Three years ago I drank the Kool Aid regarding the importance of “sustainability” to this country’s (planet’s?) future. It’s all Neal and Mark’s fault (my partners at The Propellant Group) as they had launched the Automotive X Prize, a competition awarding $10M to the team that could produce a production capable car that could get at least 100 mpg. It was a pretty amazing project that even a Jaguar driver like me could appreciate. Much like a sinner who is forced to live in a monastery, I couldn’t really ignore the evidence that Mark, Neal and crew kept harping on; this country’s future was tied to eliminating its dependence on foreign fossil-based fuels. And the planet was burning way too much fuel to either be sustainable or not to punch a hole in the atmosphere. The only way to do this, no matter how long it takes, was to shift to sustainable energy sources. Things like solar, or wind, or bio fuels, or… whatever.
But I wasn’t selling the Jaguar just yet.
One thing led to another and I found myself working with various formal and informal groups dedicated to making Los Angeles a cleantech economic center. There were lots of meetings: with the Mayor’s economic development staff, with the Community Redevelopment Agency/LA, with the Los Angeles County of Economic Development Corporation, with UCLA, and the technology transfer office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I was even invited to the press conference on the steps of City Hall in which the Mayor announced the “Cleantech Los Angeles” partnership between the Mayor, UCLA, USC, Caltech, JPL, LAEDC, Los Angeles Business Council, and the Chamber of Commerce.
But I felt like an interloper in these groups as they were all long-time dedicated green advocates and I was a new convert who didn’t know much. Moreover, what I did know — how to build companies and make money — was as strange to them as bio-fuels were to me. I began writing a series of white papers on what the City needed to do to implement Mayor Villaraigosa’s vision. These were not met with open arms and most disappeared into basement storage under City Hall.
After a couple of years of tilting at windmills, I slowly faded away…
Then in March while Karen and I were in La Paz, Boliva I got a call from the person who wrote the business plan for Los Angeles’ cleantech incubator. He wanted to know if I was interested in applying for the new position of Executive Director of the yet to be built Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a quasi-government initiative funded by several City organizations. There were no promises, of course, as this would be an open competition, but he knew of my interest and thought I might be a good fit. Just having a conversation via Skype in the middle of Carnival in a city that had yet to discover traffic signals was an accomplishment in and of itself. I said “yes” and wrote a proposal a couple days later in Cochabamba, Bolivia and sent it off.
We proposed that the Propellant Group run the new incubator, that I would lead as Executive Director and my partner Neal Anderson would serve as Assistant Director. We were a long shot as neither of us had any experience with running incubators, but we were both very experienced in helping early stage technology companies grow and prosper — the core task of any incubator.
In the remote chance that we would be called in for an interview, I modified our trip’s route, skipping all of Brazil and heading straight for Buenos Aires. Less than two weeks later Now Voyage was on a ship sailing north and we were sitting in the leather winging our way to Los Angeles. I’ve already written about the shock of “re-integrating” with normal life in Hollywood in past posts (Stranger in a Strange Land). A couple of weeks later we were in for a real shock.
After three sets of interviews, Neal and I won the contract to manage the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) for the City of Los Angeles. Everything about our plans– Neal’s, Karen’s, mine — changed in an instant. Things would be different going forward. Once again, I didn’t have a clue as to how much they would change, but I did my usual when being thrown into a new challenge — I shifted into high gear and raced full speed ahead.
Time out for a footnote explanation of what a cleantech incubator is. First question I’m asked is, “what is clean technology?” Answer: there is no one answer, but it includes all the processes and technologies related to the sustainable consumption of our natural resources. It includes companies involved in clean automotive, energy efficiency, energy generation and storage, water efficiency, pollution reduction, waste management and related fields. Things like wind, solar, electric vehicles, and the “smart grid” necessary to integrate all of this into the current electrical transmission grid.
Now, what the heck is an incubator? It’s an organization — in this case a non-profit funded by city/county agencies — that is dedicated to helping very early stage cleantech companies grow and become successful by: (1) providing them with fully fitted-up office/lab space, at a reduced rate and with no lease requirements; (2) Providing them CEO coaching and mentoring by very senior people who’ve been there, done that; (3) Introducing them into a network that can help them get funding, find customers, find the right talent, etc. ; and (4) Giving them access to domain experts that are willing to help them for lower, preferably no, rates.
Why is the City of Los Angeles in the cleantech incubator business? Because the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI) will become the City’s economic equivalent of its farm team, growing our own cleantech companies here in Los Angeles. It all comes down to J_O_B_S. In this case, high paying jobs in a high growth industry. And jobs are incredibly important in the US, but perhaps even more so in California/Los Angeles where the unemployment rate is at least two percentage points above the national average.
Here’s an article in the LA Times that touches on the importance of incubators: latimes.com/business/la-fi-accelerators-20110705,0,1977549.story
This is game-changing stuff, if arguably ahead of its time. Why? Well, because sooner or later, whether its two, ten , twenty or fifty years from now, the United States of America will have to rebuild its energy infrastructure causing the greatest industrial shift in my generation. Don’t believe me? well join the crowd of skeptics and naysayers. But this isn’t the first technology-driven industrial revolution that I’ve been a part of. First up was the advent of personal computers (Why do YOU need a computer, you can have a terminal to our mainframe that we’ve just spent millions and millions on…What’s this “Power to be your best” shit?) and then the Internet (Where’s the business model? People won’t actually buy things online, it’s too risky. People aren’t going to stop reading newspapers…). At every step of the way during these revolutions, there’s been huge resistance and skepticism by whatever powers to be will be affected. It’s natural and to be expected. But sustainable energy is coming, and its going to change everything.
OK, back to Planet Walti. Being selected as LACI’s Executive Director pretty much changed everything for Karen and I as well. All long-distance travel has been put off a bit. We needed a more substantial home base in Los Angeles than my one room apartment afforded. KR found herself “stuck” in Puerto Vallarta without Her Man for much longer periods of time than either of us originally envisioned. Now that I worked for the City and worked in the City, I felt we needed to live downtown. I even had to pull the suits out of storage and get back in the saddle of the “hi, how are ya?” circuit of serious networking. And I’d soon have an office to report to for the first time in years.
When I started The Restless Traveler, I wanted to write about how one goes about rewiring their lives. It’s something that KR and I have been actively, purposely doing for a couple of years now. We downsized; shed unneeded responsibilities; found a new, cheaper base of operations; learned how to make a living from most anywhere; and looked forward to figuring out how to get control of our lives and how we made a living. We were in the process of totally changing how we lived our lives. And then this happened. Now what?
Building LACI certainly requires a rewire, but of a different sort and on a different plane than I had imagined. I hesitate to predict what’s next, having a rather bad track record of charting what’s ahead so far. Not too long ago KR nailed a poster to one of LBS’s walls that pretty much sums up my thinking:
“KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON”
And so we will. It’s always good to hear from you. Please don’t hesitate to send me your thoughts — good, bad or ugly — as Karen and I really enjoy them.