Every week, someone asks me "Where is Steve Jobs of green?" or "Where is the Google of Green?"
To top it off, they usually ask in a supercilious tone, as if the green energy revolution has failed because they aren't rich off it yet. The question has come up with a vengeance in recent days after some suggested VCs will run from green.
My typical response is: Look, Apple sells status symbols to people who pretend to disdain status symbols. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You missed it. Not everyone gets to be Prince William either.
It's like asking where is the France among the breakaway Russian republics. Sorry, just didn't happen.
But there are other reasons too, and they are:
1. Free. I use Google's data center a few hundred times a day and 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 you conduct your first search, you'd probably switch to Yahoo.
2. Regulation and Safety. No one has ever been physically impaled on Flickr. By contrast, green technologies are a lurking cauldron of dangers: high-speed charging for electric cars; water processing systems that turn sewage into fertilizer or fresh water; experimental cement. A few startups have begun to discuss two-ton wind turbines that float in the sky: you can hear the community outrage already.
3. New-ness. The computer industry truly has revolutionized civilization. Word processing applications put an end to clerks and secretaries, a 5,000 year old profession, in a few short years. Cell phones and the Internet connected the world.
And it's a great entertainment vehicle: Americans will spend money like thirteen year olds handed a stack of no-limit Visa cards to keep themselves amused.
Most green products give you what you already have: lights, fuel for your car, grout cleaner. There is no market for artisan electricity from wave power machines.
4. Difficulty. Nanostellar designs molecules for removing particulates out of diesel fuel. Aquaporin is working on a synthetic microbe that can purify water. Twitter posts amateur restaurant reviews. Guess which companies have the most PhDs? Guess which one is easier to get to market.
5. Time. Twitter went from a handful of users in 2007 to millions in a few months. Modular nuclear power plants? They might move into the testing phase within the decade.
6. Customers. This one is huge. Google, Yahoo, Yelp and the rest have a potential customer base of more than 6 billion people. Namely, the world population.
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. Most green companies will have to sell their wares to conglomerates of government agencies before they get to you, and they are a lot pickier.
7. Age. If you're 28, you're probably already too old to start a social networking company. If you are under 40 in green, you may not be taken seriously. Silver Spring Networks, was founded by a father and son team. So was Rivertop Renewables, which makes a chemical to replace phosphorous in detergent.
But here's the advantage. Green might be difficult an onerous, but it's needed. And good ideas--electric cars, solar panels, recycling rare earth elements instead of mining new ones--will be pursued they are economical.
The web is almost impossible to predict. I once asked a prominent VC how he picked winners when investing in consumer technology.
He pantomimed shooting craps.