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In the beginning of this year, CBS aired “The Cleantech Crash” on its widely watched show 60 Minutes. The host, Lesley Stahl, focused on the industry’s biggest failures: solar panel manufacturer Solyndra and automaker Fisker, in addition to multiple mentions of the failure statistics for cleantech startups. The show reported $150 billion that was spent by the Obama administration on cleantech innovations that resulted in “a string of expensive tax-funded flops.”
Unfortunately, the program generally showed a skewed version of an otherwise growing industry. Vinod Khosla, one of the show’s featured guests, even wrote an open letter to 60 Minutes and CBS on the misrepresentation and incorrect facts. In it he wrote, “You chose to ignore other success stories like energy storage company, Lightsail, which we also shared with you. In fact, you did not even want to visit the solar, engines or agriculture success stories, among others. You chose to ignore these FACTS, because it did not jive with the story you wanted to tell. Is your job reporting all the facts or merely pushing angles?”
A closer look at the cleantech industry reveals that the main reason it thrives is because it is a necessity, not a trend. Increasing population directly correlates with decreasing natural resources we rely on every day.
According to The State of Cleantech Entrepreneurship in 2014, niche market segments continue to thrive with amazing growth spurts. “For the first time, more than one-third of all rooftop solar installations in Q1 happened without any state-provided incentives at all. Large-format electricity storage is still in its early days, but is expected to grow quickly, with as much as sevenfold capacity growth in the U.S. by 2020.” Successful cleantech startups are also seeing IPOs in the near future. SolarCity, Silver Spring, Opower, BioAmber and Aspen Aerogels are set to launch their offerings later this year.
Cleantech startups are also smarter, learning from mistakes made by Solyndra and Fisker. Rob Day, at Black Coral Capital wrote on his blog: “Many startups that survived through lean times are now poised for growth. And startups that were better positioned because of lower capital burn, or launched after the lean times with smarter business models, are doing quite well indeed. Cleantech startups are healthier than ever.”
Venture firms and investors are beginning to pay attention again, with more focus on long term returns instead of quick 3-5 year turnarounds.
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