Thursday, May 24, 2007

Wanting Less, Needing More

I spent the weekend in Santa Clara, attending TIECon 2007. TIECon is the annual conference of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE), a global networking association primarily for technology entrepreneurs from the South Asian diaspora. Due largely to the success that Indian entrepreneurs (I'll use Indian as politically insensitive shorthand for South Asian) have had, and particularly in Silicon Valley, the conference was able to host panels and keynotes comprised of a who's who of Silicon Valley tech all-stars, including Marc Benioff of, Vinod Khosla of KPCB and Khosla Ventures, Matt Cohler of, Meg Whitman of eBay, etc., etc.

While I wasn't able to attend the conference wire-to-wire, I did sit in on a number of keynotes and panels, mostly choosing to focus on mobile and alternative energy. Lots of interesting stuff I'll deep-dive into further in future posts.

Among the notable trends was the excitement and focus that the conference paid to opportunities in alternative technologies, including a keynote by Vinod Khosla touting biofuels and solar thermal arrays (see slides here) and a panel moderated by Ajit Nazre of KPCB in which a number of exciting green technologies were discussed, including representatives from NanoSolar, Amyris Biotechnologies, and Tesla Motors.

The panel was of particular interest to me, as it brought together five very prominent entrepreneurs who are actively trying to build successful companies in the alternative energy space. I was pleased to hear a well-moderated and very candid and thoughtful exchange which highlighted the difficulties of innovating in the clean tech space (due to long cycles of innovation vis-a-vis information technologies, up-front sunken investments in excess of $20-30M to get a business of the ground, and uncertainties in both technology innovation and the structure of the marketplace), the interplay between technology and entrepreneurial drivers of innovation and the important role of policy in helping to internalize external costs and create the transparent prices and costs in the market, and the passion and moral perspective that many of the entrepreneurs brought to their ventures, above and beyond their belief that an open market opportunity existed, on which they could capitalize.

All of this was very exciting to hear, but one consistent and vexing problem always remains unaddressed when business people discuss potential solutions to environmental concerns. The problem arises because innovation, either in core technologies or in business processes, when driven by entrepreneurs, requires a market in which demand, and strong demand, exists. Demand for their products, be they energy, new housing materials, alternative vehicles, or whatever, is necessary in order to create and sustain a market-driven engine for innovation.

And while this is not inherently bad, and in general, most likely an accurate reflection of a consumerist society, it fails to leave much of an opportunity for the idea that consuming may be a key factor in addressing environmental problems. Consuming less is not, in general, an outcome that is well-supported by markets, by capitalist systems, or by entrepreneurial societies. Consuming less then becomes an ethical question, relegated to academia and the fuzzy world of non-profits. The question that I am left with, then, is how to inject this thought into the entrepreneurial debate. Can it be a part of the conversation? And if so, at whom should the question of Should we consume less? be aimed?

Would be interested if any other folks had thoughts on this, and I will try to uncover some better examples of how the ethic of consuming modestly has been injected into commercial discussions successfully. Until then, the best I can leave you with is Bill McDonough's excellent Cradle to Cradle, which should be read by all business students, in my opinion.

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