Things to do near Denver when you’re dead-set on the environment

Oli Barrett reports back on the Clean and Cool Mission to Colorado, a trade trip for 16 British cleantech companies to America’s clean technology epicentre

They say that to be successful, you have to kiss a few frogs. That may suit the founder and CEO of Green Fuels, James Hygate. He is in the business of turning pond slime into jet fuel.

The good news is that James has already met his prince. His firm, one of 16 which I’m travelling with here in the US, recently received a Royal Warrant.

Welcome to Boulder (near Denver), Colorado, the place where, according to the Kauffman Foundation, there is a higher density of technology start-ups than anywhere else in the US.

Not that it seems especially full. As I set out for a run into the bright and chilly morning (the state boasts 300 days of sunshine a year), I am struck by just how peaceful the place is, with fewer than 100,000 inhabitants.

Where the Rocky Mountains meet the Great Plains, this seems as good a place as any to ponder the technologies which, we hope, will shape the future of the planet.

A little dramatic? Well, as Prince Charles reminded a group of business leaders just last month: “The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events has increased, and is set further to increase, in many parts of the world, as a direct result of anthropogenic climate change.”  Speaking after Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines, this was not simply his opinion. He was echoing the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report.

If Hollywood has an ability to capture the spirit of an age, you don’t have to be a genius to join the dots between the movies currently being shown by British Airways:

“The planet faces a deadly threat”, “After crash-landing on an abandoned earth…”, “The planet Krypton facing destruction”, “In a deserted post-apocalyptic world…”

So far, so cheery. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the background sense of gloom which colours so much of what we read about today. If Tinseltown is painting pictures of the worst possible future, then the entrepreneurs of Colorado are trying to ensure a somewhat brighter scenario.

Our group of 16 are here to meet and learn from them, and to share their businesses with investors and potential partners. As they embark upon an intense schedule, they are acutely aware that attitudes to renewable energy, from both public and politicians, are decidedly undecided.

In 2009, a Reuters report concluded that electric vehicles were “a technological cul-de-sac”.  Try telling that to Lawrence Marazzi, as he screeches away on his Saietta electric motorcycle, speeding from zero to 60 in less than four seconds. With a 120 mile range and costing 45p per 100 miles, it isn’t just the award-winning design which is drawing admiring glances. Lawrence wins this week’s prize for product placement.

Entering the Cleantech Industry Awards, attended by a glittering cast of local movers and shakers, I was surprised to see one particular object occupying pride of place as guests arrived. Yes, its designer may have only been in town for 48 hours, but the bike had well and truly landed.

The three little pigs, of course, got it all wrong. Quite what possessed them to build their house from straw, we’ll never know. If David Scott had been advising them, they would have saved the straw for the fireplace.

The CEO of Straws, a former HSBC executive, believed in the company so much that he has invested over $1m of his own cash. He is now in the business of turning a waste product (wheat straw) into a form of energy which burns hotter and for considerably longer than traditional wood logs. For America’s 33 million fireplaces, that could be grate news.

As I walk past Lawrence’s motorbike, I see a familiar face. Josh Tabin, a serial entrepreneur who joined the second Web Mission to San Francisco, has recently moved to nearby Fort Collins. We catch up and agree to meet later in the week.

Moving through the room, I see Caroline from Colorado University and thank her for offering to host an impromptu gathering yesterday evening. An American voice calls my name and I turn to see Chas, another face from last night, who is about to collect the award for entrepreneur of the year.

As the formal ceremony begins, I sit next to Ski, a successful serial entrepreneur who appeared on our panel just this morning. Behind us is Robert, a legendary local investor, who also joined us earlier today. Shoulder to shoulder with some of the leading lights of Colorado’s cleantech scene, I feel welcomed, supported and connected. It is my third day in the country.

The badge has a great deal to answer for. A small emblem, worn on the lapel, it’s a simple technique which helps us to stand out. Whilst you are having a conversation in one corner of the room, 25 others, including mission companies, supporters and journalists are spreading word of the trip.

Why we’re here, who we are and what we might have to offer. By the time you reach the end of an evening, you are greeted with a warm handshake and a smile. “I’ve met a few of you guys – what you’re doing is really interesting”.

It is this kind of strength in numbers which brings a trade mission like Clean and Cool to life. We have each other’s backs. We promote each other. The companies are passionate about what they do.

With luck, hard work and a fair wind, they will return from our week in Colorado with a fistful of warm leads, a spring in their step and the beginnings of a plan for the year to come. Whether or not they have met their Prince, they should have enough opportunities to keep the wolf from the door.

The Clean and Cool Mission is a selected group of 16 companies, organised by the Long Run Venture and Cospa, supported by the Technology Strategy Board, UKTI and Shell Gamechanger.


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