Expo Showcases Wash. State Companies' Budding Clean Tech Economy

Jun 24, 2014

A cornerstone of Gov. Jay Inslee’s election campaign was the promise of new jobs in clean technology.

But how healthy is the sector in Washington and what’s still holding it back? Hard data on those questions is yet to come, but a visit to the state's inaugural Clean Technology Showcase provided some answers.

A Fast-Growing Tech Alliance

Exhibitors lined the hallways of the Bell Harbor Conference Center in Seattle on Monday. Those gathered for the one-day event included everyone from the manufacturers of solar panels and windup cell phone chargers to an agricultural startup that uses genetic analysis to conserve water.

The Washington Clean Tech Alliance, which organized this showcase, says it has grown from about 35 members just four years ago to nearly 300 today.

"We’re on fire around here,” said Bill Lemon, co-chair of an angel investor group, called Element 8, that specializes in clean tech. “We, as a group, invested about $3 million last year. We’re on a run rate to invest about $6 million this year."

A Success Story

Among the companies the group has funded is Arlington-based Microgreen Polymers, which spun out of research at the University of Washington. The company makes lightweight cups out of recycled plastic that are now used by various businesses from breweries to car dealerships. CEO Tom Malone says Alaska Airlines was the company's launch customer.

“They save about $200,000 worth of fuel from using a lighter-weight cup,” Malone said. “We’re very excited that if we were to replace all the current poly-coated paper cups, it could save 1.8 billion kilograms of CO2 in the environment. So it’s a meaningful contribution in reducing the carbon footprint."

Malone says Microgreen will be profitable at the end of this year, and he expects to take it public soon. But he says more needs to be done for clean tech in Washington. Capital funding is still a huge challenge for most new companies and cuts to university budgets are bad news for startups like his that have their roots in academic research.

'We're Talking The Talk, And We’re Not Walking The Walk'

The state could also do more to make it easier for ordinary consumers to invest in clean tech here, says Jeff Esfeld, national fleet sales director for Via Motors, which is about to launch a new extended-range electric-powered pickup truck. He says Washington doesn’t incentivize buyers and is falling behind.

“In the West Coast, California is by far the leader. And Oregon is instituting incentives. Colorado is ahead of Washington state. So I think we’re talking the talk, and we’re not walking the walk,” he said.

Esfeld says incentives could include breaks on sales tax or even giving single-occupancy electric car drivers access to restricted carpool lanes.

The Inslee administration is pushing a number of initiatives to advance clean technology, including a research and development tax credit. The state Legislature also recently established a Clean Energy Institute at UW to attract and accelerate spin-off technologies.