by Maggie Bishop, Director of Clean Energy & Power Technology
I once heard an old Arabic proverb that identified three different situations in life. “The best possible situation in life, the saying goes, is to know that you know. The second-best is to know what you don’t know. The third-best: to not know that you know. The worst situation is to not know that you don’t know.”
In the heart of one of America’s top performing economies, momentum is building around clean energy. In Austin, annualized job growth in clean energy significantly exceeds the national rate, at 5.3% vs. 3.4%, respectively. Fueling this growth is innovation via the world’s largest smart grid demonstration project, the continued success of the oldest clean energy incubator in the U.S., a welcoming collaborative and business friendly environment, as well as the frequent descent of energy thought leaders into the city for first-class events. SXSW is a pillar of the Austin technology ecosystem and, through the genesis of the ECO vertical, SXSW has provided a platform for Austin, yet again, to elevate its name in a rapidly growing and extremely significant industry.
After spending the last several years focused on helping Austin businesses thrive and expand operations in our region, this summer I was thrilled to accept a position leading clean energy initiatives for the Austin Chamber. Fast forward a few months to Fall, and the 4th annual SXSW Eco Conference; the sustainability-focused event in October that is cousin to March’s Music, Film and Interactive conferences. One could make the argument that there are few better events than SXSW Eco that pose an opportunity to dive into the deep end of the clean energy ecosystem. After all, it’s a conference that brings thousands of thought leaders across environmental, academia, government and business to discuss what is happening and – of equal importance – what is next in this space. My goals were simple: introduce visitors to Austin’s clean energy ecosystem, and don’t stop moving – the latter something I picked up from SXSW Interactive.
On behalf of the Chamber team, I participated in SXSW Eco from three different angles: as host of SXSW Eco’s Startup Connect event, an attendee at sessions and as an exhibitor. My first impression was the strong presence of Austin’s clean energy community within the conference, including business pacesetters like Whole Foods Market, Zipcar, Austin Ventures and Austin Energy; leaders in clean energy research from the University of Texas at Austin and Pecan Street Inc.; representatives from the City of Austin around bike sharing, sustainability and climate programs; and our established startup ecosystem with Tech Ranch Austin and Capital Factory.
The SXSW Eco Startup Connect event was a huge success! It was structured as a “speed-dating” style event intended to connect top clean tech and social impact startups with potential investors and strategic partners via one-on-one, action-oriented meetings. More than 40 investors and partners hosted meetings during the event, including: the Austin Chamber, Pangaea Ventures, Austin Ventures, SURGE Ventures, Energy Foundry, Aster Capital, RenewableTech Ventures, Mercury Fund, Sprint, Shell, Schneider Electric, Austin Energy, SEED SPOT, Energy Excelerator, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Whole Planet Foundation and more.
In addition to this targeted event, and in order to accomplish my second goal (never stop moving), I attended as many content sessions as possible. Two were of particular interest to me:
- Economic Drivers: Building a Robust Cleantech Cluster: This panel addressed trends and best practices of some the leading cities in Clean Energy, including Chicago, San Diego, Raleigh Durham and Austin. It was great to see Mitch Jacobson, Director of ATI’s Clean Energy Incubator on the panel discussing the evolution and growth of Austin’s cleantech cluster.
- The Grid Edge: A Next Generation Energy System: This talk included both researchers and industry leaders who discussed a spectrum of energy trends and history, including the similarities between the telecom deregulation, electric vehicles, predictive vs. dynamic grid planning, solar pricing and more! Texas is in a unique position to lead smart grid transformation, both through our independent ERCOT infrastructure, and through globally leading research initiatives like Pecan Street Inc.
One thing I do know is Austin, and Austin was the premier topic during our time in the Chamber exhibition booth. During the Exhibition on Monday October 6th and Tuesday October 7th, the Chamber’s economic development and marketing teams, in partnership with CleanTX, hosted a booth to share clean tech and membership information with Eco participants. The Chamber was one of 60 exhibitor participants in the 2014 exhibition and connected with about 150 visitors.
Of note in the exhibition hall were two eye-catching local innovations. The first was a solar panel lounge chair that harnesses solar energy to charge phones. This technology is out of my alma mater, Southwestern University. Three Southwestern students designed and built this chair through a partnership with TechShop Austin – Round Rock.
The second group of note was Compadre, an innovative, green shipping container company that has found an engineering solution to shipping challenges. This company is based in Austin and just signed their first deal with one of the US’s largest commercial shipping company.
Overall, I would mark SXSW Eco a success; thousands of visitors and brilliant minds found a warm welcome at the conference and in our city. I successfully talked about Austin to anyone who would listen – many were very interested – and, much to my surprise, managed to keep moving. In this rapidly evolving industry, Eco certainly provided a platform for me to engage thought leaders and industry professionals who are undoubtedly confident in what they know and what they don’t know. It seems like the one thing we all anxiously awaiting, is what will be the next revolutionary idea in energy and what it will mean for our economy. That’s something I’m hoping to find out, and look forward to building it in Austin.