What Looks Like Kale, Sounds Like Ping Pong and Smells Like Money?

Where can you go to find in the same room a ping-pong tournament, a brick manufacturing company, T-shirts saying “kale is the new meat” and a wide ranging conversation about trends in institutional investing?

One place only, and that’s the exhibition hall at South by Southwest’s Eco conference.

SXSW Eco has to be one of the more eclectic mixes of start-ups, investors, tree huggers and policy wonks the world has yet dreamed up. Want to eat some dried crickets? Check. Learn how to sew at a maker’s booth? Check. Have a beer with representatives from Morgan Stanley, Pax World Management and Green Alpha Advisors? Check, check, check.

Oh, and then there's also the conference itself.

Everyone at SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, seems to have come here with disparate interests and different missions. The conference, which ends today, is in its third year. I'm not sure even the conference knows exactly what it is yet, but that's OK.

Garvin Jabusch, the co-founder and Chief Investment Officer at Green Alpha Advisors is here looking for investors in a mutual fund he advises, Shelton Green Alpha Fund, which has about $6.1 million under management and has risen 30 percent since it debuted in March.

Renewable energy and “waste-to-value” (translation: making things out of garbage) “are truly the two big pillars” of investing for the long term, Jabusch told me during a free-drink reception. Two of his favorite investments are Consolidated Water Company and Trex Decking. The first makes water-desalination plants powered by solar panels in the Caribbean islands; the latter makes deck timbers out of plastic bags and recycled wood pulp.

Other people, like Ben Chostner, head of business development for Blue River Technology, are here to pitch their businesses directly to investors. Blue River makes farm robots. Not the kind of humanoid robots from Isaac Asimov novels, but the kind of robotic equipment that uses ultra-fast visual processing to identify weeds in a field and shoot out tiny bursts of concentrated fertilizer that kills the weeds while nourishing the crops around them. His company won its contest round (there were three) for best business elevator pitch.

Panels at the conference tend to be a little less granola and a little more meat compared with some of the satellite events and exhibitions. Topics include how to be a "transformative investor" and how to cheaply finance a solar retrofit for your home. Bloomberg BNA, the legal analysis unit of Bloomberg LP, hosted four panels on climate policy.

Fifty Shades of Green

“An algae conference -- that’s about the last place to find investors,” said Brad Bartilson, Chief Executive Officer of Photon8 Inc., a company that makes biofuels and vitamins out of algae bi-products. He's has better luck with investors at SXSW Eco than at trade conferences where venture capitalists have been scarred by past biofuel failures. He said a financial advisor he met at SXSW Eco had clients who might be willing to give Photon 8 several million dollars to start scaling up.

This conference has bottled rainwater, bamboo charcoal and a solar electric scooter that has a 20 mile range (riders stand on the solar panel.) About 170 attendees, including yours truly, test drove a Chevy Volt on the first day of the conference (First you have to pass a breathalyzer; not everyone was so fortunate).

There are also endless video screenings, like this one from the Rainforest Alliance, which rightly won best viral video of the year.

As my first SXSW Eco experience comes to a close, I'm left scratching my head a little. The conference has something to do with water access, climate change, algae, natural gas, world hunger, bricks made from compressed dirt, Africa, doing it yourself, Keystone, “non-lethal mole control,” ping pong and the future. That’s sustainability, I guess. I can dig it.

I cracked a lame joke to someone about the Little Herds booth serving up dried crickets bathed in honey and served on top of Ritz crackers. He pointed out that 30 years ago, people who talked about solar panels were viewed as hippies on the edge, and now mainstream investors like Warren Buffett are buying in big. Maybe insect-based sustainable protein will be the next big investment?

I’m not holding my breath. But I will hold my nose. Crickets do not taste like chicken.

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