A trip to the Spanish city of Bilbao visiting the large annual European event of specialist media company Cleantech Group revealed the extent to which corporate venturing executives are holding a valiant rearguard action to prop up a sector which has been ravaged by ill fortune and over-exuberance. 

The well-attended conference, where delegates filled the city’s enormous dining room of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao, suggests many continue to still believe clean tech is a fruitful area of investment.  The attendees animated each other with talk of being true -believers. 

The conference’s organiser, Richard Youngman, Cleantech Group’s managing director Europe and Asia, in an editorial, referred to how the sector had been abandoned by “boom wranglers”, a phrase coined by novelist Po Bronson, to describe those chasing “the new, new thing” in the dot.com era. He stressed that the contrarians in attendance should stay the course.

More and more participants in the industry are arguing that corporates will be the key to see struggling start-ups through to the finish line. For instance, on Friday Canada-based Cenovus Energy’s Mark Blackwell wrote this article with reference to a CleanTech Group statistic, that corporates now made up more than 20% of the sector. 

Readers of this publication should be pleased to see that corporates are some of the last men in the room.  Surely the best cleantech companies are likely to become very large, and a sector, which has seen many financial investors pull back, is sure to have attractive valuations. If corporates can take big positions in the best companies and there is a shift in sentiment to cleantech, corporate venturing units, could bury the stigma attached to corporates investing in start-ups by some in the independent venture world, as it is easy to imagine returns from the current vintage of clean-tech investments will be impressive.

There are also good opportunities to pick up talented teams. For instance, CleanTech Group gave a prize to Kinrot Ventures’ Assaf Barnea, who sold the Israel-based water sector incubator, to corporate Hutchinson last year. Barnea said he was: “Very proud [of the sale], after searching for capital for almost a year and a half.”

One delegate even went as to argue that much of the negative talk surrounding clean-tech was unfair. He conceded clean-tech had been hit by write-offs at mature companies such as the formerly Nasdaq-listed battery A123 Systems, but went on to point to how Facebook’s initial public offering, which at press time was trading roughly at two thirds of its flotation price, had led to far bigger losses for public market shareholders. It is fair to say the social media industry is not presently mired in negativity.

No doubt many working in clean tech will face a difficult few years. Yet I came away from the Bilbao conference more convinced than ever that those with the persistence to ride through the tough times will be handsomely rewarded. Fortunately for our readership, a sizeable proportion of those who could win big are corporations.