Last week, I attended the fourth annual Sustainable Opportunities Summit, held at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. The purpose of the event is to bring together individuals from business, government, academia, entrepreneurial ventures and the investor community to explore the essential role of business in making our global economy more sustainable. Throughout the two-day event, about 650 attendees heard more than 60 speakers from around the world present on issues as diverse as food production, energy efficient buildings, corporate sustainability reporting, clean energy technologies, carbon markets and microfinance.
Being a starving graduate student, I was in search of a way to attend the conference without paying the full registration fee. Luckily, I managed to finagle a free pass by volunteering to help with the Cleantech Venture Challenge (CVC), a business plan competition sponsored by my graduate school, the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The CVC is an opportunity for teams of MBA students to present plans for venture-grade for-profit businesses, founded on innovative solutions, services or products in the cleantech sector.
Eight teams had made it past the initial screening to present at semi-final and final rounds at the summit, competing for a $25,000 grand prize, intended as seed-funding for the winning venture. During my volunteer stint, I was able to watch several teams present for the semi-final round and was truly impressed with the innovative business plans:
Ikanos Power is commercializing fuel cell generator technology developed at the University of Michigan. The Ikanos catalysts can accept ten different types of fuel inputs (propane, diesel, ethanol, biomass, etc.) and offer improved efficiency over existing combustion-based generators. The company has already received funding from the Department of Defense.
NALION Technologies, made up of students from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, owns a patented technology that offers a replacement for cobalt, which is the key material used to produce the Lithium-ion batteries found in hybrid-electric vehicles, laptop computers and other consumer electronics. The alternate material is less expensive, more environmentally friendly and can create a battery with a 10-year lifespan.
PowerMundo , founded by an MBA student at Colorado State University, manages a worldwide distribution network bringing clean technology products (such as solar lights and efficient stoves) to people in the developing world. PowerMundo works directly with retailers and microfinance organizations to enable individuals to purchase products that will improve their lives.
The competition’s first-place winner was Ecoviv, offering patent-pending software that will allow data centers and corporate IT departments to reduce their power consumption by 25-40%, resulting in lower operating costs and a smaller carbon footprint. The Ecoviv team is composed of students from the University of Texas at Austin and Oxford University in the U.K.
The competition was an impressive showcase of first-rate business talent and groundbreaking technological innovation. After months of grim reports about the American economy, I found the Cleantech Venture Challenge, and the Sustainable Opportunities Summit in general to be inspirational events.
It occurs to me that we are in a self-reflective moment as a nation. We’ve just witnessed the collapse of some of our largest, most powerful financial institutions and are watching industrial giants like GM – formerly the symbol of a strong, entrepreneurial American spirit – struggle to stay intact. Whether they fell victim to the greed of those at the top of the corporate hierarchy or failed to adapt to changing market conditions, these companies can no longer serve as role models for America’s economy.
Today, we are asking ourselves why these institutions failed, but perhaps more importantly, we are asking how we can do it better. How do we create new models for sustainable, responsible economic progress? And, after my experience at the Sustainable Opportunities Summit last week, I’m happy to report that there are many people, government and business leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, community activists and others, working towards this new vision.
What do you think? Can business as we know it become business as we envision it? What types of innovative technologies or solutions will help us move toward a sustainable future? What’s going on in your community?
Liz Lowry is a dual-degree MBA/MS Environmental Studies student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She plans to pursue a career in sustainable business development upon graduation. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.