Science Wednesday: “First Date” on New Technologies

About the author: Mary Wigginton is an Environmental Protection Specialist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She recently attended an all-day public meeting of the EPA-Venture Capital Community Summit.

Attending the EPA-Venture Capital Summit last month was a little like watching two people on a first date.  Pleasantries were exchanged and the summit participants on each side of the table – EPA and venture capitalists – explained how they worked. Each side listened politely and then as the day progressed, you could see them becoming more interested and aware of a possible connection that might be worth pursuing.

The venture capitalists illustrated the value of their businesses for the U.S. economy in two charts describing the percentage of gross domestic product and the number of jobs that venture capital contributes.  These charts show that venture capital has contributed approximately 0.02% of total invested dollars, but in 2006 generated $2.3 trillion in revenue and 10.4 million jobs.  While the venture capitalists acknowledged current economic challenges, they continue to look for new opportunities to invest in innovative environmental technologies.

Rob Brenner, from EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, co-hosted the summit.  He started off EPA’s introductions by explaining how technology development has been important for EPA through the years.

“The times when we’ve been able to make progress on environmental protection have been when there’s technology available that we can employ as part of our rulemaking process or as part of our voluntary programs,” he said.  As an example, think back on how regulations and catalytic converters on cars improved our air quality.

Mr. Brenner went on to say that the environmental challenges we’re now facing are as much, or more, technology-dependent than any of the ones we faced in the past.  Because the nation’s infrastructure needs to adapt and change – to climate change, increased energy costs, and continuing pollution issues – we will need many, many new technologies.  But those technologies need to be moved from the development stages to commercialization at a faster rate if they are going to have an impact on these challenges.  The venture capital community could help.

At the end of the summit, both sides had a new appreciation for what the other could do to make a difference in the future.  Though not a real “first date,” the summit was a good start. And perhaps these groups could continue working together with states, other federal agencies, and the international community to implement technology solutions to meet our environmental challenges.