Log in
updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

FlynnsHarp logo 042016

Clean-energy leader Sue Preston dismisses criticisms of loan-guarantee as 'political'

Susan Preston, whose image as a leader in clean-energy investment has grown in her years overseeing the nation's first angel fund for seed and start-up clean energy companies, has reason to look toward 2012 with optimism. And she dismisses the criticism of those who would deter federal efforts to spur such investments as "purely political."

 

Preston, general partner in the nearly four-year-old California Clean Energy Angel Fund (CalCEF), acknowledges the high-profile bankruptcy of solar-power start-up Solyndra may suggest improvements are needed in federal energy-loan guarantee programs..

 
 

"But you don't throw the baby out with the bath water just because some politicians are using the bankruptcy to make political hay," Preston said.

 

"Overall, the government will show a nice profit on the loan-guarantee program," she says, moving on during an interview to things she'd rather talk about, like the successes of CalCEF and the likelihood that she'll focus next year on raising a new clean-energy fund.

 

And she enthuses about the possible resurrection of a tax-break for start-up investors that she conceived and that was gathering support in Congress before the economy went flat.

  

That "political hay" that Preston calls "purely political" has been made over the last couple of months by Congressional Republicans over the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a Fremont, CA, solar-panel maker. It was treated  by the Obama Administration, including a visit by the President himself, as the poster child for investment in renewable energy.

  

Solyndra was the first beneficiary of the federal loan program and, as a company with new technology and support from a group of venture-capital firms, it seemed to be an ideal candidate for visibility.

  

Thus when the company went bankrupt this past September, defaulting on a $528 million federal loan, Republicans seized the opportunity to make it the poster child for what they viewed as excessive Obama enthusiasm for alternative energy.

  

 "The loan guarantee program from which Solyndra received money has a number of other companies in the program, the vast majority of which are involved with project financing of large, utility-scale facilities with 20 to 25 year power purchase agreements," Preston said.    

 

In fact. the U.S. Department of Energy web site indicates the federal agency has made $35 billion in loans and created almost 65,000 jobs as a result.  

  

"If you want to talk about wasted money, let's look at the billions and billions of dollars spent on defense technology which completely fails," she added.

  

Preston, while a partner in a major Seattle law firm, helped guide the launch of the nation's first women's angel group, Seraph Capital, in Seattle in the late '90s. And in a six-year stint as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, she became a widely recognized expert on angel financing, including authoring numerous articles, white papers and books on the topic.

  

It was that angel-financing expertise that resulted in her invitation in 2008 to guide the launch of the CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund, for which she proceeded to raise $11 million to invest in early-stage clean-energy companies. The angel fund was launched by the California Clean Energy Fund, a non-profit that hired Preston to create the angel fund and then became a limited partner in the for-profit CalCEF.

  

Preston is confident the political flap won't have a negative impact on either the CalCEF angel fund, or in a new fund she expects to begin raising money for early next year.

  

At this point there has been no official announcement on plans for the second fund, which she says will be "much bigger" than the current fund's $11 million, adding that while "we have not come to complete agreement on the name, it will likely be CalCEF Clean Energy Ventures."

   

Despite the financial challenges that have prevailed almost since CalCEF was launched, it has produced a positive return on investment with its four fundings, which averaged about $750,000, Preston said.   

 

Although Preston emphasizes that there are no geographic restrictions on investments by the CalCEF angel fund, "on a practical basis, and because of the strong prevalence of clean energy companies in the Bay Area, we have not made an investment outside this area."

 

But she notes that she and her partners "have been to several other places in California, and elsewhere in the country, to explore possible candidates for investmernt."

"Clean energy has seen a bounce back in the last 18 months and at a greater rate than some other technology sectors," Preston said, adding that "within clean energy, certain areas are performing better than others when you look at global indexes.  For instance, wind is down, but smart grid related technologies are performing reasonably well."

  

Asked what kind of energy startups are likely to generate the most interest over the next couple of years, Preston responded: "Energy efficiency, smart grid and storage are my bets."

  

"Grid storage will be an interesting area to watch because the problem with wind power is that the wind blows more at night while most of the needs are during the day," she said. "We are really in need of storage technology."

  

Preston is enthused that a proposal she put together about four years ago for an income tax credit for investors in start-up companies, an idea that drew bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress before the economic chaos shunted it aside, has seen a revival of interest in recent months.

  

The Access to Entrepreneurs Act (ACE) may move forward this coming year, she says, but it will have to be without her assistance because the first priority will be launching the new fund while continuing to oversee administration of the CalCEF fund.

  

"Our goal is to do well while we are doing good." Preston says.  "Our first priority is to make money for our LPs, but because we invest in clean energy, we get to do good at the same time."

Continue reading

Alaska Air's 'Santa One' flight for Spokane area disadvantaged kids is unique fantasy trip

Sixty disadvantaged kids and their personal elves board  Alaska Airlines' flight 1225, dubbed  "Santa One," Dec. 10 at Spokane International Airport for a Fantasy Flight to "the North Pole" on the 737 900 and a visit with Santa. It's an event that could be described as the place where the real magic dust of Christmas has been scattered, because this special trip is unique in the world.

 

The children, between the ages of 4 and 10, are selected from programs for homeless and underprivileged kids in the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, ID, areas for this once-in-a-lifetime fantasy adventure to Santa's home.

 
 

A number of other airlines, including United and Continental, have been doing the North Pole "flights" in various cities, some for nearly 20 years. But Alaska is the only airline to actually take the kids aloft for their magical trip, in which they pull the window shades down as the flight nears its conclusion, say the magic words that allow them to land at the North Pole, and land at other side of Spokane International Airport.

 

It's there that they're greeted by Santa and Mrs. Clause and an additional host of elves.

