Lessons from Solar

Last Updated Oct 11, 2011 12:30 AM EDT

CAM, the alumni magazine of Cambridge University, asked around 50 dons what they were going to read over the summer holidays. Top of the list by far was Solar by Ian McEwan, so as I was going to be spending four weeks in Italy, I put it top of my reading list as well.

The book is certainly McEwan's funniest novel and up near, if not quite, his best (which I think is Saturday). On the other hand, there are some absolutely brilliant vignettes and anyone who is either an entrepreneur or venture capitalist should read this book.

There were several scenes in the book that particularly resonated with me. Michael Beard, the book's hero, has been appointed the Chairman of a new Climate Change and Renewable Energy Research Centre near Reading, UK, which had just been set up by the Labour Government to tap the "genius" of the British people by potentially funding new ideas. Within six weeks of its creation, hundreds of proposals had been received. I was reminded of my first two months in June 1984 with the first MIC, BT Innovation Limited to raise its funding. The same thing happened with us; as soon as we had raised our funds, we received 300 proposals for funding in the first three months. In the book the analysts sort the proposals into three groups: those that break the first law of thermodynamics, those that the break the second, and those that break both. This is something we did not do but we certainly would have rejected at least half the proposals on the basis of poor or suspect science. If you are looking to either back, work for, or invest in a proposal please make sure that the science is valid. And get several opinions because scientists can disagree as they do over climate change.

The next group of proposals that McEwan describe were those that came from males (it was always males with us as well) that were paranoid about their ideas being stolen and so disclosed little if any information but a very large and onerous confidentiality agreement. About 15-20 percent of the proposals we received were of this type and the few we investigated at the beginning (we soon stopped looking at them) demonstrated that idea usually was not practicable and/or there was no chance the inventor would ever be able to manage and work with a team. You protect your IP with patents and copyright, not with thick confidentiality agreements with investors. AVCAL has a standard confidentiality agreement on its website, that is only two pages. Entrepreneurs should use it.

Beard in fact comes up with means of stemming the flow by demanding that every proposal needs to be accompanied by a working model, something I wish we had done. As McEwan notes the revolutionary lone inventor is a fantasy of popular culture --- and most governments. We have already seen this Labor Government introduce and then cancel the Green Car Innovation Fund in two years. Now it is going set up a $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation and a Australian Renewable Energy Agency to administer $3.2 billion in grants. Meanwhile Denmark the world leader in wind farms (and why Copenhagen was chosen for the 2009 Climate Change Conference), now has the most expensive electricity in Europe. The windmills are breaking down, require expensive maintenance and back up power. Even though wind farms produce nearly 20 percent of Denmark's electricity not one conventional power station has closed.

The rest of the book is on the money and well worth the read. Beard changes from being a complete cynic about global warming (His trip to the Arctic with a group of environmentalists is perhaps the best bit of comic writing this century) to an environmental entrepreneur. The ups and downs of the his project resonated totally. In addition what happens to the UK research centre once again showed how life so often imitates art.