Interview: Jodi Olson

Jodi Olson is a senior account director in Text 100's San Francisco office and leads its clean tech group, which launched in October.

Jodi Olson is a senior account director in Text 100's San Francisco office and leads its clean tech group, which launched in October.

She has been with Text 100 for six years, but has spent her entire 10-year career in tech PR. She spoke with PRWeek about her firm's clean tech practice and the emergence of the practice area.

PRWeek: Why did Text 100 start the clean tech practice?

Jodi Olson: We've been following the clean tech space for about a year and it's fascinating. It's an area of really enormous global change, tremendous opportunity, and it's all being driven by hot technology, which is really Text 100's sweet spot.

[The year] 2007 is really poised to be a banner year for clean tech, which is why we're starting the practice now. The three factors driving this are environmental pressures, government regulation, and corporate profitability goals. And these three factors are really combining to form a tipping point in clean tech.

PRWeek: Before we talk about next year, can you talk a little bit about the progress areas that clean tech has been involved in so far?

Olson: So you've probably heard a lot about the environmental pressures, things like emerging economies in India and China that are starting to put increased demands on the energy levels. BP, for example, has done studies on oil reserves and they estimate that [they are] going to run out in 40 years. And when you think that a lot of these reserves are in areas with politically volatile climates, it's clear that we have to find a new way to feed demand.

On the government side, you look at things like RoHS [The RoHS Directive regulates - for lead and other hazardous materials - the electronic products that go to European markets] which is the European substance directive. California had a recent agreement to reduce O2 emissions by 2020. There are a lot of states enacting legislation to get utilities to obtain a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources in the next 10 years.

Finally, the ongoing [issue] is corporate profitability goals. Look at companies like Wal-Mart and General Electric. They're adopting green initiatives in part as a white hat to boost their reputation, but also for economic reasons, to reduce costs. People are finding that green tech makes it easier for companies to improve their bottom line.

PRWeek: Going back to your predictions for 2007 being a banner year, are there any new elements that will be tossed into the mix that might affect the way the clean tech practice will unravel?

Olson: I think in 2007, we'll [be] seeing a lot of VC interest in this area. It's expected to be a $167 billion industry by 2015, and a lot of that is being driven by the VCs here in Silicon Valley... Mohr Davidow, Kleiner Perkins, VantagePoint. They've [already invested] $3 billion in clean tech, and I think that money is going to infuse emerging companies in this space with money they need to do more research and to start bringing their technologies to market.

PRWeek: Everyone remembers Silicon Valley for the tech boom. Can you talk about the role that it's playing in clean technology?

Olson: As I said, VCs are a big part of it. They rode the Internet wave and they understand how to identify the technologies that are going to make it.

A lot of the clean technology companies that we've been following, the emerging ones, are being led by tech entrepreneurs; people who have brought technologies to market, understand how that market works, and see clean tech as the next wave.

PRWeek: Going back to the practice within Text 100, can you talk about how it fits in with all the other things that Text 100 does?

Olson: Our clean tech client experience includes work with GE Energy in Europe. They're one of the largest players in this space. We did some work with AlTran, which is a power generation consulting firm that was involved with the development of the hydrogen powered race cart. We had a lot of fun with this one. The race cart would complete the race and the driver would get out and drink the waste, which was water. So there were great visuals for that one.

We have also worked with Uniross, which is a rechargeable battery company. For years we worked with PARC, the Palo Alto Research Center, on some of their clean tech initiatives.

We have ongoing programs with NXP, Philips' semi-conductor arm, and they have the Green Chip Initiative designed to reduce power in the consumer electronics industry.

And we just picked up a new client called Agami Systems, a storage company. They've developed a system that reduces energy consumption in the data center.

All of these dovetail with our core business of tech PR.

The other piece of it that's been really interesting for us is the clean tech discussion is being driven in large part by the tech media. You would think it would be the traditional energy reporters that are covering this, but it's really the tech media in the business press and the tech press. It's the people that we work with all the time.

PRWeek: Can you give me an example of a campaign that you have executed or will be executing?

Olson: Philips has been a Text 100 client for several years now. We helped them launch their Green Chip Initiative.

In March, Philips introduced two new clean tech chips that are basically integrated circuits that help increase energy efficiency in computers by up to 80 percent. To put this in context, if all desktop manufacturers adopted these chips, it would make their computers much more energy efficient. It would end up saving the US [nearly] $2 billion annually and reduce our consumption by 22 billion kilowatts of electricity every year. So it's a cost issue as well as an energy consumption issue.

