With all the attention on renewable-energy technology, and for all the hopes that politicians have expressed that by pushing dollars into the innovation system they can magically get “cluster” jobs out the other side, I thought I would tell the cautionary story of three extremely impressive energy-tech-type companies that my colleagues1 and I assisted when we worked for the (lately defunct) New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology (NJCST) back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.2

As free-marketeers like to say, politicians don’t create jobs: entrepreneurs and investors do. Absolutely correct. All we did in government was help by providing resources that the entrepreneurs leveraged and exploited at a very early stage of corporate existence. Except in one case where we provided a modest amount of pre-seed financing, I wouldn’t say we even tried to “pick winners.” We applied public funding to create physical environments and incentives for academic/industrial collaboration, we provided a little free publicity and moral support, and then we sat back and watched the inventors and innovators/entrepreneurs do their thing.

After the break I’ll tell what I remember about these firms from the days years ago when I had some inside knowledge, and what I can deduce about their trajectory since based on current publicly available information.3 And then I have some questions for you to ponder about how complex are the forces at work, and what you might expect from innovation programming in energy-tech if you are a politician or policymaker.

[continue reading…]

  1. Especially Joe Montemarano, in the case of the first two companies discussed []
  2. No, this isn’t the first time in modern history that energy tech has been “hot,” and it’s been obvious for a long time that market innovations would be closely related to R&D in materials science and various engineering technologies. Hence the role for universities and tbed intermediary organizations. []
  3. Although I’ve done my best to be accurate, I’m sure I’ve made mistakes. If you see any and would like them corrected, let me know and I’ll update the post. []