How Do You Define Cleantech?

Word cloud_cleantechThe second half of the calendar year is busier than usual for us, in part because it’s “cleantech season.” The major cleantech accelerators, incubators, analysts and pitch competitions all ramp up during the summer months. The Global Cleantech 100 are announced in October as part of Global Cleantech Week, and that’s followed by the NREL Industry Growth Forum and the Cleantech Open Awards and Global Forum in November. It’s a time when we’re introduced to lots of passionate scientists and entrepreneurs and their Big Ideas. It’s also often a time when the very definition of cleantech seems up for grabs.

Every year a handful of companies arrive on the scene that challenge our point of view. Many of them take traditional industries or business processes and transform them in such a way that they are far less wasteful and polluting—an undeniable good. Some of them create new business categories that are “clean” at first glance but wind up producing troubling waste streams or social impacts. And some of them simply strive to make an unsustainable industry a little less unsustainable—put another way, they simply seek to delay that industry’s (or business process’) deserved demise. Which of these companies can be called “cleantech?”

What is cleantech, anyway? defines cleantech as:

Economically competitive and productive technology that uses less material and/or energy, generates less waste, and causes less environmental damage than the alternatives.

The Cleantech Group defines cleantech enterprises as those that:

  • Provide superior performance at lower costs, while
  • Greatly reducing or eliminating negative ecological impact, at the same time as
  • Improving the productive and responsible use of natural resources

And then there’s the definition of a cleantech investment. According to

Cleantech firms seek to increase performance, productivity and efficiency by minimizing negative effects on the environment.

These are pretty good definitions. They help explain the success of the Cleantech 100 and many of the companies that make up the portfolios of leading cleantech investment funds—a growing roster of firms with growing revenues, global footprints and name recognition. They succeed by pushing the boundaries of innovation in industries as enormous, entrenched and diverse as transportation, utility-scale power generation, and commercial building materials. Any enterprise that can effectively remove waste and risk from the equation in a huge market will likely prosper—provided they can survive the startup years. And the startup years are what we focus on as we head into this year’s Cleantech Open competition. So how does the largest cleantech business accelerator in the world define cleantech? It doesn’t.

The Cleantech Open runs the world’s largest cleantech accelerator. Our mission is to find, fund and foster entrepreneurs with big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges.

The organization’s purpose—the what—is clear. The paths to achieve this purpose—the how—are open to interpretation. It’s a hallmark of a “big-tent” category like ours. And a challenge for us as a community.

How do you define cleantech? Please share your thoughts by posting a response.

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