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From wind turbines to water purification systems, from solar panels to CO2 capture, suddenly, if you're an investor with money to burn, environmental technology has become the biggest game in town.
The problem: Venture capital firms and private equity shops are discovering that while dot-com startups are easily fashioned by mavericks and whiz kids, there are few rogue entrepreneurs with the chops to handle the complexities of environmental technology, much less to invent it.
The finance guys' big problem, however, is a potential gold mine for academia.
Take Potentia, a green tech startup conceived by University of Michigan PhD students Tzeno Galchev ad Ruba Borno in conjunction with MBA student Rishiraj Das, and facilitated by Michigan's Zell-Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies.
The Institute was founded to introduce engineering students to new venture opportunities and help them bring their inventions to market. In addition to offering a business curriculum, it serves as an umbrella organization for grants and competitions for the benefit of new startups -- such as last September's Clean Tech Forum for venture capitalists.
Potentia, which manufactures an environmental energy powered battery, was the runner-up in the center's 2008 Michigan Business Challenge. While still in the R&D phase, Potentia has already been in talks with potential investors.
"I would say that without getting the business background, it would have been fairly impossible to take an invention anywhere," Galchev said.
Michigan's not alone. Top engineering programs such as those at Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech, and U.C. Berkeley are designing business-oriented programs, institutes, and curricula to turn bookish engineers into savvy entrepreneurs.
According to Bill Aulet, who created and teaches MIT's Energy Ventures class, the nature of alternative energy research poses unique challenges: Green tech innovations require extensive resources, a long time horizon, and a formidable education in engineering, as well as business skills.
"There aren't nearly enough energy entrepreneurs out there," says Aulet, who has seen interest from VCs skyrocket in the last few years. "So what we had to do is start teaching entrepreneurship to engineers."
The shortage of mature green tech startups can be attributed to the suddenness of widespread interest. Investments in companies working on green technology in North America totaled almost $4 billion in 2007, according to the CleanTech Group. And 2008 is on track to yield five times what was invested in 2004.
Of course, universities' eagerness to lend a hand is not free from self-interest. Typically, an invention by a university-employed inventor (e.g. faculty, staff, paid PhD students) with substantial use of university facilities is the property of the university, with the inventor getting exclusive licensing rights to the patent. If a licensed technology forms the basis of a successful venture, that could mean big money for the school.
But Peter Adriaens, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Michigan, says that the influx of interest is so new that until recently, the university didn't even have a comprehensive database of its clean tech-related inventions.
"Not so long ago, if an engineer had a small invention he would just hope that there would be someone on business side that would recognize brilliance and see the application," says Tim Falley, a colleague of Adriaens' and the managing director of Michigan's Zell-Lurie Institute. "Most of the time, it would have died right there."
Last year, MIT's Entrepreneurship Center launched a class called Energy Ventures, geared towards graduate students in engineering working on research applicable to the alternative energy market. It also now awards a Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize: $200,000 for first place, "to help develop and motivate the next generation of energy entrepreneurs."
Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program also provides resources for linking inventions to investments through the two-year old Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency. Its Summer Institute for Entrepreneurship serves as a boot camp for graduate students looking to commercialize their inventions.
"What we try to do in terms of the course is to give them the sense that there is a structure in place for how to present your ideas," says Margaret Neale, a professor in Stanford's Graduate School of Business, and SIE instructor. "We give them a framework for how to approach business situations."
An early business education give engineering types the “ability to analyze problems in a different way, by focusing on a need in the market and working backwards to an invention," says Susan Broderick, the program manager of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology.
With the proper training, engineers can avoid embarking down research paths that will be ultimate dead ends, from a commercial standpoint.
"Engineers need to understand that the best technology does not win – the best application wins," says MIT’s Aulet. "They need to think very early on about whether something will create value in the real world."


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