The inevitable collision between the scientific and public world

14 03 2010

Cover of the latest UNEP report

The scientific community prides itself in its ability to distinguish good from junk science thanks to a thorough and objective peer-review process. While this process has proved successful to foster scientific progress, it has been recently put to test when scientific issues became entangled with public policy debates. From the toxicity of chemicals like aspartame or tobacco in the 1980’s to the recent Climate Gate, more and more scientists get dragged into the public arena where brilliant or simply demagogic rhetoric trumps long and complex discussions about statistical significance. Scientists are ill-equipped to provide opinions when they are in reality accustomed to discuss about facts. As a result, you end in situations like Climate Change where both scientists and public leaders get frustrated at each other, leaving the door open for private and other interests to shape the debate in their favor.

A couple of months ago, MIT organized a conference with Richard Lindzen and other professors from the institution. Richard Lindzen is the A. P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT and one of the most famous voices against the climate change consensus. He is widely quoted in the conservative reports denying the existence of climate change. However, when one carefully listens to him, it becomes obvious that he does not deny the existence of man-induced climate change. He just argues that the data proving a anthropogenic climate change is not conclusive for lack of statistical significance. In a nutshell, he does not deny nor confirm climate change; he is indecise. During the same conference, Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, strongly argued against Pr. Lindzen but finally acknowledged that the only difference between them relied on their different appreciation of the risk. Prinn summarized it well when he said: “My judgement of statistical significance for anthropogenic warming is very much dependent on my belief/fear that we don’t have another planet to go to.” Both were looking at the same data but saw different thing. Read the rest of this entry »

A new model for technology innovation: “Search and Development”

7 02 2010


Cleantech is on its way to potentially become the next transformative wave of innovation. As often, anticipating what the future will hold is about understanding how the past unraveled. Indeed, there is much to learn both in terms of investors’ mental models and potential analogies from past waves like the Internet and Biotech.

The emergence of Information technologies marked the triumph of the VC-backed model. The business and mainstream media helped build the myth of the geeky tech entrepreneur and the all-powerful venture capitalist. The lesson we all learned was that an idea could quickly move from concept to a reality – potentially unleashing millions of dollars while doing so. Of course in the process, numerous shaky business plans were funded; people saw value where there was just wind. Yet, tech entrepreneur/VC tandem survived the bubble and still embodies in our subconscious the perfect combination to generate technology innovation.

As a consequence, people still believe that this is the model to go for the next technology innovation. That is why, you see cleantech entrepreneurs and VC striving to walk the cleantech “revolution” along the same path i.e. funding, IPO, etc. However, savvy investors and business pundits raise some valid concerns as to the validity of the analogy. The beauty of the IT revolution was, and still is, that the development costs to reach scale are very limited. On the contrary, most of the cleantech requires longer development lead time and thus funding up to 10 times what was necessary for the proof of concept in the IT world. How many firms can realistically raise 100 million of dollars through the VC world to develop a conclusive prototype? The analogy falls short and begs for another point of reference. Read the rest of this entry »

Car Wars: The return of the Electric Vehicle

2 02 2010

Better Place Car (Renault) - Source:

While covering the 2010 EDTA Conference in Washington on electric vehicles for Clean Horizon Consulting, I learned that the first cars were actually electric vehicles. It is only under Thomas Edison’s advice that Ford chose to develop a model around a combustion engine. Edison knew that in terms of energy storage, it is hard to be more efficient than fossil fuels. Then, the technology struck back in the aftermath of the 1973 and 1979 oil crises. This eventually led to some product developments – for those who remember the infamous GM EV1. At that time, electric vehicles with its multiple drawbacks (range constraints, time to charge, lack of infrastructure, etc.) could not threaten the more flexible and established technology that was the combustion engine. Can the story be any different this time?

During the conference, even the most adamant electric vehicle (EV) evangelist knew that mass adoption of EVs will come down to one thing only: customer experience. Early adoption is never an issue especially for a technology that can appeal to both geeks and environmentalists. The real trick though is to secure mass adoption. This is actually where the technology failed in the past. You have to provide the average consumer with at least an on-par experience compared to what she is used to getting with her current car. This is all the more challenging that a seamless customer experience requires the emergence of an ecosystem linking a nebula of actors. If you wake-up at 7AM to get to this important meeting and your car is not  charged up, who should you call? The car manufacturer? the utility? the charging station manufacturer? All of them? For those of you who tried to get a Google Nexus while conserving your current T-Mobile account, you know that seamless interactions between companies’ customer services rarely self-emerge.

While the industry is still fighting to define standards, a self-emerging ecosystem seems like an utopia. As a consequence, EV will struggle through the next decade, slowly grabbing market share but growing slower than some could have expected. However, we should be aware of two important wild cards: Better Place and Smith. Read the rest of this entry »

The future of fuels – Oil

15 01 2010

Last drops of oil?

Peak Oil is The story that comes to mind when thinking about the future of oil. I have had the chance to ask a couple of current and former oil executives about it. They all agree that people mistakenly anticipate a very abrupt phenomenon. Yes, there will be a peak in production; but oil will not disappear one day, when we realize that there is not a drop left in the last barrel. On the contrary, it will slowly fade away. Price and demand will adjust to make the transition easier towards other types of hydrocarbons like gas and biofuels. This will also buy us some time to develop the necessary infrastructure for an electric-based transportation system.

In a nutshell, oil is here to stay and some oil executives like Leonardo Maugeri from ENI even predicts that oil will be around for the next 100 years. A recent article in Business Week supports this assertion with an optimistic and yet, very compelling graphic representation of oil supply (link here). Indeed, there are at least three drivers that can prolong oil’s supply behind what was expected. Read the rest of this entry »

Limits to growth? Beware of the next Malthus

12 01 2010

Source: Wikipedia

It is the perennial question. Are we outgrowing the Earth? Since Mathus’ dark predictions, the issue of Earth carrying capacity has been on and off the public agenda. There is clearly no definite answer as people have painted convincing scenarios for both sides of the question. On the on hand, the gloomy scenario depicts an earth suffocating under a booming population requiring more and more resources to attain new standards of wealth. On the other hand, technology optimists believe that game-changing innovations will enable a wealthier larger population (e.g. nuclear fusion, climate engineering, etc.)

It is typical that issues like these quickly evolve from a scientific “consensus building approach” to a heated advocacy debate. I will come back to this in a number of posts as it is symptomatic of society where science, policy and business worlds have collided. Instead of challenging and building on a work-in-progress theory like in any scientific problem, advocates from both sides monopolize the debate and believe that the truth will emerge from the best rhetoric. The main reason for this evolution resides in the inherent complexity of the issue, which leaves a scientific approach short of closing all the critical uncertainties. As a result, you see “religions” come to light as the debate gets parceled around nays-sayers and doomsayers, between right and wrong. Read the rest of this entry »