Travis and I recently co-sponsored with Webcor Builders “THE EXECUTIVE FORUM ON THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Driving Sustainability Through Innovation,” which was held on March 3rd in San Francisco, CA. Importantly, this event was not just a “me too” cleantech conference with the usual suspects (e.g. solar, wind, biofuel companies) and 300+ in attendance. I can’t emphasize this enough. The event, the first of its kind, represented a unique high-level executive forum, limited to 60 thought leaders who are all at the forefront of driving innovation in green building.
Key presenters at the executive forum included:
Andy Ball, President & CEO of Webcor Builders, Travis Putnam, Managing Partner of Navitas Capital, John Cushman, Chairman of Cushman & Wakefield & Co-Chairman of iCrete, Bill Witte, President of Related of California , Susie See, Managing Director of WSP Flack + Kurtz , Clark Manus, CEO of Heller, Manus Architects, and Kevin Surace, President & CEO of Serious Materials.
In addition, I got a few words in up at the podium too.
One of the highlights of the afternoon for me was the Keynote address given by Tom Siebel– founder of Siebel Systems and Chairman of First Virtual Group. Tom shared with an attentive audience many of his current high-level views — looking ahead from 2010 to 2030, which he expects will be significantly impacted by (among other things): (1) increased government regulation, (2) exponential population growth, and (3) energy scarcity. One of his mantras is that “ET (Energy Technology) is the next IT.” So… why is Tom Siebel interested in participating at a forum co-hosted by Navitas Capital on green building? Answer: Tom is in the process of launching (with the support of the Siebel foundation) a very interesting $20 million “Energy Free Home Challenge,” leveraging innovation and resources from university teams, corporations, scientists, entrepreneurs, builders and developers worldwide. The goal of the contest is to find more innovative ways to build comfortable houses (in scale) that consume net zero energy at a comparable price / sq ft. Many of the attendees at the forum are looking for the same innovation — at both the residential and the commercial level.
Key observation: On one level, the diversity of the speakers on the agenda speaks to what is clearly a new era in the building industry. That is, who would have thought three years ago that Tom Siebel (IT titan), Andy Ball (next-generation green builder), John Cushman (old school real estate icon) and Travis Putnam (emerging venture capitalist) would be intersecting together at a forum on green building innovation. Answer: certainly not me!
The interactive portion of the event (a casual round table discussion) was deftly moderated by Phil Williams – VP of Sustainability at Webcor Builders and an advisor to Navitas Capital. What struck me about this portion of the event is that everybody in the room seem very engaged – with limited B&B breaks (bathroom & blackberry).
It was my pleasure representing Navitas Capital in the discussion, around so many brands and thought leaders in the building sector. Along this line, leading developers, owners, architects, engineers and advanced building materials companies were in attendance and shared their experiences and insights about evaluating, planning and implementing new green building practices in this difficult economic climate.
Navitas Capital Investment Thesis: As an investor dedicated to this emerging sector, we believe that it’s at this point in the economic and real estate cycle where there is the greatest opportunity to invest in green building technology…with an eye towards the future. Looking out 2, 3, 4 years from now – we believe that many of these Green Building start-ups are poised to be the “category killers” of the future.
An evening cocktail reception, conveniently located within the Intercontinental Hotel (note: built by Webcor early last year), provided a networking opportunity for everyone in attendance. It also gave attendees a chance to visit with several exciting green building start ups and discuss their products without having to dash off to the “next” session(s), characterized by a typical cleantech conference. Featured companies during the technology showcase included:
• Serious Materials: a pioneer in advanced green building — develops sustainable green building materials, including: EcoRock™ (an eco-friendly alternative to conventional drywall), Serious Windows (high-performance insulated windows & glass) and QuietRock™ (soundproof drywall).
• Integrity Block: a manufacturer of sustainable building materials — develops an innovative green replacement for standard concrete (CMU) block. Integrity Block, which incorporates “modernized” earthen construction, requires 40% less energy to manufacture, resulting in a reduced carbon footprint.
