San Diego Business Journal

As more money flows into green technologies, law firms have increasingly adopted clean tech practice groups dedicated to guiding emerging companies and venture capital firms.

For some law firms, the introduction of a clean tech practice is merely a formality. Many firms have offered intellectual property due diligence and startup counsel to utility companies and smaller renewable energy firms for more than a decade.

"Really, clean tech is more a label than a completely new technology," said Marc Morley, a partner in the San Diego office of Irvine-based Knobbe Martens Olson & Bear LLP. "We've been working with technologies that have been considered clean technologies for quite a few years."

But rising fuel costs have increased attention on cleaner, more sustainable technologies in recent years, prompting law firms to more formally align their practices with the movement.

The local offices of firms such as Cooley Godward Kronish LLP, Foley & Lardner LLP, Heller Ehrman LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP and Morrison & Foerster LLP also have established clean tech practices that cater to companies and venture firms in the space.

Clean Tech Attracting Venture Capital

"As (venture capitalists) become focused around clean tech, we, by definition, sort of have as well," said Martin Nichols, partner in charge of Heller Ehrman's Southern California Energy & Clean Technologies practice group.

Nichols says Heller Ehrman attorneys have counseled about 120 clients since it established the practice group six years ago, several years before most other firms.

As is typical with the industry, Heller Ehrman's clients range in scope from large San Francisco Bay Area firms, such as hydrogen fuel cell company ReliOn Inc., to small to midsized local companies, such as Poway-based hybrid bus and truck supplier ISE Corp.

Heller Ehrman has dedicated 75 attorneys, including four in San Diego, to the practice group.

Historically, the popularity of green technology has depended on the price of oil. As oil futures top $110 a barrel, venture capitalists have increasingly been dedicating a portion, if not entire funds, into green technologies.

Big Deals

Nationwide, venture capital firms poured almost $4 billion into clean technology investments last year, a 38 percent jump from the $2.9 billion invested in 2006, according to Cleantech Group LLC, formerly called the Cleantech Venture Network, which tracks venture capital investments in environmentally friendly technologies.

The number of deals jumped 15 percent, from 233 in 2006 to 268 in 2007. The average deal size increased by 20 percent, from $12.3 million in 2006 to $14.7 million in 2007.

"It looks like there's more seed stage and angel funding now becoming available for clean tech companies," said Carl Kukkonen, an intellectual property attorney with Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo P.C. and partner in its Energy and Clean Technology group.

Mintz Levin has counseled companies involved in about 50 clean tech transactions since the firm introduced its practice two years ago, according to Kukkonen. He says the firm represents more than 125 clients in that area.

Some have compared interest in green technology to the technology boom of the late 1990s.

A few telecommunications executives have moved into the renewable energy industry. And most large oil conglomerates have invested in green technology initiatives.

But Nichols, of Heller Ehrman, says that unlike the technology boom, the green tech movement depends heavily on governmental incentives, such as California's move to provide more than $3 billion in incentives for solar energy projects.

"Just like any other technology wave, there's going to be some that make it, some that don't," he said.