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As Clean-Tech Takes Off Locally, VC Industry Support Trails

Some local venture capitalists say the window of opportunity has closed for clean technology, or “green tech,” as the industry of environmentally friendly innovations is often referred.

Other investors and industry watchers say it has only begun to open , with government incentives and sophisticated technology making the sector a more attractive and worthwhile investment.

Either way, one thing appears certain: Few local venture capitalists are investing in clean technology.

“Investors say it’s old stuff,” said Elliot Parks, a managing director at Hamilton BioVentures, which invests primarily in biomedical startups. “Clean-tech has been around long enough that it’s no longer viewed as a bargain.”

Nationwide, clean-tech companies absorbed $1.3 billion in venture capital money in 2006, according to VentureOne, a research firm. While anecdotal interest in clean-tech has never been greater locally, with universities and industry groups taking green initiatives and holding roundtable discussions about the potential market, there are few local investment funds dedicated solely to clean-tech.

Experts say perhaps San Diego’s niche will be on the innovation side, rather than funding side, given the number of scientists, universities and entrepreneurs in the region.


Opportunities For Investing

But Camille Sobrian, chief operating officer at Connect, a regional nonprofit that links investors with technology and biotechnology startups, said that could change.

“When the biotech sector first started in San Diego, most of the money came from outside San Diego, too,” said Sobrian, adding that she had attended a number of local and national discussions related to clean-tech of late. “It’s the hottest new area to invest in. It’s just now becoming economical with more effective business models.”

Some investments made by high-tech venture funds here cross over into the clean-tech arena, but two of the only known local professional investors dedicating funds to clean tech in San Diego are Peter Fisher and Michael Elconin.

Elconin, a member of the board of directors for the Tech Coast Angels, a California angel investment group, started a San Diego seed capital investment fund focused on clean-tech, called EcoElectron Ventures.

Fisher, a founding partner at San Diego’s Shepherd Ventures, is starting a clean-tech fund to be called Specific Ventures. He is currently seeking partners.

“Climate change and energy dependence are going to be with us for a long time,” Fisher said. “We need to be more independent.”

Clean-tech initiatives are coming from all directions locally. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. has said it has signed contracts with renewable source providers for at least 13 percent of its total future power sources. UC San Diego plans to “green the campus,” and more clean technology companies are cropping up all the time.

Connect held a venture capital roundtable focused on clean-tech in February, though most of the investors were not local.

The San Diego Venture Group organized a panel discussion on clean-tech in May, piquing the interest of an audience of several hundred attendees.

The panel speakers included Arthur Nishioka, manager of the Planning and Development Group for Kyocera International Inc., which has its North American headquarters in San Diego.

Nishioka, whose job is to evaluate opportunities presented to Kyocera by venture capitalists as potential acquisitions or partnerships, said few of the professional investors that approach him come from San Diego. Most hail from Northern California, the East Coast and Canada, he said.

“Clean-tech is ramping up again, and venture capital activity will continue to increase,” Nishioka said. “(San Diego) has a lot going for it. (It) has a very well-developed group of people who can take clean-tech to the next level.”

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