Each year for more than a decade, Cleantech Open (CTO) has celebrated the graduation of a new cohort of cleantech entrepreneurs from its accelerator program. For its 11th Global Forum, the world’s largest cleantech innovation network celebrated in San Francisco with an entire “Cleantech Week” to spur further investment, revenue opportunities, and new talent.

For this conference, global was not just a tagline. Last year, 600 cleantech startups were funded internationally through a partnership between CTO, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Among the countries represented were Morocco, South Africa, Pakistan, Malaysia, India, Thailand, and Turkey. In a video message, Unido Managing Director Philippe Scholtes noted that these startups are a key driver of economic growth and show the power of collaboration between developing and advanced countries. Winning concepts included everything from energy efficient ceiling fans (Green India Building Systems) to roofing materials made from plastic waste (Thevia from South Africa).

(Global entrepreneurs celebrate award-winning concepts)

Another theme from the event was the explosion of ag-related cleantech companies. During CTO Board Member Ira Ehrenpreis’s interview of Amal Deshponde, CEO of Farmers Business Network (FBN), Ehrenpreis noted that the future of agriculture is both “massive and under-innovated,” leading top entrepreneurs to spend human capital in this space. Drones, sensors, robotics, and precision farming are all contributing to sector growth.

Deshponde, a former Kleiner Perkins investor, “fell in love with farming” and became motivated to provide the world with “an answer to ‘Big Ag’”. He came up with two big challenges.

  • The first being that risk capital is unfamiliar with the field.
  • The second being that all farmers face an oligopoly for every lever they need to pull to be more profitable – everything from seeds and fertilizer to marketing to merchants.

The idea behind FBN is to empower farmers with network data to facilitate knowledge and commerce. It crowdsources and shares data to increase purchasing power. Considering the fact that data helps to produce more with less input, it is yet another example of democratization of an industry.

Investment is always a topic of discussion, and one panel made the bold declaration that startups should not be skittish, but rather, picky! “Not all money is good money,” said Danny Kennedy from California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF). He urged entrepreneurs not to settle for Tier 2 funds if Tier 1 comes with connections and clout.

Although the 2016 chapter of cleantech acceleration has recently come to an end, applications are already being accepted for the 2017 cohort. The official deadline is May 1, but an early admission means more time for mentorship, networking, and education.