Brian Arbogast cut his teeth in the software business, spending more than two decades at Microsoft.
But now the former software exec has something much bigger on his plate: Helping to save the planet. A board member at the Northwest Energy Angels, Arbogast is among the leading clean tech angel investors in the region.
Once the darling of the venture capital set, clean tech has fallen on tough times with some well-documented and high-profile investment disasters in the past couple of years. (The blow up at solar panel maker Solyndra even became a key debating point in the presidential race).
But even with some of those setbacks, Arbogast sees plenty of opportunity on the horizon. Today, for example, he’s leading a $2.4 million round in a Washington D.C.-based company by the name of Ethical Electric that’s attempting to give consumers a choice to buy power from renewable sources such as wind and solar. That’s among about 20 investments that Arbogast had made through the Northwest Energy Angels.
“The average software investment doesn’t excite me even remotely as much as the average clean tech deal,” says Arbogast. “This has the opportunity to change the world for the better, significantly. It is not just another social networking whatever, or another way to get a little more IQ around how good is your online marketing. Those can help businesses, but they don’t change the world.”
We caught up with Arbogast at the Northwest Energy Angels holiday showcase Thursday night, held in Amazon.com’s backyard at the Portage Bay Cafe in South Lake Union. Here’s more from our chat:
Where does clean tech investing stand right now? “At a meta level, like in Silicon Valley, there were a lot of people who didn’t know anything about it jumped in. They felt like they got burned with biofuels or solar, and then they ran away. The folks who are actually clean energy and clean tech investors are plugging away and making progress. What we really need to see are some exits, but we are getting to the point where in the next three years, we should start to see some of the bets we’ve made pay off. That’s the timing. I am bullish.”
Why are you interested in clean tech after your years in software? “Basically, I was interested in how can I spend my time and money on things that will have the most positive impact on the world. And clean tech is that. I mean the innovations in this space have the potential to really change the trajectory we are on, and it either leads to a lot of hardship and suffering, or leads to a lot of new kind of prosperity and much more sustainability economy. I love being with all of these folks, the entrepreneurs who are basically inventing the future. We are bringing money, and maybe some spark and networks and experience to help kind of accelerate that. In the tech space, I think it is far and away the most impactful thing I could do.”
Why have many investors decided to pull out of clean tech? “I think what happened is you had (venture capitalists) John Doerr and (Vinod) Khosla in the Bay Area who were very highly regarded from the tech world, they jumped into clean in a big way, so all of these other software folks said: ‘I guess that’s the next big thing.’ They didn’t really know what they were doing. All of a sudden, you have a lot of battery companies, a lot of biofuel companies, a lot of solar companies getting invested in, and not all of them are going to pan out. So, you had a lot of people who were not that savvy about it, and then they just retreated. Doerr is still in it. Khosla is still in it. All of us who care about clean tech and are a bit more savvy about it, are still in it and are seriously bullish about it.”
What’s Ethical Electric all about? “Ethical Electrical has a value proposition where we say: You can buy 100 percent clean electricity. It is all either solar or wind power. Part of the excitement is about driving demand…. And those prices are coming down, and so this is going to be a better and better proposition for customers. What is amazing today is that it is already cost competitive with the incumbent, and nobody knows that. So, there is a greenfield here because we feel that a lot of people would much rather spend that money every month with green electricity, and feel good about it, than with brown electricity. There will be a lot of brand focus around Ethical Electric being the green electricity provider.”
On the potential impact of Ethical Electric: “It could change the trajectory of how fast do we get to green electricity, which means how fast do we reduce our carbon emissions, which means how fast do we get our heads around reducing the issues around global warming. So, it is very mega benefits.”