The hot cleantech hopes of 2011

Australian cleantech companies are starting to make their presence felt in the international market, with two local companies ranking among the top 100 private cleantech companies in the world for the first time.

Windlab Systems and Barefoot Power last week became the first Australian companies to be ranked in the The Global Cleantech 100, a listing produced by US research company Cleantech Group which recognises the 100 most promising and innovative companies in areas such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, water and waste, and low carbon transportation, which are likely to make the biggest impact in the next five to 10 years.

Windlab is a spin-off from CSIRO that uses its own software to specialise in wind farm “prospecting tools” that allow it to monitor and choose the best sites. It is now an emerging wind farm developer with a pipeline of projects of around 6,500MW in north America, Australasia and South Africa.

Barefoot Power specialises in providing solar phone charging, solar lighting products and business development services to people in developing countries. The solar devices are designed to replace the use of kerosene, which is both costly ($17 billion is spent a year by the world’s poor) and harmful. Barefoot seeks to build grids from the ground up, rather than starting with a centrallised power station.

Both companies were ranked in the top 10 in the Asia-Pacific region, a listing that was headed by New Zealand-based LanzaTech, which is developing a process that captures waste gases and converts them to fuels and chemicals, increasing industrial energy efficiency.

The criteria for the list is that companies must be independent, for-profit, not listed on any major stock exchange, and likely to make the biggest impact in the next five to 10 years. This year, 4,274 companies were nominated from more than 45 countries, and the entries were judged by a 70-member panel, including leading investors and executives from the likes of ABB, BASF, BP, Coca-Cola, DuPont, GE, General Motors, Procter and Gamble, and Vestas.

The most widely admired company, heading the so-called “lust list”, was TaKaDu, a US company that provides a web-based platform that enables utilities to conserve water, energy and infrastructure.

Others on the list were in the same broad area, which may indicate where investors and the big industrial groups think money will be made in the near future – disruptive technologies to the energy utility industry.

They included Coulomb Technologies, which develops networked charging stations for EVs,  IT and energy efficiency company Hara, smart grid and smart metering specialist Silver Spring Networks, and smart grid software and energy customer engagement specialist Opower.

The most heavily disputed entrants – the ones that have sparked the most division – are ranked in the “marmite list;" you either love them, or you hate them. Bloom Energy headed it last year, before becoming the most high profile omission from the top 100 this year.

This year’s winner of the marmite award – in its third time on the marmite list – is Better Place, the electric car network company that is rolling out its first operations in Israel and Denmark and proposes to do the same in Australia next year.

Supporters say it will be one of the big winners of the electric mobility trend, and is still challenging the industry on what is possible for EVs on a large country scale. And it has strong commercial partnerships and investor backing. Detractors say it has a controversial business model that it's at risk of becoming obsolete by the time it matures.

Others on the marmite list included Fisker Automotive, which makes plug-in hybrid and solar-powered luxury automobiles. It is its second year on that list.

Overall, companies in the energy efficiency space made up the most entrants by number, followed by solar, water and wastewater and energy storage.

Needless to say, these companies have attracted most of the major investors in cleantech venture capital, including the likes of Khosla Ventures, VantagePoint, Generation Investment Management and Kleiner Perkins.

What is interesting is how many of these companies have already “engaged” with major industrial groups, either through direct investment or partnerships. The most active of these was General Electric, which had relationships with 18 of the top 100, followed by Siemens, IBM, Google, Intel, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, BP, Unilver, General Motors, Chevron and Philips. Energy groups such as PG&A, South California Edison and Duke Energy were also active.

Ten of those no longer on the list from 2010 departed because of IPOs (Solazyme, Amyris), acquisitions (Landys+Gyr), or bankruptcies (Solyndra). A further 34 companies that were eligible were no longer in favour – the most notable being Bloom, due, apparently, to a growing wariness about the hype surrounding its products. Some said it had good technology with suitable cost position and strong partners, but others said it had not progressed significantly enough given the funding raised.

The US dominates the list by absolute numbers, but Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands and Sweden dominate in nominations per unit of GDP.