We started out by partnering with a company called Ecos Consulting, a top energy efficiency consultancy. We worked with them to provide third party references for Philips, which is now called NXP [NXP Semiconductors is an independent company born from Philips Semiconductors]. And they also helped explain to our reporters, who normally might not cover clean tech, why these green chips matter in terms of environmental responsibility and sustainability issues.

So that set the stage. Then the team did a full analyst tour. [NXP] actually launched the chips at a conference called the Applied Power Electronics Conference in Dallas.  [It was] the perfect place for that launch because that conference brings together the most influential designers in power electronics, the people who are  thinking about how computers are put together and understand how this chip fits into reducing power consumption in these electronics. 

So we did briefings at the show and ended up getting some fantastic coverage in all of Philips' or NXP's key publications.

PRWeek: Was there anything about this campaign that you approached differently because it's part of the clean tech practice as opposed to some of the other areas that you work with?

Olson: Philips has always been our semiconductor client. Coming at it from a clean tech perspective meant that we were thinking of these chips as being an energy and economic issue; understanding the role that energy consumption plays not just in the environment, but also in a company's IT spend. I was just reading the other day that one server rack, one set of servers, uses the same amount of energy in a year as a hybrid car traveling across the US 337 times. So the drain on energy is incredible.

Then you have companies with big massive infrastructures paying for these huge server farms. They have the highest energy bills on the planet. So that's why companies like NXP and a number of our other traditional tech clients are starting to step up and compete as fiercely on energy efficiency issues as they do on speed , performance, and the more traditional tech attributes.

PRWeek: Based on what you've noticed, is this a fast-moving practice area? It seems to be something that has taken off in the last year, but we've been hearing about solar energy, for instance, for a long time. Do you think things are going to pick up? Has it always moved quickly but people have been slow to catch on?

Olson: It seems the traditional energy industry is relatively slow-moving. The tech industry, on the other hand, is fast-moving. Just the pace of life in Silicon Valley is an indication of that. I think that as the tech industry gets much more involved in alternative energy initiatives, it's picking up.

What you're seeing is people like Vinod Khosla and John Doerr, big-time venture capitalists, are becoming thought leaders in clean tech because they move fast, they make decisions, they're willing to take risks, and, frankly, they are good thought leaders.

PRWeek: So there seems to be a corporate social responsibility aspect to this sort of practice?

Olson: I'd say so. I think that part of it, quite frankly, is economic. This is the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century.

But on the flip side we wouldn't be doing it if we didn't believe passionately this is something [where] we could make a difference. The amount of volunteerism we've had from people at all levels really shows that passion.

PRWeek: Is there one part of the world that you're zeroing in on or is your interest evenly dispersed?

Olson: I think it's evenly dispersed. Europe historically has lead the way in green initiatives; Germany was one of the first countries that really took it seriously and started passing legislation to spur the industry on. The US is not only catching up, we're starting to bypass, which is great because it will spur the industry globally.

PRWeek: If you could sum up the way the clean tech practice has been going so far, how would you characterize it?

Olson: We launched in October, and since then a big part of our efforts have been building connections in the space, not just with leads but also with academics, investors, nonprofits, researchers, public policy advocates, and the sustainability experts who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years.

We've had just a tremendous amount of incoming leads from all aspects of clean tech. We've been approached by VCs who are building funds in this space and are interested in building a name for themselves. [People don't know this but] traditional energy companies are actually investing billions in clean technology as part of a diversified business strategy. And then, of course, the start ups; companies who have just received VC money or are being incubated and have come up with a great idea and are looking for help bringing it to market.

PRWeek: If you had any advice for other firms that are looking to venture into this area, what would be some pointers?

Olson: Recognize that the playing field is very even right now. It's a pivotal time to get involved. It's also the time when there's so much enthusiasm on all sides that it's a great opportunity to start building the connections. I think there's a collective interest in making this a long-term successful venture, not just for Text 100, but in general, to make sure that clean tech doesn't go away.

We saw in the 70s when there were oil shortages that there was a peak interest in renewable energy. As soon as the price at the pump went back down, the interest in clean energy went down as well. I think this time it's going to be different because of the VC interest, because of the growing consumer awareness thanks to things like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and at the same time the level of research has really gone up. So I would say to anyone that it's a great time to get involved.

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