It’s a Wrap: SF Forum 2013, Our Best Yet

After some well deserved toasts with our staff and a few good night’s sleep, I have finally begun to digest the amazing week that we just had in San Francisco.  I have had the pleasure of co-hosting Cleantech Group’s San Francisco Forum for the past three years, yet none of those previous gatherings came close to the energy and dynamism of this year’s event.

I have to admit that the turnout and enthusiasm surprised even me.  This was supposed to be a year that cleantech was down and out.  With venture support cooling, solar manufacturers failing, and the global economy still sputtering, this would not, on the face of it, be the best time to throw a cleantech party.

But throw a party we did; and much to our delight and sincere appreciation, you all showed up.  Not only did you grab a glass of champagne, but investors announced new capital commitments, corporate dealmakers spoke openly about opportunity areas, and entrepreneurs from around the world unveiled brand new companies.

What gives? With some time to reflect, I think that there were four key drivers that really ignited this year’s Forum.

#1 – Corporate strategics get it and are playing the long game: While there are plenty of investors that have been scared away by the lack of short term returns in the sector, the world’s largest energy, industrial, and even retail companies are making bold commitments to the sector.  GE, Johnson Controls, BP, Shell, Walmart, Autodesk, HP, EMC, and a long list of others not only showed up to speak, but were actively engaged in dialogue throughout the conference.  These are companies assessing strategy in 5-10 year increments.  They are playing the long game that resource constraints will inevitably impact their corporate bottom lines and they are getting ahead of the problem.

#2 – The Boom Wranglers are gone: San Francisco novelist Po Bronson, who famously chronicled Silicon Valley culture during the dotcom boom, once referred to the legions of investors and executives who merely waited to latch on the next big thing as Boom Wranglers.   These are the Valley’s fast followers who are not thesis driven, but are momentum driven.  Some have made millions, but others have lost millions.  With cleantech no longer labeled “the next big thing” by the popular press, the Boom Wranglers have moved on from the conference scene.  The upside is that nearly every single attendee at this year’s Forum had a real, tangible, and enthusiastic reason to be there.  It showed.  The probability of worthwhile, spontaneous conversations (or “serendipitous collisions” as Tony Hsieh from Zappos would say) increased significantly with the rise in overall quality of attendees.

#3 – Hank Paulson and Facebook: Huh? What do these two have in common you ask?  They both totally captivated the audience from the stage on day two.  We ended the second day of our conference with about as many people packed into the auditorium as we had in there on the morning of day one.  If you go to enough conferences, you’ll know this does not happen.  Hank Paulson started the day by eloquently laying out his thoughts on the urgency of addressing climate change, both in the US and abroad, and his journey as a lifelong environmental champion.  It is a story that is sometimes lost in the popular press, but one that people will hopefully be hearing more about through his new Institute.  If Hank was the opener, Bill Wiehl from Facebook was a fabulous closer, with the audience waiting patiently to hear Bill announce the winner of our jointly hosted “Cleantech Goes Social” contest.  Upstart Sunfunder beat out Yerdle and WattTime for the honor and $25K in prize money.

The fourth and final reason is a single phrase that I heard uttered by one conference attendee.  “Cleantech is back”, he said simply.  If I was being my typical, slightly snarky self, I might have asked “when did it leave?”, but I let the phrase linger in my brain. And in reflecting on it, it seems to capture the entire spirit of what made last week so special.

Thank you to everyone who came out.  I know that we are going to do great things together in the year ahead.  I can’t wait to see you back in San Francisco next year to talk about it all.