How to Build a Clean Energy Company: Q&A With Graham Lawlor


In the space of product development, it takes a broad team to transform an invention into an accessible product. In the market place you need clear demand, at the governmental level you need support for research and innovation, and in the private sector you need willing partners to invest their time and money in supporting and building not just the product, but a brand.

Graham Lawlor is one of the links between the lab and the market. As the founder of Ultralight Startups, Graham is a frequent speaker, blogger, and press source on topics related to "ultralight startups," bootstrapping, and building online businesses. He has been quoted in publications such as BusinessWeekEntrepreneur Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and BBC News. I sat down with Graham for a conversation on the what, how and why of his business activities.

Q: How did you get interested and involved in renewable/green technology?

A: I've always had a passion for technology innovation and the process that drives new ideas into the marketplace. By extension, the remarkable and interesting things going on in the energy and clean tech sectors fascinate me.

I became directly involved after launching Future Energy, a brand under my first venture Ultra Light Startups. Future Energy is sponsored by Shell and is a series of events that connects entrepreneurs, researchers, corporations and private investors in the energy and clean tech industries to develop and commercialize radical solutions to the world's energy challenges.

Q: What void in the process does your event fill? What is the value added?

A: While there are certainly other investor-pitch events out there, many of these events cater toward more established companies that may have already secured one or two rounds of funding. Future Energy focuses on filling a void for very early-stage companies with potentially game-changing technology. We look for radical ideas that can change the market — not move it up in five percent increments. 

Future Energy is not a funding platform itself (though some startups that pitch have gone on to get funding). Instead, we connect entrepreneurs with corporations and VCs. The value add for the startups is in addition to getting to pitch in front of a panel of corporate and private investors, they receive actionable advice and feedback from each panelists on their technology, business model and presentation. The value add for the panel and strategic partners is they can discover and connect with entrepreneurs that they would normally have never heard of — potentially uncovering something that can ultimately change our energy future.

Q: What are you the most proud of at this time, both organizationally and in terms of projects?

A: Future Energy has been a great success so far, and as an organization, we've made significant inroads into the larger energy and clean tech community. Our partnership with Shell is of course the most significant milestone to date, and through continued networking, we've been able to secure venues at top engineering schools like MIT and Stanford to host upcoming Future Energy events.

In terms of projects, we're both proud and honored to have been invited to host a Future Energy event at this year's recent ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. This was a major project that took a lot of work and planning, but it also put us on stage at the most important energy conference in the country. 

Q: How did the partnership with Shell develop?

A: I founded Ultra Light Startups in 2008 and started a series of startup-investor pitch events in the Internet and web application vertical. After a good run, Shell GameChanger's group approached us and was interested in launching a similar series of events in the energy and clean tech space. I launched Future Energy under the Ultra Light Startups brand, and Shell came on as the platinum sponsor for the event series. 

Q: What are the next steps and what would you like to see happen down the line?

A: In the near term, we'll continue to host our regular Future Energy event series in NYC, Boston and Silicon Valley, with plans to expand to new cities and venues as we scale. Our upcoming events are scheduled for April 4 at MIT, April 24 at Stanford University and June 13 in NYC.

There are a lot of exciting things we're working on to expand the Future Energy platform, but our objective to connect entrepreneurs, researchers, corporations and private investors in the energy and clean tech industries will remain at the heart of everything we do.

We're currently working to flesh out our crowd voting site, which we used to select two companies for the ARPA-E pitch event, into a larger online community and eventually organize and host virtual online events. Another important goal for us is to solidify strategic corporate partnerships through our Corporate Connections Program, which exists to connect corporations with energy and clean tech entrepreneurs.