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Flying on Algae: Innovative Technologies Are Driving U.S. Growth in the Clean-Technology Sector

This month’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, is just one more sign of the increasing global awareness of the need to develop and use more energy-efficient and environmentally sensitive technologies. According to the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service’s Stephan Crawford, U.S. companies enjoy many advantages that can help them in their efforts to sell such technologies to the world market.

Stephan Crawford is the office director of the Export Assistance Center in San Francisco, California. He is also a lead member of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service team that focuses on the clean-technology industry. Doug Barry of the Trade Information Center recently spoke with him about export opportunities for U.S. companies that are active in the sector.

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Stephan Crawford is the office director of the U.S. Export Assistance Center in San Francisco, California, and the lead member of the U.S. Commercial Service team that focuses on the clean-technology industry. (U.S. Department of Commerce photo)
Stephan Crawford is the office director of the U.S. Export Assistance Center in San Francisco, California, and the lead member of the U.S. Commercial Service team that focuses on the clean-technology industry. (U.S. Department of Commerce photo)


Barry: We hear the terms green-build and clean tech. What is an accurate way to describe this industry?

Crawford: Clean technology is not really an industry; it’s a collection of industries. Here in the Bay Area, we’re tracking five sectors within clean technology: energy, water, design, transportation, and advanced materials. There’s also a sixth category that we count: firms working to directly address climate change.

Barry: Is the goal of all of these industries to reduce our dependence on carbon fuel?

Crawford: That’s part of it. But it’s also water use, which can be related to energy, and advanced materials, which can provide promising resource-sparing solutions in many areas, such as buildings that shed dirt and don’t require exterior cleaning.

Barry: In San Francisco, I’ve read that there may be more than 400 companies in the clean-tech sector. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot.

Crawford: By our strict definition, it’s probably not even that many, because the more traditional environmental sector can overlap with what we would call strictly a clean-tech firm. Most are small, and many are factoring international markets into the early stages of their development plans. But an important point here is that the drivers of clean tech—which I count as energy security, climate change, water security, etc.—are long-term issues that are not going to disappear anytime soon. So clean tech is really not another dot-com phenomenon.

Barry: When you mention energy security and water security, what exactly do you mean?

Crawford: I’m referring to such things as supply security: for example, the fact that a significant portion of our energy comes from parts of the world where there is political instability. We are not going to run out of fossil fuels anytime soon, but the question is, at what cost will we be able to recover and covert these resources to usable energy in the future? As for water, the saying is that “water is the new oil” in the 21st century. Like fossil fuels, water security is not about running out of water in the aggregate—we live on the “water planet,” after all—but rather it’s about ensuring supply when and where we need it and at an acceptable cost.

Barry: Why is this happening in San Francisco and in northern California generally? Is it because of geographical proximity to markets or is it because of the Silicon Valley phenomenon?

Crawford: It’s not just San Francisco. Other regions around the country—states such as Massachusetts and Texas and those in the Pacific Northwest—are also developing clusters of clean-tech firms. In California, though, firms have benefited from access to research and development; the availability of talent and capital; and a supportive policy environment, such as California’s energy efficiency regulations.

Barry: Can you tell me about some of the “gee-whiz” technologies that you’ve seen on the horizon?

Crawford: One example is Tesla, a company that is producing electric sports cars that outpace a Ferrari. There are also companies like Pax Scientific and HOK, which are pioneering biomimicry in their respective fields. Biomimicry looks at how nature solves problems that we also want to solve. Pax Scientific studies how water and other fluids flow in nature. They’ve taken that idea to develop algorithms that then can be applied in industrial applications to increase the efficiency of fluid flow in industrial applications. HOK is applying the same principle, for example, to design. Another example is Solazyme, which is now producing jet fuel from algae.

Barry: So on a cross-country flight in the future, we might hear the pilot say, “We are low on algae, and we’re returning to the nearest airport”?

Crawford: Fasten your seatbelts—it’s going to be an interesting ride.

Barry: It seems that the challenge for these clean-tech companies would be in finding markets. How are you dealing with that issue?

Crawford: On a case-by-case basis. Every single company is different, and it really just depends on what the value proposition of each company is. The green-build road show that we just hosted in San Francisco is a prime example of the fact that even though there is a lot of competition—for example, in mature markets like Europe—there are still a lot of opportunities.

Barry: Are any markets better than others?

Crawford: It really depends on where the companies are placed in the market. A few markets, not in any order, include Eastern Europe, especially countries that need to meet European Union standards. I’d also look at Vietnam; South Korea; and, of course, China and India. The countries in the Americas offer good opportunities, particularly Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Mexico. Turkey is a strong market, as is Australia.

Barry: Does a company have to be fairly large for you to help them?

Crawford: No, in fact, some of the companies that we’re working with are actually fairly small. In fact, they’re quite small. One interesting phenomenon in the clean-tech space is that these small, early-stage companies are already writing international market strategies into their business plans. And they’re doing that because they realize that the international markets will play a very critical role in helping them to not only gain additional revenue, but also stay ahead of their competitors,

Barry: How does a company contact you if it is interested in finding out more about the services that you provide?

Crawford: Our office in San Francisco has a Web site at All of our information is there, including a clean-tech page that has a lot of our current market research, details about upcoming events, and other resources. I am part of a dedicated and able team here in northern California and across the country. We can connect firms that want to know more to one of our colleagues in their area.