September 15th, 2014



Senior Writer & Analyst, GreenBiz

Co-Founder and Chief Greenskeeper, Method Products

Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Co-Director at the Precourt Institute for Energy, Stanford

Imagine you’re remaking The Graduate for today’s climate-challenged world. What would be the one word you’d whisper in Dustin Hoffman’s ear to signal the business opportunity of the future? That’s the question that sparked a lively conversation about innovation, technology and entrepreneurship at The Commonwealth Club recently.

For Arun Majumdar of Stanford University, the word for the future is “storage” – as in energy storage. “It’s a game changer,” he says. “Especially if you are transitioning to renewal sources, which are intermittent. If you could get storage out there at low cost that would be game changer.” Adam Lowry of Method Products bypassed “plastics” -- despite the fact that recycled plastic is a central component of his ground-breaking eco-friendly household products. Instead, he cites carbon capture as the next big thing. “Because whether we like it or not, we’re in a period where we have to go negative carbon. We have to take carbon out of the atmosphere at this point, given where we are. And so if you can solve for that problem, you’ll be a billionaire.”

Energy is by no means the sexiest industry out there, as NRG CEO David Crane readily admits: “No one wakes up in the morning and says I can’t wait to turn that light on so that I can use electricity!” But there are some “cool energy startups” on the horizon that are generating some current among investors. GigaOm reporter Katie Fehrenbacher named two hot-topic companies that have recently invested in the future of clean power: “Google buying Nest for $3.2 billion…Apple building solar energy in North Carolina, the largest privately owned solar farm in the US. So some of these kind of bigger, cooler brands are paying a lot more attention to it.”

What role should the government should play in developing green technology? As Majumdar points out, federal subsidies can be instrumental in helping innovation through the R&D stage. “Sometimes the industry is not willing to take the risk,” he says. “So the government has to play the role of the early stage, not just going down existing learning curves, but also the disruptive technologies, the ones that could be even cheaper and better than today’s technology. So that’s really the role of the government in the R&D.”

It’s not easy being green, but as many businesses are finding out, the extra effort pays off. Companies big and small are conjuring up new technologies, production methods and delivery systems to capitalize on the trend toward a cleaner economy.

But for some, it’s not just about the money. David Crane took a singular approach among CEOs by using the much-maligned shareholder letter to share his world view on the subject. As he told the Commonwealth Club audience, “It’s time to take a stand right now on this issue. Whether you’re a public corporation for profit or not for profit, a member, a thought leader in society, the time is now.

“The science is beyond dispute,” Crane continued. “The excuse that we don’t have the technology is just not true anymore -- we have the technology. And across the business world, I think we are starting to see a series of leaders in very large companies much more powerful than mine that really believe this. Not only because they want to position their company in a particular place, but because this is what they want their personal legacy to be: a commitment to sustainability.”

So there’s not “just one word” to whisper in the ear of today’s graduates. But according to Majumdar, they’re well aware of the possibilities. “They care about what’s going to be in the future,” he says. “You can get kids really excited about the fact that they can leave a legacy and leave a dent in this universe, as Steve Jobs used to say, by doing something not just for the United States but for the rest of the world….that’s an opportunity that I find the kids really excited about.”

– Anny Celsi
September 16, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California