Cleantech investment broke all kinds of records in 2008. The third quarter alone saw $2.6 billion flow into start-ups tackling everything from biofuels to batteries.
Of course, oil prices were still above $100 in the third quarter, so the cleantech calculus has shifted dramatically since then. The IPO market has also snapped shut, making GT Solar the last significant new issue out of the gate. That firm's since lost nearly 80% of its market value -- hardly encouraging for other newcomers.
So what does 2009 have in store? Conveniently, the venture capitalists at Lightspeed Partners have offered up several predictions worth pondering.
One easy call: Given the macro environment and the credit contraction, funding will dry up considerably. Firms will need to demonstrate a faster path to breaking even on a cash basis, and capital-intensive endeavors will be most constrained.
Lightspeed anticipates more companies following in the footsteps of GreenHunter Energy, repurposing distressed assets -- such as the idled corn ethanol plants of Archer Daniels Midland's
Another undeniable development is increasing government involvement. I've previously outlined some of President-elect Obama's energy goals. Lightspeed predicts that government investment will be channeled through a venture capital-like arm, targeting commercialization rather than R&D. That latter bit is an important distinction, since it leaves the early-stage work to the universities and tinkerers' garages, where the best ideas begin.
As for specific cleantech applications, Lightspeed taps energy storage as a hot area for 2009. This is the domain of A123 Systems, a firm that powers portable Black & Decker tools and has its eye on both the automotive and grid-scale battery markets. Automotive partners include the two generals, General Motors
Along with Nanosolar, I consider A123 to be one of the top cleantech companies to watch in 2009. The firm has already filed a registration statement with the SEC, and once it lands a contract for a major automotive line, I would expect the firm to move forward with an IPO, moribund market or not.