The next great cleantech company could currently be an underfunded research project in a lab somewhere, likely on a university campus. If it’s somewhere at Stanford, Luis Mejia would love to hear about it. Mejia is a senior associate at Stanford’s office of technology licensing, the same office that helped spin out Google when its founders still didn’t have a business model and no one wanted their algorithm.
Mejia has been working at the office for about decade. His most notable cleantech licensing was that of Dick Swanson’s solar research back in the 1990s, which formed the basis of what would become SunPower. But Mejia said that there have been very few clean technologies coming up from the research ranks. “It makes me kind of sad,” Mejia said at today’s packed Cleantech Forum panel discussion on commercializing clean technologies. He said part of the problem is that nearly all university research is extremely early-stage work.
Also on the panel was Trae Vassallo, a partner at Kleiner Perkins who focuses on the firm’s cleantech portfolio. Vassallo and Mejia agreed that angel investors can be very important to early-stage research at universities and Mejia said they’ve seen “a lot of interest from angels.” How divine.
“I’d love to see more of those angels get in there and guide those technologies,” Vassallo added. “Once you find a technology, you have to immediately surround it with a team of entrepreneurs and leaders.” Vassallo said she’s seen a number of angel investors making the jump from IT investment to cleantech.
But large venture firms like Kleiner also head to schools to scout for talent. Vassallo estimated that between one-quarter and one-third of Kleiner’s cleantech companies were found at the university level. These represent “fundamental technologies in the lab that we’re helping incubate,” she said.
It’s that incubation time, however, that makes investment difficult. Mejia said there’s a five- to 10-year lag time in cleantech between when basic research is done and innovations are made.
Mejia said his office licenses about 100 technologies a year, 10 percent of which are eventually spun off into startups. But he stressed that even if a technology isn’t licensed or patented, there could very well be useful technology that just needs a push to move out of the lab. “The greatest asset of a university is their graduating students,” he said.