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UK Geeks vs. US Suits: Who Wins in a Cleantech Showdown?

A Cleantech Mission from the UK to Silicon Valley Highlights the Differences

By Amy Westervelt

Mar 17, 2010

The term “cleantech” is often dismissed as being far too general to encapsulate all the sectors that fall within it—water, energy, smart grid, electric vehicles, green building materials, the list goes on—but there are nonetheless cross-cutting similarities among the start-ups.

There’s typically the charismatic leader who’s got venture capital connections in Silicon Valley, the brilliant head of engineering who stays behind the scenes (not always willingly), and in most cases plenty of money and buzz before the company even has so much as a prototype. At least that’s how it usually goes in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, it’s almost exactly the opposite.

“In the UK, and in the European Union in general, companies need to have a business model and products before they really speak to anyone,” Richard Miller, Innovation Platform Leader for the UK's told SolveClimate recently.

Miller was in California last month leading a group of 19 UK cleantech companies around to meet with potential US partners and investors. By all accounts it was a successful trip. “There has been a lot of interest from people here, especially when they see how far along our people typically are in their business,” Miller said.

In addition to their business plans and products, the UK companies are often led by the people who have come up with the products, typically engineers or product designers. Those people included product designer Richard Woods, co-founder of , a company that is producing a slickly designed home energy monitoring system called the Wattson. Unlike many home energy monitoring systems, Wattson is a consumer-facing product. It sells for about 100 pounds in the United Kingdom and Woods hopes to sell it for about $199 in the United States.

Because Wattson is a consumer-facing product, Woods doesn’t need to convince a US utility to buy a UK product for a smart-grid trial. And unlike US companies with home-energy monitoring systems (Energy Hub, Tendril, and Agilewaves, for example), Wattson is readily available, can be installed by any Joe Homeowner, is relatively affordable and is aesthetically appealing enough for the average Brookstone or Sharper Image customer to throw down a couple of Benjamins for it.

The gadget includes a well-designed web interface that allows customers to see how their energy use changes depending on the time of day or season, and compare their usage with others in their area.

“I think we’ve realized from this trip the need to bring on someone who has that business and marketing background,” Woods told SolveClimate. “This trip helped us see how necessary that is if you want to do business in the United States.”

Dr. Shaun Fitzgerald, co-founder of , was another member of Miller’s group (officially ), and provides another example of the difference between the average US startup and the average UK startup. Fitzgerald and co-founder Andy Woods grew their company out of research the two conducted at Cambridge. The result is a approach to natural ventilation that provides an additional 50 percent in energy savings above and beyond the savings generally afforded by opting for natural ventilation over a mechanical HVAC system (40 to 50 percent, on average).

According to the U.S. Energy

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. energy consumption will increase by approximately 40 percent in the next two decades, which equals the combined current energy consumption in California, Texas, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois. It's imperative that the United States takes the steps to place the necessary funding to support as well as develop these green technologies in order to cut back our energy gluttony. The road to an energy secure America depends on two conditions: domestic energy production, as well as energy efficiency incentives as described in this article.

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