VENTURESCOPE

May's 13th Cleantech Forum in Frankfurt had no shortage of ideas about where clean technology is heading in Europe. Whether it was fuel cells, water, energy efficiency or solar power, everyone had an idea about what will yield a payoff for investors. One thing that was clear is that interest in this area is exploding. One delegate, Henrik Olsen of the London-based Environmental Technologies Fund, remarked that he'd been coming to the forum for years, and the attendance seemed to be doubling each time.

Organiser The Cleantech Group, which has offices in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, Toronto, London and Beijing, runs a network of 8,000 cleantech investors and 9,500 companies worldwide. The delegate list at the Europe-focused forum in Frankfurt suggested that although investment from native European firms into the space has so far been disappointing, keen consumer demand and extensive government support for cleantech innovation on the continent is steadily attracting more European investors. In attendance at the forum were representatives from venture capital firms, government agencies, hedge funds, private equity firms and a number of seed-stage investors who have just started funds to target this field.

The interest is welcome news for Europe's cleantech entrepreneurs, who have been struggling to attract homegrown capital. A recent report by Cambridge-based venture research firm Library House shows that although cleantech venture investment in Europe has grown dramatically since 2000, the US is far surpassing Europe in putting money into clean technologies. In fact, US investors participated in more cleantech deals in Europe last year than any European country except the UK.

But European investors are showing interest. Aside from enquiring which sectors have the most genuine potential (the consensus was water) and which are over-hyped (fuel cells came up often here), investors at the forum wanted to know one thing: where can they find the best technologies before anyone else?

Answers could be found during the “Cleantech EU Lab Showcase” on day one, which brought together researchers from across the continent to present their ideas to potential investors. The innovations presented included many new technologies in photovoltaics, lighting and energy efficiency that have yet to receive funding but seem to have demonstrated market potential as well as secure intellectual property rights.

Beyond running quarterly forums, The Cleantech Group has a plan in the works that could change the way investors look for new technologies. According to Keith Raab, the group's CEO and co-founder, the group is in the final stages of putting together a new patent initiative tentatively called Cleantech.org. At the core of the project will be a massive searchable database of cleantech patents granted across the world. Raab says his group has worked out an agreement with a high-profile IP services company to digest the public data from the big three patent offices. Beyond running quarterly forums, The Cleantech Group has a plan in the works that could change the way investors look for new technologies. According to Keith Raab, the group's CEO and co-founder, the group is in the final stages of putting together a new patent initiative tentatively called Cleantech.org. At the core of the project will be a massive searchable database of cleantech patents granted across the world. Raab says his group has worked out an agreement with a high-profile IP services company to digest the public data from the big three patent offices. Raab says he hopes the database will be a place for both investors and researchers to come and interact. Researchers will be able to post what they are working on, and investors will be able to list what types of clean technologies they are interested in. The site may even include a chat room where researchers and investors can talk in real time. A portion of the site will be free, but the rest will be available only for Cleantech Group members. Raab says he hopes to have the first prototype of the site up in the next three months.

Seeing that one of the biggest complaints heard from investors at the conference was that it is often hard to do full due diligence on the patent landscape of a potential portfolio company's technology, such a database could have quite an impact. Raab points out it would be good to know before an investment is made whether a patent has just been granted that could make a company's technology obsolete in five years. And those eager for funding could make good use of the site as well.