CEO Roundtable: Clean-tech companies brace for challenges, seek opportunities in administration

March 21, 2017

BOULDER — Boulder Valley clean-tech companies are voicing concerns over the administration’s policies surrounding regulation, immigration and cuts to funding.

Right now, there are question marks surrounding key facets of the industry, clean-tech business owners shared at BizWest’s CEO Roundtable on Tuesday.

One of the biggest questions is what funding Congress will provide for federal research labs such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. President Trump’s promise to cut funding for these programs not only would stunt the research coming out of them, it could also reduce jobs in the area, clean-tech executives fear.

“This is anti-jobs, anti-growth and anti-economy,” said Reuben Munger, managing partner at Vision Ridge Partners LLC, a venture firm focused on clean-tech. “The administration has put the suggestion to legislators, and representatives need to see this is terrible for the Colorado economy. This research is one of the major growth areas for Colorado jobs. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on, if you’re a federal representative, you need to see it’s bad.”

Many said the cuts to funding would be a critical hit to continuing scientific research and developing the technology that private companies are able to commercialize today.

“It would help if more people were aware of how federal dollars and investment far upstream leads to private business and intellectual property downstream,” said Blake Jones, co-founder and former CEO of Namaste Solar. “Without those federal dollars, it would be devastated.”

It’s not just research dollars that concern clean-tech executives. Several of their employees are international, and for an industry that already requires STEM-focused skills that can be hard to find in the United States, restricting access to visas would be even more problematic.

“When you look at the difficulties we’re facing, it’s still early to say what will happen,” said Robert Schaefer, CEO of Also Energy Inc. “For our people who come in on the H-1B visa, we work on getting them citizenship or an equivalence. But we’re a software provider, and we need to acquire talent, take that and grow. Not getting that talent is a major concern because the driver of business in tech is new jobs and new ideas. So it’s a big concern for me.”

Another worry is what loosening environmental standards will mean for the clean-tech industry.

For example, said Pete Dignan, president of Renewable Choice Energy Inc., there are states that have stricter regulations than the federal government does when it comes to environmental protection. But even that might not last.

“California has to get a waiver from the EPA for those strict standards,” he said, “and they’re not sure if that will still happen.”

The changes to the tax code could also impact clean-tech. Right now, wind and solar companies know that their tax credits will be phased out over the next few years. But with a decrease to corporate taxes, that pool of money that goes to clean-tech might dry up before the credits are even phased out, Jones said.

Looking at the silver lining

Still, there are some opportunities that can benefit area clean-tech firms.

The cutting of federal research programs means that those doing the research can be available for hire in the private sector, said Sam Weaver, CEO of Cool Energy Inc.

“It’s not the reason you want those people available,” he said. “The Department of Energy has long produced technology before it was commercially available. So I think it’s extremely short-sighted to cut off basic science and research.”

Another benefit could be bringing that technology developed in federal labs to private companies. Both Peter Lilienthal, CEO of Homer Energy, and Oliver Davis, CEO of simuwatt Inc., said their technology came directly from NREL.

“We’re talking to them about taking more of their software out,” Lilienthal said of NREL. “That’s how Homer Energy was started: President Bush was shutting down programs, and it was going to die if we didn’t license that software out of the lab. It could be an opportunity for us to license more.”

Davis said there is also the chance that shuttering the federal programs could push this technology to be open-sourced.

Plus the usual issues

Of course, even without issues raised by Trump’s presidency, there are still hurdles such as getting funding that these companies must tackle.

“Funding can be a challenge for a company like mine,” said Tony Wibbeler, CEO of Bolder Industries, a company that recycles used tires into useful products such as carbon black. “Firms will want to invest in our business model or the project itself, but it’s all intertwined. It can be a big challenge in developing projects and business.”

Another issue can be the industry itself, which is going through an image problem, said Robert Fenwick-Smith, founder and senior managing director of Aravaipa Ventures.

“The question is how do we turn this into an exciting, relevant part of the economy instead of a has-been,” he said. “Clean-tech has managed to continue to raise funds, but it’s not easy. It’s clear that clean-tech is not a flavor of the month.”

Participants: Blake Jones, founder and former CEO, Namaste Solar; Pete Dignan, president, Renewable Choice Energy Inc.; Robert Fenwick-Smith, founder and senior managing director, Aravaipa Ventures; Peter Lilienthal, CEO, Homer Energy; Reuben Munger, managing partner, Vision Ridge Partners LLC; Robert Schaefer, CEO, Also Energy Inc.; Sam Weaver, CEO, Cool Energy Inc.; Tony Wibbeler, CEO, Bolder Industries; Oliver Davis, CEO, simuwatt Inc. Moderator: Christopher Wood, co-publisher/editor, BizWest. Sponsors: Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti: Jared Crain. EKS&H: Jim Cowgill and Brent Hendricks.