Kirt Montague: What Cleantech Entrepreneurs Need to Know about Public Policy

Source:  Clarity Communications Consulting, September 26, 2011.

When [WCTA Board member and] Prometheus Energy Co-founder and CEO announced a $10 million investment from Shell Technology Ventures in 2009, it was a big deal, meriting multiple stories in area media such as this Xconomy article.

On Tuesday, October 4th, Kirt will kick off the public Environmental Innovation Speaker Series at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus at 4:30pm in Mary Gates Hall #389. The Series is part of the UW’s Environmental Innovation Practicum course, designed to help teams prepare to compete in UW’s regional Environmental Innovation Challenge in March and encourage business solutions to our most pressing environmental challenges.

In this interview, Kirt previews some of the themes he’ll be discussing before opening the floor for the Q&A session. That’s Kirt on the left with a colleague in Poland from the company’s facilities converting coal-mine methane to liquid natural gas.

Q: Among all the amazing parts about creating Prometheus Energy, there is one or two things that were the most satisfying and rewarding for you as the entrepreneur?

Kirt: Two things come immediately to mind:

People. By far the most satisfying part of creating Prometheus Energy was the opportunity to work with such talented, bright and dedicated people who made such significant contributions to the effort. Building a company that provides quality jobs for good people is rewarding in its own right, but Prometheus became far more than just a job to me and to them. The belief that we were part of something special, that we could make a difference for good in the world, and that what we were doing actually made economic sense, created passion and drive that not only made it fun, but also frankly, enabled us to survive the dark days. I find special satisfaction in watching some of the young people we hired grow and develop, and become true experts in the space. Several of them now hold key managerial positions within the company. Others have moved on to play key roles elsewhere. Regardless, I’m extraordinarily proud of them.

Projects. We envisioned, then developed, several first-of-kind energy projects in the US and Poland. Seeing those projects come on-line, often after overcoming significant hurdles along the way, is tremendously satisfying. More importantly, those projects enabled us to deliver energy to our customers that is cleaner, cost significantly less, and reduced their emissions profile dramatically. That doing so helped reduce our reliance on imported oil also makes one feel good about the effort.

Q: You’re obviously a big believer in energy innovation. We’ve talked about a number of areas where significant dollars will be necessary to bring innovations to market and make them stick. Are there facets of it where the solo entrepreneur or inventor or small teams could make an important contribution in this decade?

Kirt: While it is true that energy typically is a very expensive game in which to play, and, at least traditionally, has been dominated by the big multi-national players, there are facets of the sector that enable small teams to play effectively. (Note that I intentionally left out “solo entrepreneurs.” While there are certainly exceptions, in general, it is very difficult to do this alone). I’ll touch on three of those facets, although there are likely more.

First, things are moving quickly in the energy sector. Small teams are more nimble and adaptive, enabling them to move more quickly as new opportunities present themselves. The big boys in the space simply have a hard time turning the ship once it has started on a particular course.

Second, small teams are not constrained by the extensive policies and procedures that have become part of the landscape in large multi-national corporations and big national labs. Such policies and procedures not only add significant levels of cost to any project or effort, but also introduce multiple levels to the decision-making process. As a result, it’s very difficult for most of the bigger players to look at smaller technologies and opportunities because of the heavy cost burden that has to be assessed to projects. Moreover, each level in the decision making process is another place at which those pushing a project or idea can hear a “no.”

Third, small teams are better able to create, and actually thrive, in a culture that prizes and rewards innovative thinking. Again, while there are exceptions to the rule, innovative “outside-of-the-box thinking” is often not as highly valued in bigger organizations as they might otherwise profess. That the major multi-national energy companies have created their own internal venture funds to invest in small teams and companies lends additional credence to that claim.

Q: Is there a single piece of advice you’d offer to cleantech or other green entrepreneurs when it comes to finding or understanding the connection between their innovation and public policy?

Kirt: Yes. Public policy matters, as it can engender business and opportunity, but in my view, it serves best as a backdrop, or just one of the factors to consider when one embarks on a new business. Basing a business entirely on a government sponsored program such as a subsidy or tax credit that reflects public policy at the time is a risky proposition. The entrepreneurial landscape is littered with companies who bet the farm on a particular piece of public policy only to see it change suddenly, sometimes without much warning, or even disappear completely. To put it bluntly, Uncle Sam can be a very fickle business partner.

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