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Cleantech Venture Capital Trends: More China & Less Solar

There is no escaping China’s growing impact on clean technology investing. Even at Boston Cleantech Venture Day, held on Nov. 10 and focused on helping European come to the U.S. to raise capital and to penetrate American markets, China’s growing role was front and center.

“We’ve got to keep our eyes on China,” said Alexander “Hap” Ellis of Rockport Capital Partners, five of whose portfolio companies have Chinese manufacturing facilities. “China is becoming a leader in the deployment of clean technology and … will be superb in manufacturing and in stimulating demand.”

“Ten years fast forward and this is an Asian game,” added Jörg Sperling of WHEB Ventures. “The days of billion dollar IPOs of European solar companies are gone.”

No kidding. Of the 16 European firms that pitched investors at the venture event, not a one was a solar startup. “Two years ago, it would be half solar companies” at a European cleantech venture day, said Howard Berke, a co-founder of thin-film solar company Konarka Technologies and a senior advisor to Good Energies, a renewable energy investment firm. “Solar is overbuilt, with too many non-differentiated products and names that have no brand recognition. Strong players with competitive technologies and scale of manufacturing will survive, but the solar sector has decreased significantly in terms of investment.”

In solar’s place, other technologies caught venture capitalists’ eyes. Sweden’s Chemrec generated the most interest in the event’s informal investor poll. The company’s technology converts paper mills’ waste byproduct into biofuels, biochemicals or power. Chemrec’s solution is already operating in both Swedish and American plants.

France’s Watteco has also made significant progress. A system on chip manufacturer, Watteco developed a smart-grid device to help home owners measure and manage their energy use. The firm has partnered with Cisco and negotiated a large deployment in China.

What about younger European firms? Given capital constraints and “competition coming from every province in China, I would encourage my fellow energy entrepreneurs to think of strategic corporate partnering earlier in the build out of your companies. That would also solve the problem of access to the US market and China,” said Berke.

Guest blogger Yoni Cohen is focusing on green business as a joint-degree student at the Yale Law School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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