Clean Tech Q&A: Reuters’ Eric Auchard
I recently sat down with veteran Silicon Valley journalist Eric Auchard for his observations on the intersection of technology and energy industry reporting. Eric is the chief technology correspondent at Reuters. When he’s not covering industry giants like Google, eBay, Yahoo! and Apple, he’s following the venture capital industry and covering disruptive and emerging technologies and companies. How does clean tech fit in? It’s disruptive, emerging and flowing with new venture dollars.
Eric’s observations reinforced the reason behind starting this blog. Whatever you want to call clean tech, it is, as he puts it, “a category that blurs the boundaries between industries and is hard for the media to define exactly.” The industry needs to be covered from all corners: regulatory, energy and tech. The same way that many clean tech industry executives and PR people don’t have expertise in all of these areas, neither do many reporters. And that’s what makes this exciting.
Swain: What’s caught your attention with clean tech?
Auchard: Traditional computer and tech investors are embracing energy as a subject; they’re applying the same business logic and application of ideas that they used to build the tech industry. So many people have a play in this and they are coming at it from all sides – energy, environment, tech, etc. “Clean tech” to many reporters is euphemistic sounding. It should be called energy and environmental technologies, or renewable energy for short.
What’s your first experience to clean tech and sustainability issues?
Twenty-five years ago the one science course I took at college at Berkeley was with Dr. Arthur Rosenfeld, who is now a guru for many in the ‘clean-tech’ movement. Even then he was talking about the intersection of science, economics and conservation.
That’s interesting; is clean tech becoming more like computer tech?
Silicon Valley could be seen as shoehorning clean tech into Silicon Valley business models rather than following the more science-based route. This begs the questions of which is the right way.
What are you hearing in the field?
One of the biggest challenges for clean tech startups is finding top management teams. People from the computer field are finding their way into industry. In the past there were a lot of scientists and ideas but the energy industry needed the startup culture and constant innovation inherent in tech. This is what’s changing under the radar: veteran tech managers and a startup culture are coming together.
What are some of the more promising things you’re seeing?
I’m hearing more about the prospect of increased alternative energy IPOs in 2008. VCs are actually starting to talk about getting their money back. A lot of portfolio companies that we’ve yet to hear about are more like science projects. Ambitious things are happening. And there’s a lot of energy and a crazy willingness to try things that have been missing from the industry previously. This is a good sign that there is more to come. It’s a good old fashioned brawl involving lots of industries, lots of powerful people, and some big problems. This isn’t a place just for do-gooders. For a reporter, it’s hard not to love such stories.
How does this compare with the coverage of the computer industry?
There are different challenges bringing tech into the energy industry, such as a bureaucratic vs. entrepreneurial mindset. Also, there are no anti-trust degrees barring oil companies and oil producing countries from driving prices down to undermine alternative technologies. Big oil could be compared to how telecom used to be viewed in Silicon Valley. I remember how disparaging Intel’s Andy Grove used to be about the telecom industry. The tension with oil companies feels similar.
As a PR person, it’s hard to find the right contact for a clean tech story; any suggestions?
Energy reporters are used to covering things in certain ways and they’re still adjusting to the way Silicon Valley companies use PR. Bringing tech ideas to market is still uncomfortable for a lot of people who have been covering the energy industry. PR needs to help journalists find analysts and independent experts to put a clean tech story in perspective. Environmental and energy issues are highly local, regulated and concentrated. At the same time that tech reporters aren’t used to this, energy reporters aren’t used to the level of invention that have characterized the computer industry.
You meet with a lot of VCs; what are you hearing?
Almost all VCs are talking about this space. But a few are taking a more integrated approach. Some are conceiving the whole industrial food chain and are solving specific problems within the chain.
What should the clean tech community know about Reuters?
A big enough story has the potential to reach more than one billion people around the world. Reuters’ content is picked up on TV by the likes of CNN, CNBC, ABC and NBC, and by almost all major newspapers and radio stations. Reuters has a variety of energy reporters around the country. We have also developed an Environment reporting team that is staffed with journalists around the world. If your story is somewhere in between energy and tech and you don’t know who to go to, I can help direct you to the most logical reporter.
Suggestions on how to best work with you?
The best times to reach me are during non-peak hours, 10am-noon and after 3pm PT. Pitch stories that have an international element or some major challenge to the industry when possible; “me too” stories don’t work – need to have real news; and measure change, show importance and find disagreements/conflict. An interesting clean tech story is a disruptive solution that has potential to scale – it can work in Africa and North America at the same time. Show the mainstream implication of what you’re pitching. Extra credit for pronouncing Reuters and my last name correctly.