Boston-area colleges expand cleantech entrepreneurship programs
Mass High Tech
By Kyle Alspach
Ramesh Kumar is trying to decide between two ideas for his big class project at Boston University. Should he focus on one of the big problems with electric vehicles, or with home energy efficiency products?
He’ll be making his decision soon. But Kumar isn’t an undergrad or grad student at the college. He’s been down the entrepreneurial road twice before, most recently selling his mobile couponing and ticketing firm, Activemedia Technologies, to U.K.-based 2ergo Ltd. in 2009.
Now, Kumar is looking to take his experience into the clean technology space. “It’s hard to project what’ll happen, but my goal is to start a company,” he said.
Kumar is one of the 23 people taking part in the inaugural offering of Leading Clean Energy Ventures, co-led by BU and the New England Clean Energy Council. The 12-week program is the successor to the council’s popular fellowship program, which ran twice, in 2008 and 2009.
The program is just one of several in the Boston area that are seeking to educate executives and professionals about the cleantech industry, with the goal of hatching new cleantech companies whose business plans are as innovative as their technologies.
“What we really want to develop is a sense of what is, in fact, innovation,” said Paul McManus, co-director of the BU/NECEC program and an executive-in-residence at BU’s School of Management. “It’s not merely just inventing and coming up with bright ideas, but it’s also business model innovation … This program is very much about how you recognize opportunities and whether they qualify as good ones or not.”
Other area programs include the Clean Energy Ventures program at MIT, now in its second year, and the Graduate Certificate in Clean Energy and Sustainability at University of Massachusetts Boston, launched in January.
Each program has its own approach, but all have the goal of getting executives and professionals up to speed on the cleantech industry — and ready to contribute.
“We’re really looking to build management capacity in the cleantech and clean energy sector here in the New England area,” McManus said.
Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, said the council’s fellowship program graduated 37 people over its two years, with more than a dozen going on to start cleantech firms in New England and others joining existing firms. Most of the companies that came out of the program have raised angel or seed money, or found customers, he said.
Graduates include Lorraine Wheeler, experienced in mobile computing and now head of Qado Energy Inc., which develops software to integrate renewable generation into the smart grid, and Peter Vandermeulen, whose high-efficiency air conditioning firm, 7AC Technologies Inc., was a national finalist in last year’s Cleantech Open.
But Rothstein said the goal has always been to make the program self-sustaining, rather than relying on support from foundations and its own staff for running the program. “We’re not a university, and to be able to staff up and support a program like this is a significant undertaking,” he said.
Partnering with BU also provides the program’s graduates with a certificate from the university in Leading Clean Energy Ventures, he noted. The program began in early February and concludes at the end of April; the plan is to continue offering the program once a year at this time, Rothstein said.
The program is also not just for entrepreneurs. Others attending the program this year include corporate venture leaders, investors, regulators and policy makers, McManus said.
The program includes looks at subsectors and technologies in cleantech, commercialization and regulatory issues, case studies of successful firms like Boston-based EnerNOC Inc., visits to companies and a capstone project that aims to lead to a new startup.
“What you really get is immersion into how this industry is evolving,” Rothstein said.
The Clean Energy Ventures program at MIT aims to give a similarly broad overview, though in a more concentrated form. The five-day program is scheduled to run during the first week of May and will include detailed looks at clean energy technologies, business opportunities and case studies. It is timed to run in conjunction with the MIT Clean Energy Prize, said Peter Hirst, executive director of executive education at MIT.
The program piloted last year with 29 people attending, and this year will most likely have 35 to 40, Hirst said. It’s designed for senior executives in energy and energy-related companies, along with government leaders involved with clean energy. Those expected to attend this year include an official from the U.S. Department of Energy and an official from the British government, Hirst said.
The program “is a great fit for MIT, because the research and education and policy interests on clean energy are here,” he said.
Meanwhile, at UMass-Boston, the new Graduate Certificate in Clean Energy and Sustainability aims to serve professionals of all different types, said David Levy, director of the college’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness.
Those professionals might go on to work inside or outside of clean energy, since many non-cleantech companies are seeking to bolster their own sustainability efforts and might see a background in sustainability as a plus, Levy said. The goal is to provide “expertise and skills that will help them find jobs in companies that are making the transition to a clean energy economy,” he said. “There’s clearly going to be a need for professionals in all walks of life that have some understanding of sustainability, and how it affects their organizations.”
The four-course program has about 15 students in each course, and the program is expected to run in both fall and spring going forward, Levy said. In addition, UMass-Boston launched an undergraduate certificate in Clean Energy and Sustainability in January, as well.
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