UK Geeks vs. US Suits: Who Wins in a Cleantech Showdown?

A Cleantech Mission from the UK to Silicon Valley Highlights the Differences

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The term “cleantech” is often dismissed as being far too general to encapsulate all the sectors that fall within it—water, energy, smart grid, electric vehicles, green building materials, the list goes on—but there are nonetheless cross-cutting similarities among the start-ups.

There’s typically the charismatic leader who’s got venture capital connections in Silicon Valley, the brilliant head of engineering who stays behind the scenes (not always willingly), and in most cases plenty of money and buzz before the company even has so much as a prototype. At least that’s how it usually goes in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, it’s almost exactly the opposite.

“In the UK, and in the European Union in general, companies need to have a business model and products before they really speak to anyone,” Richard Miller, Innovation Platform Leader for the UK’s Technology Strategy Board told SolveClimate recently.

Miller was in California last month leading a group of 19 UK cleantech companies around to meet with potential US partners and investors. By all accounts it was a successful trip. “There has been a lot of interest from people here, especially when they see how far along our people typically are in their business,” Miller said.

In addition to their business plans and products, the UK companies are often led by the people who have come up with the products, typically engineers or product designers. Those people included product designer Richard Woods, co-founder of DIY Kyoto, a company that is producing a slickly designed home energy monitoring system called the Wattson. Unlike many home energy monitoring systems, Wattson is a consumer-facing product. It sells for about 100 pounds in the United Kingdom and Woods hopes to sell it for about $199 in the United States.

Because Wattson is a consumer-facing product, Woods doesn’t need to convince a US utility to buy a UK product for a smart-grid trial. And unlike US companies with home-energy monitoring systems (Energy Hub, Tendril, and Agilewaves, for example), Wattson is readily available, can be installed by any Joe Homeowner, is relatively affordable and is aesthetically appealing enough for the average Brookstone or Sharper Image customer to throw down a couple of Benjamins for it.

The gadget includes a well-designed web interface that allows customers to see how their energy use changes depending on the time of day or season, and compare their usage with others in their area.

“I think we’ve realized from this trip the need to bring on someone who has that business and marketing background,” Woods told SolveClimate. “This trip helped us see how necessary that is if you want to do business in the United States.”

Dr. Shaun Fitzgerald, co-founder of Breathing Buildings, was another member of Miller’s group (officially The Clean and Cool Mission), and provides another example of the difference between the average US startup and the average UK startup. Fitzgerald and co-founder Andy Woods grew their company out of research the two conducted at Cambridge. The result is a brilliantly simple approach to natural ventilation that provides an additional 50 percent in energy savings above and beyond the savings generally afforded by opting for natural ventilation over a mechanical HVAC system (40 to 50 percent, on average).

The company’s equipment essentially mixes heat generated by occupants and building equipment (computers, lights, and so on) with cold air coming in from a rooftop window, warming up the outside air and pushing it through the building to heat it. Breathing Buildings has its product installed in about 20 schools in the UK already, and its equipment is being tested by grocery giant Tesco. Fitzgerald came to the United States looking for manufacturing and distributing partners, as well as potential customers, but not funding.

After speaking with representatives from many of the mission’s companies and at length with Miller about how cleantech works in the United Kingdom, it became clear that while the UK seems to be focusing more on engineering and innovation, the United States is where business is happening in the cleantech sphere.

“Our companies wanted to come here because there is more money going to cleantech here than there is in the UK,” Miller said. “In the UK there is an interest in cleantech, but there’s still a real financial crisis. There are fewer funds that are likely to invest and those funds are more selective. It’s still a tough conversation in the UK, even though we have great policy drivers there.”

The ideal is obviously a team that combines US business savvy with a British dedication to producing real products that have a market. Perhaps we’ll see more partnerships between the two as the sector continues to mature.