The Debrief: Dave Hamilton, clean energy guy

CEBIP Chief Dave Hamilton: Low oil prices are no help for clean energy entrepreneurs.

October will mark four years at Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program for Dave Hamilton, who in July moved up to executive director after three years as head of CEBIP’s business development. A former commercial account manager at Island Park’s EmPower Solar, among several other energy-related gigs, Hamilton packs a BS in electrical and computer engineering from Clarkson University and an MBA in marketing from Hofstra University, plus a from-the-trenches view of regional energy and commercialization issues. In his words:

JOB DESCRIPTION: I like the word “facilitator.” Basically, my job is to get my clients in front of the right people and get them the services they need to become successful. I’m not the brilliant guy who changes all of their business plans; I’m the facilitator who finds the right people and gets them where they need to go.

THE STORY SO FAR: We started this thing from scratch, so I’m very proud of it. Where the program stands, everything we offer, all the services we bring and how the entire thing is being run – it’s been very well done.

IT’S THEIR WORLD: I’m very, very proud of our clients. Our client base is exceptional. We’re working with an outstanding group of entrepreneurs and technologies.

LESSONS LEARNED: It is incredibly hard to start a technology business. In my past lives, I worked for multiple startup companies. Some failed, some were successful, but either way, when you’re working there, you don’t always see the forest for the trees. Looking at it from where I am now, working with all these entrepreneurs, I’ve learned how time-consuming it is for these people to do what they do.

PARALLELS: Steve Jobs started in his garage, just like (ThermoLift CEO) Paul Schwartz started in his basment. It’s amazing what Jobs was able to build, and he started from the same place a lot of our guys have started.

RISK FACTOR: I’m pleased with the private funding that some of our clients have received. Do I wish it was more? Yes. I think the amount of private investment, especially in clean energy, is not where it should be. It’s high-risk stuff. I would like it to be more, because I know some of my clients can be very successful if they can just get that first couple hundred thousand dollars. I would like to say more capital is coming, but I’m not sure it will.

OIL FOIL: The cost of oil is going down, and when oil goes down, renewables don’t look as good economically. Investors invest to get a return, and it’s harder to get a return in a market such as this – which is why, back in Jimmy Carter’s day with all the gas shortages, it was solar, solar, solar. As soon as the gas crisis was over, all research into solar stopped. I don’t think research into alternative clean energies is going to stop, but I also don’t think investments in clean energy are suddenly going to surge. Investors don’t invest because it’s good for the world.

FRESH BLOOD: Recruitment is going OK. It’s not as robust as everyone would like it to be. But clean energy projects take a long time to go from the lab to the point where people think they can be commercialized. It’s daunting. We talk to a lot of people at Brookhaven National Lab and a lot of outside entrepreneurs. There are multiple potential clients waiting to come in, people we’d like to bring in.

BIGGEST FEAR NO. 1: My biggest fear (about the innovation economy) is that private funding never gets to the point it needs to be at to really drive the economy, and Long Island’s inherent nature to be a silo-driven, NIMBY, not-always-conducive-to-change-and-innovation region will win out in the end.

BIGGEST FEAR NO. 2: I have many small companies that want to hire people. Will young people come work for them and live on Long Island, and deal with the bureaucracy and cost of living and the different school districts and all the other crap?

BIGGEST HOPE: That my biggest fears are wrong.

Interview by GREGORY ZELLER