Small Business

The Current Wisdom


By Karen E. Klein Q: I am looking for a partner in alternative-energy equipment-development funding, specifically for a new concept of ocean wave-energy converter. Could you advise me?

---- W.J., Brazil

A: With power scarcity and energy prices on the front edge of this year's economic worries in the U.S., your proposal may present investors with an attractive and timely prospect. Developing alternative-energy equipment, however, is typically a long process requiring a large investment in research and development.

Given this history, and the fact that funding is simply more difficult in today's business environment, your search for financing may be tough. Uncommon requests involving a high risk factor are particularly hard to fulfill right now, says Bill DeKruif, an international-business expert with NetCel360.com. "Query government agencies that fund these [R&D] efforts and check with the major energy players, such as Enron (www.enron.com), that are leading change agents in the energy world," he advises.

Meanwhile, many technology ventures have difficulty identifying the best partners to propel their ventures to the next level, so don't give up easily. Technology startups typically focus on developing innovative products and methodologies, and what they need most of all is strategic advice to protect and launch these well-nurtured, but often underfunded, projects. Experts say the ideal partners for an engineer who has developed a new technology are senior-level professionals who can leverage their sales and marketing expertise -- and more importantly, their capital resources and established partnerships -- to test and launch the innovative product.

ATTRACTING PARTNERS. Academic institutions are often the launching pad for alternative-technology ventures, says Sarah Weldon, an international business development expert at GrowThink.com. Contact the technology-transfer departments at California Institute of Technology (www.caltech.edu), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (www.mit.edu), and the University of California, San Diego's CONNECT Program (www.ucsd.edu), Weldon suggests, adding: "They have well-established ties with venture firms and individual investors who seek to fund promising ventures."

Sometimes, entrepreneurs with promising technologies entice corporate partners who want to incorporate the new technology into their product suite and will fund beta testing and market-launch expenses in exchange for equity.

"Intel, Motorola, and Sun are examples of firms constantly seeking unique technology solutions and often partner with VCs who are specialized in industry-specific ventures, such as fiber optics or wireless," Weldon says. Although many VCs are reluctant these days to fund startups with no revenue, the smart ones will be willing to consider truly original approaches to huge market needs. Your idea may just fulfill that potential -- before the lights go out. Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at smartanswers@businessweek.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.


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