A clean-tech alliance is in the making

Mission Verde Alliance would work to attract green industry.

In 2007, San Diego counted 148 “clean tech” companies of one type or another in the region around the Southern California city.

The study commissioned to identify those businesses urged that an organization be created to nurture them and accelerate the creation of even more.

Cleantech San Diego was born, and today boasts 765 member companies, in areas such as solar, energy efficiency and biofuels.

As members of San Antonio’s small but growing clean-energy community work to create a similar organization here, they’re looking to successful groups like Cleantech San Diego for inspiration.

Dubbed the Mission Verde Alliance, those working to form the group say it will act as a catalyst for green industry development and job growth by working to attract, create and grow green companies.

The clean-tech effort has the necessary public policy backing, in the form of the city’s Mission Verde initiatives, and will certainly be bolstered by CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby’s recent decision to require those that would do business with the utility to include an economic development component in their work.

But San Antonio lacks much of an industry base thus far, nor is the region known for its access to capital, both things that industry experts say are important to a successful clean-industry cluster.

A cluster is a regional conglomeration of related industries, resulting in the creation of more jobs, with higher wages and faster growth, says Hamid Beladi, a business professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

San Antonio already has successful clusters in health care, biomed and defense; cybersecurity and aerospace are also growing in the region.

They’re not easy to create, says Shawn Lesser, managing partner of Atlanta-based Watershed Capital Group, an investment bank helping sustainable companies raise capital, and co-founder of the Global Cleantech Cluster Association.

“But once in place, a clean-tech cluster can, in theory, create thousands of new jobs and attract billions of investment dollars to a region,” he said.

The charge is being led by attorney Larry Zinn, the driver behind former Mayor Phil Hardberger’s Mission Verde initiatives, which Mayor Julián Castro has made a centerpiece of his own administration. Zinn also heads up Castro’s Green Jobs Council.

Also closely involved is Mike Burke, founder of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, an education and advocacy group that boasts dozens of local power brokers on its advisory board.

Burke and Zinn are partners in a clean-technology development company, Tejas Verde, a for-profit enterprise they launched last year that offers consulting services, project development and technology commercialization.

The Clean Tech Forum would be folded into the alliance, retaining its name while continuing to offer networking and educational opportunities. The Green Jobs Council, too, would be absorbed.

“We don’t want to just create another entity,” said Zinn. “We don’t want to Balkanize efforts, we want to do the opposite, to help bring together and facilitate” clean-industry efforts in San Antonio.

The group must be market-driven to be successful, Zinn said. Government can offer incentives and set policy, he said, “but ultimately, private enterprise will drive the market.”

It will use public money to get started, however.

The Green Jobs Council, which hasn’t spent any taxpayer money thus far, did receive $100,000 from the city, a one-time allotment that will be used as seed money to launch the alliance.

The Clean Tech Forum is donating $25,000, and Bank of America has donated $10,000.

Kenny Wilson, market president for Bank of America in San Antonio, said the bank has been keeping its eye on efforts thus far to capitalize on the emerging clean-tech market, and thinks the city is well-positioned to move forward.

“They key word is collaboration, and I think that’s something San Antonio does very well,” he said.

Wilson, who also serves as chairman of the board for the Economic Development Foundation, said he sees the alliance as a complementary organization to the foundation.

A parallel, he said, is the foundation’s collaboration with BioMed SA, another cluster organization that focuses on growing the local biomedical industry.

Mario Hernandez, the foundation’s executive director, agrees: “We’re the salespeople, the recruiters.”

The services the alliance could offer, he said, would be another selling point.

Ongoing financing for the alliance will depend on finding additional sponsors, and eventually dues-paying members.

To do that, the alliance needs staff, especially an executive director.

Zinn, who is also working on a governance structure for the group, hopes to find someone with a plethora of strengths: a leader with solid management skills, experience in fundraising and economic development, plus at least some expertise in the clean energy/green tech sector.

He acknowledges the chicken-and-egg problem of finding such an individual willing to work for a group that essentially doesn’t exist yet, but says he’s optimistic.

Many of the big players already involved in clean technology in San Antonio say they’ll support the alliance, including the Southwest Research Institute, which is working to increase the storage capacity of lithium ion storage batteries and figuring out better ways to maintain the gearboxes in wind turbines.

Les Shephard, who left Sandia National Labs to head up the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute at UTSA, is also bullish on the creation of a clean-tech cluster.

“You can stand on the sidelines and ask when is the right time, or you can jump in and make it the right time,” he said.