How a community can create a successful cleantech cluster

At SXSW Eco in Austin, a panel of experts discussed how to build and sustain a cleantech cluster of public and private partnerships to progress renewable energy. "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. 

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.

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Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster
Lee Anne Nance

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