• Lumiette: a next generation lighting story – develops & manufactures high performance flat panel lighting (FPL) technology for the $88 billion general lighting market. Lumiette’s technology provides a low profile, energy efficient, and readily dimmable lighting solution for a variety of applications.
Beyond Webcor, Navitas Capital and the three companies represented at the technology showcase, the event also included high-level executives from many of the premier “West Coast” brands in the building sector, including: The Related Companies, Tishman Speyer Properties, Boston Properties, Sares-Regis Group, Cushman & Wakefield, Pacific Capital Group, Simon Equity Partners, Gensler, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, Heller, Manus Architects, Hart / Howerton, John Picard & Associates, WSP Flack + Kurtz, Allen Matkins and iCrete (Adam Winnick, Managing Director of Pacific Capital Group).
Conference Takeaways / Observations: Following are several of the key takeaways that I picked up over the day from the attendees at the forum (note: a few during the interactive sessions and a few over dinner & a glass of wine):
1. Assessing the behavioral adoption risk of the channel (e.g. does a new product feel the same as an existing solution? Install the same? Does the product weigh the same?) is as important as price and performance, when considering a new building material or innovation.
2. Process efficiency is as important as technology innovation when discussing green building practices. “Good processes are essential” was a point made repeatedly by Webcor and many of the attendees.
3. If you’re not measuring & benchmarking (e.g. energy, carbon footprint) at the facilities management / CFO level(s), you’re not getting it. There is a large and growing need for software tools that measure, evaluate and monitor energy use, water use and building efficiency.
4. All key stakeholders count…at all levels of an effective (and integrated) design build process.
5. It doesn’t have to cost more to be green/efficient.
6. Public policy is beginning to reflect the importance of efficiency in the built environment and will continue to drive building practices in this direction. More research and statistics are emerging about the positive ROIs and immediate paybacks of investing in green building technologies (McKenzie & Co study).
7. “For every new building to construct, there are 100 buildings to retrofit.” Accordingly, most compelling new innovations should include a retrofitting theme.
8. Exciting opportunities exist to both import and export best practices in green building (e.g. Middle East, Asia, Europe).
9. Even small changes in behavior can have a big impact. One of the most rudimentary examples of this was the example of organizations utilizing their janitorial services more efficiently during the day vs. the evening.
10. Education is a key requirement of acceptance & success for all stakeholders in the building industry, as well as the general public.
11. We have to challenge conventional wisdom today before we see innovation tomorrow. Along this line, collaboration between owner, architect, builder, operator and technology start ups will help balance the risk and mitigate the liability of new building innovation.
Concluding thoughts: On behalf of Navitas Capital, I want to thank Andy Ball, Phil Williams, Megan White and the entire team at Webcor for helping put together a great event. In addition, Navitas Capital would like to thank Peter Cushman, VP of Development for Bancroft Capital and an advisor to Navitas Capital, for his significant contributions in organizing the agenda. We look forward to the next green building forum and based on the feedback, it should represent a very hot ticket – ha!
Travis and I have been fortunate enough to work with Webcor as a strategic partner for close to a year now. For my money, Webcor is unique among other GCs in terms of their dedication to building innovation. With that in mind, Navitas Capital is very committed to building a platform of partners to help source, evaluate and advance new innovative tools and technologies. Our strategic partnership with Webcor Builders is a good example of how we differentiate our approach from other VCs.
In addition, we just signed a MOU this week with a top design firm, represented at the executive forum. We are very excited by these strategic partnerships. Our objective going forward is to create the preeminent industry network for underwriting investments in the green building sector, leveraging the input and experience of leading builders, designers, developers and scientists.
About Navitas Capital
Navitas Capital is an early-stage venture capital firm within the cleantech sector. Navitas Capital’s investment focus is unique among VCs — dedicated to working with companies that are developing sustainable green building materials and innovative technologies for the built environment. Founded in 2008, Navitas has been one of the early and driving forces behind several of the leading green building companies. Navitas Capital is based in Berkeley, California. For more information, visit www.navitascap.com.