A surge of interest in sustainable energy sparks collaboration at Haas, Berkeley, and beyond.
By Kara Platoni
The "green is good" message is finally hitting the mainstream, but the business of green energy has been a growing passion at the Haas School for the past several years. The burgeoning field of green energy — also often referred to as clean technology — has become a nexus for student entrepreneurship, as well as a focal point for interdisciplinary collaboration.
The Haas School's green leanings stem in part from the fact that Berkeley is … well, Berkeley, says Professor Severin Borenstein, director of the multi-campus University of California Energy Institute, who developed the business school's Energy and Environmental Markets course in 1999. "We've been greener than other places and we've been interested in energy efficiency – and have stayed interested in it through the '90s when energy got incredibly cheap," Borenstein points out.
But now Berkeley has more company. "Everyone is starting to recognize that with oil prices where they are and climate change staring us square in the face, a lot of the environmental issues that have been ancillary externalities are now becoming prominent issues," says Will Coleman, MBA 06, who co-founded the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) three years ago with several Haas classmates.
While at Haas, Coleman realized that students scattered throughout Cal's business, law, public policy, and science programs had a mutual interest in renewable energy, but it was hard to get them together. "Energy is a truly interdisciplinary space – even if you are on the business side you have to understand the technology and the policy," says Coleman, who now focuses on clean-tech investments for Mohr Davidow Ventures. "We really wanted to figure out a way to connect all these incredibly talented people across the campus."
From a student e-mail listserv in 2005, BERC has grown into a more than 1,000-member, campus-wide student group that will host its third annual energy symposium on Feb 23. In addition to organizing the symposium, BERC also spearheaded the creation of a new MBA class called Energy, Sustainability, and Business Innovation, designed for students interested in developing and
commercializing innovative energy technologies.
This fall, eight multidisciplinary teams of students, typically including two Berkeley MBAs per team, are going a step farther, actually evaluating the commercial viability of technologies under development at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). BERC's leadership, including current co-chair Naveen Sikka, MBA 09, teamed up with LBNL's Technology Transfer Department to create the new program, called Cleantech to Market. The technologies being evaluated include a novel solar-chemical storage device and a breakthrough fabrication method for high-efficiency solid state photovoltaic devices.
Because a student population turns over every few years, BERC needed a faculty-based partner to serve as an institutional memory, and to help move ideas from lab to market by matching students with clean-technology investors or companies. The answer: the Center for Energy & Environmental Innovation (CEEI), which, as Coleman puts it, is the chassis to BERC's engine — a permanent structure to harness student momentum.
"CEEI is trying to become the door that people knock on when they approach the university for information about energy technologies," says Co-Executive Director Catherine Wolfram, an associate professor at Haas. Wolfram helped create the center in late 2007 with Co-Executive Director Andrew Isaacs, an adjunct lecturer and also executive director of the UC Berkeley Management of Technology Program.
"I think climate change is one of the two or three most important topics facing the world," Wolfram says.
CEEI awarded a dozen innovation grants to student teams in its first year, and is beginning a fellowship program for students to undertake independent research projects on energy topics. One team that received an innovation grant, for example, has been working in Guatemala debuting its design for a cost-efficient rooftop solar water heater.
A similar impulse toward interconnectedness led Bhavik Joshi, MBA 09, to launch the Berkeley-Stanford Clean Tech Conference series last year. Joshi, a student in the Berkeley-Columbia Executive MBA Program, was frustrated with conferences that were too general and so crowded that it was hard to bend the ear of the panelists. His solution: An annual series of two or three more personalized events, limited to 250 people and one topic each, so that everyone gets a chance to chat. This year's conferences focused on electric vehicles and solar energy, featuring panelists like Roy Kuga, VP of energy supply for Pacific Gas & Electric, and Chris Paine, the director of the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?
Most notably, Joshi brought BERC together with its cross-bay counterpart, Stanford University Energy Crossroads. "Rivalry is good on the football field," says Joshi, "but this is an opportunity for the smartest brains in business, policy, and engineering to collaborate, cross-pollinate, and create new companies to find real large-scale solutions to address the climate crisis."
For many Haas students, including Joshi, the greening of the energy market has meant a chance to get in on the ground level of an exciting new business. Joshi recently joined Better Place, a startup developing infrastructure for electric cars. Several recent grads have launched their own green energy companies, including Matthew Caspari and Guido Radaelli, both MBA 06, co-founders of Aurora BioFuels (see sidebar); Zach Gentry, MBA 05, co-founder of Adura Technologies, which makes office lighting more energy efficient; and Matt Evans and Jit Bhattacharya, both MBA 08, founders of Live Climate, a nonprofit that works to offset carbon emissions.
Investors, too, are eagerly coming aboard. Venture capital investments in clean technology are showing record growth, even as the overall venture industry has slowed down, according to the National Venture Capital Association, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Thomson Reuters. "The fact that venture capital is focused on green technology is an indicator that we've gotten to a point where there is enough certainty on the regulatory side and enough innovation in labs that venture capital sees a big opportunity," says Coleman.
Coleman credits Haas, and his ability to pursue a
combination degree with Berkeley's Energy Resources Group, with helping him develop the palate that he now uses to sample the new technologies and businesses emerging in the green energy field.
"I tried to go as broad as possible when selecting classes," he says. "Courses like Energy Markets, Corporate Finance, Marketing, and Energy Innovations were pretty fundamental to what I do now, but courses like Real Estate gave me an understanding of how to evaluate asset-based opportunities. New Product Development gave me the tools to guide companies through the innovation process."
Dot-Com Déjà Vu?
Unlike the entrepreneurial spirit during the dot-com boom, however, there's a greater focus on doing good than doing well in this green energy era. "There is a multiple bottom line — that's what makes it so appealing," says Joshi. "We don't want the 'clean-technology bust.' We want to bring back leadership to the US in green energy by accelerating business, policy, and technology innovation."
Coleman points to another difference between the green energy and Internet booms. "Unlike the Internet, you can't throw a lot of Red Bull and pizza and some money at people and say 'Go for it!' The best ideas in green energy don't necessarily just get done with effort and time," Coleman explains. "In energy and clean technology, you are dealing with the fundamentals of physics, biosciences, and chemistry, and those are a challenge."
Haas students, meanwhile, have the added advantage of being surrounded by other UC Berkeley departments and schools that are leaders in the sciences. Thanks to an unprecedented, though controversial, $500 million grant from British Petroleum, Berkeley is currently building the Energy Biosciences Institute, charged with developing alternative energy sources.
Admittedly, past student interest in energy was a bit cyclical, says Borenstein, a nationally recognized energy expert who drew some heat for a recent critique of the cost-efficiency of solar photovoltaic panels. Enrollment in his energy class, for instance, waned during the dot-com craze, boomed during the California energy crisis, and then dropped again. This year, the class was maxed out, and National Public Radio even sent a reporter out to cover the course's three-week computerized simulation, in which students compete to sell electricity and trade carbon credits.
Yet with this latest spike in energy enthusiasm, Borenstein predicts a sea change in public priorities. "The events that are driving it are climate change and very high energy prices, and neither of those is going away anytime soon," Borenstein says. "The interest we're seeing in energy is not something that's going to come and go. I think it's going to be with us for at least a decade."
Students, he adds, are also taking a longer view. "Students are looking for a broader payoff from their careers, and this is a field where they feel like ten years out, they will see themselves as doing something meaningful."