Ten years ago, Pepper Hamilton and the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic launched a new event to bring together investors, executives, innovators and other players in the growing cleantech and energy technology spaces. A decade later, the Mid-Atlantic Energy Technology and Sustainability Forum is going strong, with the tenth anniversary event held in Philadelphia on November 7.
Pepper partner Thomas Dwyer, co-chair of the Energy Industry Group and the Emerging Growth Group, kicked off the event by welcoming guests and taking a look back over the last 10 years in the energy industry. He noted that Tesla launched its first vehicle 10 years ago and has since gone on to become one of the largest producers of electric vehicles. Likewise, many companies that have presented at past Energy Tech Forums have seen success after the event.
PetroMar, for example, presented at the 2015 forum on its products and services related to downhole oil and gas exploration and other energy technology. In 2018, the company was acquired by Nabors Industries, and PetroMar is now a sponsor of the annual Energy Tech Forum. Other companies have gone on to see significant financing transactions and investments, including Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation, RePipe4710 and Blue Pillar.
Dwyer then introduced the investor panel, a recurring feature of the Energy Tech Forum. This year’s panel featured Kirk Coburn, Shell Ventures; Emily Bockian Landsburg, Ultra Capital; William Lese, Braemar Energy Ventures; and Ernst Theodor Sack, Blue Bear Capital. Dwyer asked each investor to provide an overview of their company and their investment priorities.
Sack spoke first about Blue Bear Capital, noting that it invested in enterprise-scale technology on the supply side, which is “not the typical VC model.” He explained that Blue Bear is different from many energy investors because it is not backed by a large company in the industry; rather it is funded by limited partners from the private equity space.
Braemar Energy Ventures, on the other hand, is more broad-based, Lese noted. Its interests in the energy technology field include technologies to improve infrastructure, improve delivery of services, and improve efficiencies on both the supply and demand side.
Coburn spoke about the work of Shell Ventures, which is the venture capital arm of Shell, the major oil and gas company that is one of the largest companies in the world. Coburn said Shell is the “most aggressive” of the oil companies when it comes to renewables, and Shell Ventures’ investments reflect Shell’s commitment to making the transition to renewables faster.
Landsburg said Ultra Capital was different than the other companies represented on the panel because it was a project finance company focused on small and mid-sized physical infrastructure projects.
“We are interested in infrastructure projects that are less well-known or understood, like biofuels and advanced recycling,” she said.
The panelists then discussed the last 10 years in the cleantech and energy technology industries, including lessons learned from the market’s boom, bust and recovery.
Lese noted that the cleantech boom caused companies and investors to make several mistakes, including trying to take companies public prematurely, overinvesting in solar projects, and overestimating scalability of certain technologies. The resulting bust then caused those in the industry to more carefully evaluate their strategy and to consider investments in less well-known projects where their capital could make more of an impact.
The panel also discussed current trends in the industry and where they saw investment going in the future. Landsburg spoke about the importance of small-scale infrastructure finance as well as the rise of the cannabis industry. “Cannabis companies are large energy users and are not price-sensitive,” she said.
Sack said that Blue Bear has been investing in digitization and energy transition technologies but that the company is not easily persuaded by trending buzzwords, like artificial intelligence. “We like real, concrete use cases,” he said.
Dwyer concluded the panel by asking the panelists if it is possible that the energy industry will see a large innovator like Google at some point in the future. Lese expressed some skepticism, while still striking a hopeful note.
“Scaling an energy business to get to a Google-like level is going to be challenging, but there has been a cultural change in the energy industry to focus on how to scale technology,” he said.
After the panel discussion, Kevin Brown, co-founder and chairman of the Cleantech Alliance Mid-Atlantic and partner at energy executive recruiting firm Hobbs & Towne, introduced the company showcase, where cutting-edge companies had the chance to present their innovative ideas and visions for the future. The companies featured this year included the following:
The event concluded with a cocktail reception, where attendees could network and meet representatives from the presenting companies and the investor panelists.