Last week, as I was writing about the Zayed Future Energy Prize, I came across an article about Martha Wyrsch. Martha is President of the Americas for Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, this year's winner of the Zayed prize. I made a note of her background and her career path--it followed the same pattern as two others I'd heard of in the last few months: that of Cynthia Warner, President and Chairman of renewable fuel company Sapphire Energy, and Phil Murtaugh, newly appointed CEO of electric vehicle manufacturer CODA Automotive.
What Martha, Cynthia and Phil share is an appetite for very specific take on career risk that wasn't available to executives with their resumés even ten years ago. All three of them come from old school--dirty--industries--Martha from Duke and then Spectra Energy, Cynthia from BP and Phil from GM and Chrysler.
All three had run billion dollar businesses and attained a divisional CEO title or equivalent before moving into their new positions. Martha was President and CEO of Duke Energy Gas Transmission, then Spectra Energy Transmission, Cynthia was Head of Global Refining at BP--she had 11,000 people on five continents reporting to her--and Phil was Chairman and CEO of GM China and then CEO of Chrysler Asia. They had big jobs. And all three chose to move not only to clean businesses, but also to do so by joining companies that are independent of the safety of a large corporate parent--in Cynthia and Phil's cases with products that are not even yet out in the market.
The opportunity for senior corporate executives to jump ship, strike out on new, pioneering paths has existed for a long time in the technology, media, retail, consumer product, even healthcare sectors. But for those in the power, energy and auto industries viable options have been fewer. Either technologies have been too bleeding edge, the sheer scale of capital required to start a new venture has been too substantial, or inertia--general satisfaction with status quo solutions--has limited the scope of attractive alternatives, even for those eager to innovate within those sectors. Starting new brands, new divisions or opening new markets--as Phil did for GM in China--were the primary routes to channeling entrepreneurial spirits.
That's changing. Technologies considered renegade--wind energy, biofuels, battery-powered cars, in these three instances--have evolved over the last twenty years to a point of commercial viability. Technology and manufacturing innovations and creative global partnerships are driving down the scale of capital required to develop production facilities.
And recognition of resource and economic imperatives associated with energy supply realities is breaking through innovation inertia, encouraging the venture community to engage. Sapphire and CODA both have blue chip venture funding, including ARCH Venture Partners, Wellcome Trust, Venrock and Cascade (Bill Gates' investment fund) in the case of Sapphire. Harbinger Capital and Riverstone Holdings are just two of the newest, in the case of CODA. (Vestas is an established company in Europe, where wind has long been a source of power. Its North American operations are funded out of Denmark.)
For a certain kind of executive--one with deep reserves of vision, passion, conviction and self-confidence--independent, next-generation companies like Vestas, Sapphire and CODA offer a chance to apply valuable 20th Century skill sets against significant 21st Century challenges--and the potential satisfaction of creating revolutionary solutions to those challenges.
Some might say it's a chance at redemption. Or, less controversially, a clean start--a chance to inject fresh, creative energy, risk and reward into a career amply stocked with achievement. That exceptional executives from old school industries are embracing new school opportunities with the same enthusiasm their peers in other sectors have before them bodes well for the innovation economy.
Martha Wyrsch will be appearing in New York on a panel on wind energy during the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, April 4-7. Phil Murtaugh confirmed earlier this week--from China, where he was meeting with CODA partners--that the company expects to beginning selling its cars in the second half of this year. And you can see Cynthia Warner discuss Sapphire's product--green crude--below--it's exciting.
On Wednesday this week Sapphire was named one of the Wall Street Journal'sTop Ten Clean Tech Companies. Coincidentally, Martha Wyrsch, Cynthia Warner and Steven "Mac" Heller, Chairman of CODA, were all participating in the Journal's ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara, CA, where the prize was announced.
If you are interested in clean energy issues, Intelligence Squared hosts a debate on the topic on Tuesday, March 8th at the Skirball Center in New York.
Photo: Thomas Boyd