While everyone’s attention has been focused on if (or when) the tech bubble brewing in Silicon Valley will burst (again), another more enduring tech revolution has been quietly building in the background.
You’ve probably heard something about the smart grid or the smart home, but these are just the leading edge of a larger trend – coined the Cleanweb by early pioneers in this space. The Cleanweb is all about how digital technologies are radically transforming the ways we use energy and resources. Ubiquitous mobile phones, global social networks, mountains of new data, low cost sensors, and vast increases in processing power are giving us powerful new tools to tackle the critical resource challenges we face globally. Both entrepreneurs and companies are starting to harness these tools to offer better, more efficient solutions across many markets. Just a few examples include:
- Thermostats that automatically turn down the heat when no one is home
- Water pumps that can detect and manage leaks
- Jet engines that call ahead for maintenance when they burn too much fuel
- Software that tells farmers how much to water and fertilize each square meter of field
A report my firm SuperCollider plans to release this fall with the venture data analytics firm CB Insights shows that more than $8 billion dollars has been invested in 861 Cleanweb deals in over 500 different companies since 2009. And the pace is picking up. Nearly $2 billion of this total was invested in the first half of 2014 alone, more than any previous full year.
Yet this accounts for merely a small fraction of the $64 billion of total venture capital invested in start-ups in the last year. Adtech, social networking, marketing, and many other tech sectors all garnered more than Cleanweb companies. This increased investment happened despite what many fear are dangerously over-inflated valuations in those sectors. Last year, investors valued 47 startups at over $1 billion, compared to just eight of these “unicorns” the year before.
The emerging Cleanweb represents a tremendous, still-underappreciated (and under-valued) opportunity for investors and innovators. Like other tech start ups today, Cleanweb companies require a relatively modest amount of capital to develop their initial products, can get to market quickly, and have the potential to scale massively.
For example, the Nest smart thermostat has driven over $300 million in annual sales. Opower—which uses online gaming techniques to encourage homeowners to reduce their energy consumption—is used by over 98 major utilities to drive energy efficiency. The Climate Corporation’s agriculture management software is used on nearly 40% of U.S. cropland. And this demand is being captured in value to investors. Nest sold for over $3.2 billion to Google (goog). Opower went public at a nearly $1 billion valuation. And the Climate Corporation was acquired by Monsanto (mon) for $930 million.
Perhaps more importantly, with serious questions being raised about whether the digital economy – for all its revolutionary transformation of our lives– has actually improved productivity, real wage growth, or our overall quality of life, the Cleanweb trend offers the possibility of a more elemental value proposition for tech.
It is highly likely that the demand for critical resources – energy, food, and water – will increase dramatically over the next twenty years. This provides a big potential market for Cleanweb companies. McKinsey estimates that providing these resources more efficiently represents a $2.9 trillion opportunity. Digital technologies – some even more powerful than our minds can imagine today – will clearly play a central role in unlocking these opportunities. They will help us convert today’s lumbering centralized, fossil-based utilities to more nimble customer-centric providers of renewable energy and energy efficiency. They will help us manage our buildings, waste, and transportation. Indeed, everywhere you look, there are big resource markets for Cleanweb investors and innovators to disrupt and improve.
Marc Andreessen famously observed in 2011 that “software is eating the world,” a memorable phrase to describe the growing dominance of digital across the economy. It’s also a slightly menacing idea. Whether it’s Terminator-like drones taking over, Matrix-like machines masking reality, or the loss of privacy warned of by Edward Snowden, the techno-centric future can seem a little daunting at times. The rise of the Cleanweb gives us an opportunity to invest in a more hopeful, fundamentally valuable role for technology. Looking ahead, one can even envision a growing ecosystem of digital solutions that will form a global nervous system of sorts, allowing us to live in far closer touch with the pulse of the planet. But more than machines, the choices that people make will determine the world we inherit. If we invest in things that truly matter, perhaps software can help save the world.
Nicholas Moore Eisenberger is a co-founder and Managing Partner at SuperCollider, an investment and venture design firm focused on early stage Cleanweb companies.