“Cleantech cluster” is not the most innovative term, and even the people who have made careers out of it don’t particularly care for it. But as buzzwords go, this one is starting to catch fire.

A panel of experts from across the US came together to discuss “cleantech clusters” on Monday at SXSWEco in Austin, Texas. A cluster in this context refers to all of the institutional and cultural assets in a geographic region that are working in a market vertical. A cleantech cluster, then, is the integration of local governments, private companies, and public and academic institutions, to come together to make strides in renewable energy and sustainable technology.

Of course, every region, city, and community is different. Some have larger hurdles to jump than others. Each new cleantech cluster can learn from other communities, both national and international.

Here are seven big takeaways that the panel of clean technology and economic development experts had for organizations, cities, companies, or individuals looking to get involved — or start their own — cleantech cluster:

1. Understand the industries you’re working with

Lee Anne Nance is the Executive Vice President at the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP) in North Carolina and serves as the Managing Director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster. When she wanted to start the cluster, she took leaders from the industries that she wanted involved to a day-long retreat and asked them two main questions:

  1. What are the opportunities you have best leveraged in a collaborative model?
  2. What keeps you up at night? What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?

It created a dialogue that made sure her cluster would look at how to serve companies in a way that met their needs, rather than telling them what to do.

2. Public/private partnerships

Building relationships between the public and private sectors is critical to creating a cleantech cluster. In the Research Triangle, for example, the universities are central. Without them, the cluster would not exist, Nance said. Innovation labs and smart grids that are collaborative are some of the most important aspects of these universities. Startups are a huge fuel for the cluster, and many have come out of community colleges as well.

Another important partnership is with utility companies. Utilities are rarely thought of as smart or innovative, but they are clearly key to cleantech advancement. The relationship with utilities is critical to success, particularly their ability to deploy and utilize the smart grid, EVs, solar energy, and local charging stations.

Knowing what partnerships are on the table and which companies can bring what to whom, is key, according to Jason Anderson, president of CleanTECH San Diego. The city has one of the leading cleantech clusters in the nation, and is continually making progress with renewable energy projects in the region. Growing these relationships is a responsibility of the facilitator — be it an accelerator, startup space, or cleantech organization — that organizes the cluster, and it is important to maintain so the relationships can be sustainable.

“It’s a lot of policy related work, business-related work, forming partnerships and moving technologies into place,” Anderson said.

3. Big data

Harnessing big data is one of the first steps to build a cleantech cluster. The data may be governmental, private company information, or global statistics, but understanding where it all comes from is how to effectively create solutions. Gathering and analyzing big data leads to ideas for hackathons, startups, engineering projects, and eventually, tangible change for a region.

4. Regional strengths

There’s only one California, and we know it is succeeding in clean energy. No other region of the country has those assets, so finding your own region’s strengths is a vital part of this process. For instance, Jeremy Adelman, who founded Energy Foundry in Chicago, looked at the Illinois landscapes — geographical, technological, and economic — before starting an incubator and cleantech workspace. The team knew Chicago was a hotbed of engineers, with a huge concentration of Fortune 500 companies. He capitalized on the smart grid opportunity that utilities in the area wanted to become involved with, and brought together these various industries.

“There’s a lot of activity [in Chicago] but it’s very fragmented. It’s versatile — trading, biotech, a lot of different things [that are] part of the sustainability model to continue to keep cluster management growing,” Adelman said.

5. Government policies

Driving effective policy may or may not come from the federal government. Congress isn’t known for getting much legislation passed. It comes down to the state, which then comes to city, creating a domino effect — and that’s why many experts have decided to work on these local clusters.

“California is always leading the pack in this and I hope other states follow. We hope as we prove these regulations and policies are a critical factor in the market they will be adopted by other states,” Anderson said.

6. Big bets

The best technological innovations and opportunities come out of big risks, and the panel agreed that the clean energy industry is always betting big. Convincing the general public to get on board with the idea is hard enough in itself. There’s always a lack of funding in this sector, and there’s always noise to push past to get these ideas through, said Mitch Jacobson of Austin Technology Incubator.

7. Education and workforce development

Several of the panel members cited public events and forums around cap and trade and energy efficiency as typical events they host to educate the general public. The problem is, most of the people that attend are already believers. They have to maintain a balance of promoting economic benefits and environmental benefits — particularly in conservative areas.

Workforce development is difficult because companies in extremely innovative biotech or cleantech companies have a difficult time filling roles. Building internships and initiatives by training people based on the needs of institutions rather than guessing what will happen in the future.

“All of us to some degree are ambassadors to this cause, from environmental or economic perspective,” Anderson said. “It’s not just a tree hugger movement anymore, and it never should have been.”

Also see: