Cleantech Startups 101 – Beth Loughney, EIR at Foresight

Cleantech Startups 101 – Beth Loughney, EIR at Foresight

As part of our ongoing “Cleantech Startups 101” blog series, this week we interview Beth Loughney, Founder and Executive Director of Zorroa and a Foresight Executive In Residence (EIR).

What’s your background and how did you become involved with Foresight?
I have a Silicon Valley background, and my view is that the journey associated with getting a software or a cleantech product to market is the same journey. Founders have the same problems, like falling in love with their technology. My job as as EIR is to get my clients to understand what their idea *could* going to grow into, and to help them develop a framework and the infrastructure around so it can grow into the best, most successful organization it can be.

Is there a difference between U.S. and Canadian entrepreneurs?
It’s a generalization, but Canadian entrepreneurs tend to be too apologetic for their greatness – they sometimes fall into the trap of being too self-effacing, which can prevent them from going as far as they can. American entrepreneurs don’t apologize for much. I think there’s a happy medium between self-effacement and self-aggrandizement.

What are the most common challenges faced by cleantech entrepreneurs in Canada?
We have a great environment for start-up growth, but we also need an environment that supports *organizational* growth here in Canada. Finding enough high-quality, mid-level management and mid-career technical expertise to help grow these companies is a huge challenge. When you’re only building companies until they’re big enough to be acquired, those quality career opportunities aren’t really available. It means we won’t have experienced people, like I was, who decide to start companies once they have lots of gray hair and scar tissue, which lends a whole other level gravitas to a start up. That, and we don’t want our best and brightest to have to move to the U.S.

What are the greatest opportunities?
If you’re solving real business problems for your clients and you happen to be doing it in a smarter, more efficient, less expensive way — that’s cleantech. It’s a great place to be because our entire economy is facing a major shift — and we’re living it right now with the fall in oil prices simultaneous with the Paris Climate Agreement. All the ways in which we power our physical processes and manufacture products are going to have to be re-engineered in order for us to sustain our way of life. It’s an enormous opportunity.

What do you see as the success factors for being an effective cleantech entrepreneur?
Chutzpah, you need to understand what the market needs, and you need to be able to speak to multiple constituencies (government, investors, partners, employees) successfully. The capacity to communicate is essential. You also need to understand the big picture and operate at the detail level – the little things will kill you even faster than the big things.

What’s a common mistake that startups make?
They fall in love with their technology but they don’t understand how it meets the needs of their customers. I’m not saying don’t be passionate, but if you fall in too much love with what you’re doing, you lose the capacity to objectively understand what you need to deliver. Most entrepreneurs fail because of this. There is a lot of talk about a minimum viable product, but you have to have a sense of the whole set of needs before you can decide what the minimal set of features is. If you’re in love with the technology instead of the market, you have no idea what you should be building.

If you had one piece of advice you could give to an entrepreneur with a cleantech idea, what would it be?
Go talk to people about it before you start building it, and make sure you see your product from the perspective of buyers and the market. It’s also important to know that being in a start-up company is not for everyone. We’re going through a period where entrepreneurship is being lionized as the pinnacle of business success, but it’s a very hard place to be. It’s a very rare person who starts a company as the CEO and is still the CEO through the IPO, so keep in mind that different people are good at different stages of the growth of a business. If you’re not comfortable as the CEO of a company that has to go get investment, that’s ok — be the operating officer or apply your skillset to building another part of the company once the initial risk has been mitigated.

Any last words of encouragement
Give it a shot! It is really exhilarating…as long as it’s exhilarating, keep doing it.

For more information on Foresight’s EIR program and other services and support it provides to cleantech startups, check out our website