S., one of the ways to measure Colorado’s reach is to see how our companies are influencing the integration of renewable resources and helping to improve living standards globally.

Nokero Solar’s simple product line of solar lamps and chargers is making a difference in the lives of millions of people in Third World countries. The simple act of replacing millions of kerosene lamps (thus the name: “No Kerosene”) not only can improve respiratory health and cut costs for the 1.3 billion people living off the grid, but it can save lives: it is estimated that one million people die each year in fires started by kerosene lamps. “People may spend $30 a year on kerosene, and our entry solar light represents a onetime cost of $6,” said Chief Marketing Officer Nathan South. “It pays for itself in a couple of months, and that extra money can make a real difference in peoples’ lives in developing countries.”

About half of these folks have cell phones, “but nowhere to charge them,” said South. “With our product, they can charge their phones without having to go into town and pay someone with a generator. Incremental improvements like this have real impact.”

Nokero sells individual units but most of their sales are with international distributors, non-profits, NGOs, disaster relief and humanitarian organizations that help distribute these simple, cost-effective tools to people who really need them.

In addition to small-scale solar technology, fuel cells are proliferating quickly around the world as well. Fuel cells convert chemical energy, usually from hydrogen, into electricity. They are used in applications such as residential power, forklifts and a host of industrial applications, but haven’t caught on as fast in the U.S.

You don’t think of Boulder as a manufacturing town, but that’s where some of the most sophisticated fuel mixture components – the fuel injectors or “carburetors” that make fuels cell work – are built for just about every type of fuel cell in use today. “Most of our sales are overseas, with Korea being our number one customer,” said Vairex Air Systems CEO Ski Milburn. “We’re really proud of our little manufacturing facility here in Boulder. We’ve developed the reputation for making the highest performance air systems that can be found anywhere, and we have customers visit us from all over the world.”

Another Colorado Advanced Industries Grant recipient, Vairex exports 100 percent of its production out of state, and yet every penny comes back to Colorado. “We’ve carved out a niche, and today most of the fuel cell makers in the world use our blowers. For such a small company, we have an incredible market share.”

Fuel cells will catch on in the U.S. – especially in the automotive market – and Milburn welcomes what the future is promising. In the meantime, Vairex is a poster-child example of Colorado’s cleantech impact on global markets, technical innovation and high-profit, lowimpact manufacturing.

Cleantech in Colorado has become so much more than environmentalism and impact investing. We’ll never give up on saving the planet. We’re just doing it with more pragmatic, market-driven solutions that are delivering both environmental sustainability and measurable commercial success. Thanks to the lifestyle, national labs, universities, a diverse investor community, a supportive state government and organizations like CCIA, our maturing cleantech community is hitting its stride and making an impact on every aspect of Colorado’s economy.

Author: John Metzger has worked with growing businesses through his Boulder-based marketing firm, Metzger Albee Public Relations, for nearly 30 years. He is former president of the Rockies Venture Club, and has supported Colorado technology economic development through the CCIA, Governor’s Office, University Tech Transfer Offices, TechStars, the National Association of Corporate Directors and other organizations