How relevant is the term cleantech today? Has it had its day in the sun?

It's a heretical question for someone who's spent much of the last 10 years of his career furthering the cleantech meme globally. A former Managing Director of an organization that gets much of the credit for coining the phrase to begin with, I've been a big proponent of the term, to the intentional subordination of others.

But having just returned from a week of meetings with Silicon Valley investors, lawyers and others, I find myself facing the reality that intelligentsia in the sector are distancing themselves from the phrase.

In five days last week, I met face-to-face with two private equity investors, four venture capitalists, two lawyers, an entrepreneur and one of the heads of innovation for a global multinational—all with name-brand firms, all power players associated with some of the biggest deals cleantech has seen. I asked them each about the topic. And while all were quick to affirm their belief in strong future demand for what we think of as clean or green technologies, the term cleantech has undeniably fallen from favor, they said. Why?

  • Cleantech has become built into every sector, with clean/green propositions in many technology verticals, from industry to IT to water to energy to agriculture; "cleantech no longer means anything new anymore," one said
  • Cleantech is simultaneously "too broad" (i.e. somatic shorthand for too many vertical industries) and "too narrow" (i.e. become too closely associated with renewable energy to those who don't recognize the intended breadth as defined by Kachan & Co. and others) to be useful any longer, another said
  • But the biggest reason—that we've written about for some time herehere and here—is that venture funds' Limited Partner investors have been underwhelmed (some used the term "burned") by cleantech too much for too long, and the term is now poisonous for some venture partners; some are distancing themselves from it. Some have let go of their teams. So while there may still be relatively wide general industry momentum for the term cleantech, because lexicons don't change overnight, those at the very center of the space that we've thought of as cleantech are quietly starting to use other phrases. Deloitte, for instance, rebranded its annual invitation-only Napa Valley cleantech event last week as Energy Tech. Is it just a matter of time until others start picking similar monikers?

Virtually all I met with agreed that what we've thought of as cleantech to date is still an investable thesis: There's still resource scarcity. Governments are still seeking energy independence. Climate change is accelerating, not abating. Large corporations continue to have an appetite for clean technologies for cost savings, differentiation vs. competitors and as high margin product offerings. So the markets for clean and green technologies are expected to be sustaining and long-term. But will there continue to be a unified name for the sector? Will the term cleantech rebound in popularity? Cleantech, at the time of this writing, appears to be in what IT analyst company Gartner calls the "trough of disillusionment" in its widely-referenced "hype cycle" model:

Cleantech & the Gartner hype cycle

Cleantech is arguably suffering a correction from hyperbole that also characterized the early PC, Internet, networking and other technology sectors—all of which recovered in some form as expectations mapped more realistically to execution. Will cleantech as a term do the same? Source: Gartner.

So the question appears to be: Will cleantech as a meme emerge on the other side of this trough, regaining market momentum and credibility much like PCs, the Internet, networking and Internet applications did when they went through the trough themselves? As another datapoint, if cleantech is indeed in a trough, it's been slipping into it for a while, now. A historical look at Google search data for the term cleantech, current up to the time of this writing:

Cleantech term Google search history

Google search history of term "cleantech" over time. Interest in the term peaked in late 2009 and has been declining since. What does this mean for companies positioning around the term? Will it recover or not? What would YOU bet? Source: Google.

Will cleantech re-emerge, regain in popularity and follow the Gartner curve back up? Or has its usefulness as a distinction ended? If the term is no longer fashionable, what should this space be called? What would you advise entrepreneurs in this sector to position around? We're very interested in your thoughts here at Kachan & Co., where we work exclusively with cleantech companies... or what we used to call cleantech companies!