Polaris Venture's Bob Metcalf

Back in January 2007 we posted “New Environmentalism,” one of several attempts we’ve made to redefine environmentalism, that particular one inspired by comments from Robert Metcalf, a partner at Polaris Ventures in Boston. Metcalf’s comments were part of a keynote address he delivered at the Massachusetts Energy Summit entitled “Framing the First Massachusetts Energy Summit.” We liked Metcalf’s take on free enterprise and private sector solutions to environmental and energy challenges, his support for creative innovations, and his unwillingness to accept every precept of the traditional environmentalist’s conventional wisdom.

Bob Metcalf
“Every day a fusion reactor flies across the sky,
taunting scientists who can’t replicate that on earth.”

Metcalf is an example of someone from the high tech community who has jumped into a world that up until a few years ago, was not generally perceived to be part of the high tech pantheon.

Now “clean tech” or “green tech” is recognized as one of the hottest sectors in the venture capital driven high tech industry. More recently, on April 8th at AlwaysOn’s Venture Summit East, Metcalf delivered a keynote on the topic of energy and technology, again highlighting themes that resonate with us, to put it mildly. To view a video of Metcalf’s keynote in its entirety, click here.

Initially Metcalf explored the term to describe cleantech, rejecting “green” because of its association with a political agenda that includes anti-trade, anti-business, anti-technology, and anti-development sentiments, among others (Metcalf’s delivery probably included some overstatements to spice things up, but only to a point). He also considered “clean” to only tell half the story, because the objective of successful solutions must be clean, of course, but also cheap. Metcalf went on to suggest that rather than green as a color to describe cheap and clean technology for environmental and energy challenges, he would choose black – the color of silicon, coal, and outer space, and blue – the color of the ocean, where (along with outer space) many of our technology-driven solutions may lie. Ultimately, Metcalf appears to prefer the term “Enertech” to characterize high-tech innovations that will solve our challenge to develop cheap and clean energy.

Metcalf spent a fair amount of time extrapolating lessons we learned from the the high tech industry in general, and the internet in particular, to the burgeoning cheap and clean tech – or enertech – industry. “Did we conserve our way into the internet,” he asked, noting how we are clearly using far more bandwidth today than we were at any point in the past, despite massive improvements in efficiency. He also noted that we have learned about bubbles – not that bubbles are bad – stating “bubbles are an accelerator to technological innovation.”

Other lessons from the high tech experience that might be applied to the enertech phenomenon included the need for research to be directed more at competing research universities, and not into the monopolistic environments of government and very large corporations. As he put it “monopolies can rip off their customers,” and “monopolies are slow to bring innovations to market.” Metcalf also pointed out the parallel between high tech and enertech with respect to the promise of distributed solutions.

Some of Metcalf’s most interesting comments concerned global warming. Without delving into the debate as to what may cause global warming or whether or not it constitutes an existential crisis, Metcalf noted that from an economic standpoint, “there is going to be a crash associated with global warming investments.” Of course he’s right, there’s been so much money thrown into so many businesses in such a short time, that just like with the internet bubble, with the global warming bubble we will see great forward progress in the industry but we will also see a lot of misdirection and failed investments.

Also provocative were Metcalf’s ideas not to cool the earth or warm the earth, but simply to manage the global climate ala “geo-engineering.” He suggested “climate control research” become the emphasis, and wondered why there isn’t more work going into “blasting benign nano-particles into space to increase the earth’s albedo,” or “sticking a giant reflecting membrane at orbital point L-1 between the earth and the sun, to cool the earth and harvest energy to beam back to earth.”

Faith in free enterprise, competitive free markets, private sector innovation, distributed solutions, technological solutions, and thinking big – Metcalf’s philosophy epitomizes the best that the high tech world has to offer as it merges with and influences the environmental community and the energy sector.

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