Is Cleanweb Cannibalizing Cleantech? A Debate Ensues…

When Spring Ventures founding partner Sunil Paul coined the term “cleanweb” in 2011, investors and entrepreneurs saw the idea behind the portmanteau as a way to facilitate smaller investments in information technology that could lead to greater efficiencies and less reliance on fossil fuels. However, it may be that cleanweb companies, with their “capital-light” and “quick to market” appeal, may actually be diverting talent and, more importantly, funding away from solving the major issues that contribute to climate change.

That question was a topic for debate at the recent Next Wave Greentech Investing conference, sponsored by Greentech Media and held in Menlo Park, Calif. earlier this month.

On the one hand, explained Joseph Kopser, the CEO and co-founder of transportation mapping app RideScout, cleanweb companies can make the world more sustainable, and push the U.S. to be more reliant upon its own resources rather than “getting energy from parts of the world that don’t like our part of the world,” he said. Kopser is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq and was awarded a Bronze Star. Cleanweb investment allows the phenomenon of human behavior to change things, rather than waiting for policy changes, he said.

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Unlike mother nature, humans “can literally move mountains, destroy mountains, create things that didn’t exist before or move matter in a way that didn’t exist before,” said Kopser in his introductory remarks.

On the other hand, investment in cleanweb companies siphons dollars and talent away from developing ideas and technology that could potentially impact the future of the entire planet.

Shahin Farschi of Lux Capital, who was asked to take the opposing side from Kopser in a moderated debate, pointed out that without the billions in investment capital and decades of work that have gone into developing solar power, there would be no Solar City, for example, which is “a successful cleantech company both for investors and the broader population,” said Farschi.

At the same time, Farschi said the cleanweb is “great” and he wouldn’t be opposed to backing an entrepreneur with a cleanweb company.

And yet, Farschi pointed to cars as an example of how the cleanweb, while innovative and creative, can potentially destroy long-range advancements that could help to resolve climate-change issues.

Farschi said that because of the Clean Air Act and improving car standards, cars today are much less harmful to the environment than by 1970s’ standards. In the context of the cleanweb, if people were still driving cars with 1970s’ standards but were engaging in ridesharing, there would be far less miles driven in total, but the damage to the environment would be exponentially greater in comparison.

In response, Kopser pointed out that cleanweb companies and developments therein have also benefited efforts to improve policy by providing a treasure trove of data. For instance, cleanweb entrepreneurs can take telemetry and analytics data from emissions tests to provide feedback on car performance, which can then be used to enhance breaking and acceleration among drivers.

“That’s immediate, in the loop feedback,” said Kopser.

Farschi, for his part, agreed that efficiency gains were important, but said that not all countries benefit from the laws in the U.S., and if someone were to come up with a way to massively reduce the carbon dioxide coming out of a tailpipe, such a gain could have a greater impact on the atmosphere.

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