There's a Reason Why There's No Steve Jobs of Green

Aquaporin says it will be able to turn salt water into drinking water with a customized molecule that mimics the function of similar molecules found inside liver cells.

Yelp publishes restaurant and hotel reviews from unpaid contributors. That comparison underscores many of the differences between the green technology industry and the web. Every week, someone asks me, "Where is the or "How come there is no Steve Jobs of green?"

My first reaction is, don't jinx it. The next thing you know, everyone at solar conferences will wear black turtlenecks and insist on delivering three hour speeches. Most people boil down the difference to the money needed. Green companies seek to replace gasoline with biofuels or batteries, or produce electricity from solar panels instead of coal-burning power plants. In other words, most green companies manufacture products. Manufacturing requires factories, and building factories requires lots of money.

But there are a lot of other, more important reasons, and they are:

  • 1. Free. I use Google's multimillion dollar data center a few hundred times a day. I've never paid them a cent. A home solar system costs $19,000 after rebates. If Google had to clamber around your roof for three days and hand you a five-figure bill at the end before your first search, you'd probably switch to Yahoo. Some companies are getting around that. Solar City and Sungevity offer solar leases that require no money down. You pay them monthly fees for electricity from panels that they own and that sit on your roof. The fee is generally less than the amount you save on your electricity bill so consumers save money from day one. But getting the things on your roof still takes dollars somewhere so the business will grow slower.
  • 2. Safety. Twitter was a relatively unknown service in 2007 when the founders showed it off at the Souht by Southwest Conference. Two years later, nearly two billion tweets were being posted every quarter. Friends recommended it to friends. Some dropped it and some kept going. Adoption was easy and free and fun. Mark Shannon at the University of Illinois is developing a box that can take sewage streams and turn it into clean, drinkable water, methane, and minerals. With this box, your toilet becomes not just a weapon in the war against climate change, it becomes a profit center. But even if these boxes were free, would you leap to change where you get the water for the shower? You might want to hear some test results first. And just imagines what happens when someone tries to operate a high voltage charger for their car and drink a Mountain Dew.
  • 3. Frivolity. When you boil it down, the Internet is really just a big entertainment network. Veterinarians aren't the ones clicking on cute kitten videos on YouTube. Video games constitute a multibillion dollar industry. People will spend money like thirteen year olds handed a stack of no-limit Visa cards to keep themselves amused. When it comes to necessities, suddenly everyone gets adult and do things like sue their utility. How many more times do you complain about your utility bill versus the cost of movies? If people did what was good for them on an impulse, the racks near the cash register at Target--the ones selling tape gum and celebrity magazines--would sell bouillon cubes.
  • 4. Difficulty. Part of the attraction of the web and successful ventures like Craigslist is that people believe they could have come up with it themselves. And they are right. Ebay required programmers and computer scientists, but the secret of its success lay people telling other people to use it. A lot of web companies are like Tony Danza: successful and famous, but not talented enough to put on airs. Zappos? The difficult part was believing the idea--selling shoes on like--would work. By using those services, you're subconsciously also voting for the American Dream. By contrast, Nanostellar engineers designer particles for removing particulates out of diesel fuel. You can't really incubate that sort of thing with eight programmers, a foosball table and a case of Red Bull.
  • 5. Time. A web venture can become an overnight phenomenon through world-of-mouth marketing. And luckily, since you get bored quickly, you'll try out a new one right afterward. New insulating windows? You might get new ones every 30 years.
  • 6. Customers. This one is huge. Google, Yahoo, Yelp and the rest have a potential customer base of more than 6 billion people. It is synonymous with the world population. Not so for many green markets. The number of customers for smart grid technologies in the U.S. is close to 2,100: that's the number of electrical utilities. Algae fuel? You probably won't buy it, at least not directly. Chevron, Valero and the handful of other large oil producers will buy it, mix it into gas, and sell it to you. The limited customer base really changes the growth prospects for these companies. For many of them, life is really an obstacle course, or an episode of Top Chef or the Biggest Loser. Utilities pick ten contestants, run their equipment through difficult, zany tests over a two year period and then winnow it down to a single winner who gets a billion dollar contract. You're in or you're out.
  • 7. Age. If you're 28, you're probably already too old to start a social networking company. Because of time and the finicky customer base, a lot of company founders in green don't start until their 40s. One company, Silver Spring Networks, was founded by a father and son. Hycrete was founded by David Rosenberg, using his grandfather's recipe for waterproofing contract.

Forget the spiky, hip hairdo. To make it in green, cultivate a comb-over.

  • Michael Kanellos

    Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.