 
 

 

"When we send out invitations to the kids, we have them give us a wish list of what they want for Christmas," explains "Bernie" the Head Elf, better known as

Steve Paul, president and CEO of Northwest North Pole Adventures, the nonprofit group that runs the event.

 

 "We take those lists and buy each of them a toy from that list. So as each child tells Santa what he or she wants, Santa can reach into his bag and pull that present out for them," adds Paul "The looks on their faces as he hands it to them is priceless."

 

To ensure that the selection is actually reaching the most deserving children, Paul's non-profit works only with the area's social agencies, which use their selection and screening processes to pull the children who desperately need to create positive Christmas holiday memories.

 

The children are picked up at the Spokane YWCA in the early afternoon and driven to the airport, where each child is given a "passport" to the North Pole and a personal "elf" catering to every need, including a backpack filled with school supplies. Then they board the plane, designated Flight 1225.

 

The flight has priority status with the FAA once it's loaded and ready to fly and "Santa One" comes up on the screen. Then the flight's own personal air traffic controller takes over, Paul said.  "It becomes just like Air Force One in that respect."

 

Paul is an out-of-work tech exec who has made the project his special commitment. As a result of his efforts, what he describes as "the 150 percent support of the community" and the Alaska involvement, the adventure for the Spokane children is brought closer to reality than in any other place.

 

He spends a number of months in preparation for the big day, lining up donations and contributions that this year amount to $150,000 of cash and in-kind, helping get the kids selected and arranging for the elves and gifts for the kids.

 

Brad Tilton, Alaska Airlines president who will be on hand with his wife for the event, says "the Fantasy Flight is an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. It's a

true delight for the children, who don't get to enjoy Christmas like most of us do and who, in many cases, have never had the chance to fly. And our employees,

who eagerly volunteer every year, get far more back than the time they put in."

 

Alaska and Horizon will have more than four dozen employees participating, from various locations on the airlines' systems. Some will be elves. Others will forego days off to work shifts for local Horizon employees so they can be elves.

 

This has been an amazingly off-the-radar-screen event, both during the eight years that United put the kids on a plane that taxied around the airport, and in the four years since Alaska Airlines came to the rescue of the event when United couldn't free up a plane with Alaska proceeding to turn it into a real airborne flight.

 

But that low visibility is changing as the list of kids registered and waiting has grown to almost 250 and media organizations have started to become aware of this special Christmas Season story. And there are some in the Alaska Airlines organization who understand the one-of-a-kind goodwill that this event represents, particularly because neither the company nor the employees has done this for the sake of visibility.

 

Horizon's Spokane customer service manager David Burris admits the visibility has been low key over the years, partly because broader visibility would only bring pressure to make the event bigger.

 

Is there an opportunity for other cities to follow suit with a special North Pole event?  Alaska officials suggest it would be difficult for the airline to take another plane and crew out of regular service during the heavy-travel holiday time. And Paul acknowledges that while he could provide the know-how to another community, he wouldn't have time to actually do another event over the Christmas season.

 

"A lot of people have said we should take this on the road," Paul notes. "I could do that if I could get people to define their non-profit or if our organization were to expand. But this is not some casual party. A lot of planning and time is involved."

 

Paul adds that he is having a movie done "that will in the future characterize the experience. We have a couple of elves who were parents of foster children involved in earlier flights who said the kids were so transformed by the experience that they had to get involved."

 

How real is this trip to the kids? As one elf put it: "If you're a little kid on your first plane ride and your ticket says North Pole, and the shades are drawn, and everyone, including the flight attendants and all the elves are saying the magic words, then who's to doubt that you have landed at the real North Pole? And then you see Santa."

Continue reading

Access to growth capital could challenge state life-sciences sector's bright future

Washington State's life-sciences sector has remained, through the economic downturn, a jewel in the state's economic development crown. But the challenge of accessing capital that bedevils the industry's emerging companies, including the possible demise of the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, could hinder future growth.

 

The role biotech and biomedical companies have come to occupy as one of Washington's five largest and fastest-growing sectors, generating tens of thousands of high-wage jobs and more than $10.5 billion in economic activity, creates an important anchor for the state's economic future.

 

But as the Washington Biotech & Biomedical Association (WBBA) prepares for its annual meeting next week, in partnership with The Governor's Life Sciences Summit, there's an ongoing focus on seeking to ensure that emerging companies in the industry find the growth capital they need. And that could be increasingly challenging.

 

"With 70 percent of our companies having 50 or fewer employees, access to capital is the greatest challenge we face," said Chris Rivera, WBBA president.

 
 

 

An important part of that funding has been the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF), the program created by tobacco-settlement dollars that came into existence in 2008 and has been championed by Gov. Chris Gregoire as a key to fostering more biotech innovations and jobs in Washington.

 

But it has taken deep cuts each session as legislators grappled with yawning state budget deficits, and now could face elimination.

 

Rep. Glenn Anderson, the Eastside Republican who is one of four legislative trustees for the fund, says "it's an open question whether the fund will survive" the next session's budget cuts.

 

"The fund has done a good job of encouraging basic science and marketable, actionable, investable outcomes," Anderson said. "But I'd say there's only a 50-50 chance it will survive and if it doesn't survive, I think that would be shortsighted."

 

Rivera puts numbers on the fund's successes to provide definition to shortsightedness.

 

"LSDF awardees have been able to leverage their grants and bring in $9 for every $1 awarded," he said. "These are real dollars from out of state.  This has led directly to job creation, and great innovation in our state.

 

"I believe that LSDF has proven to be a smart investment by our state into a sector of great current economic value and future potential," he added. "Other states have poured hundreds of millions into life sciences, as they see the potential economic value of this sector and are willing to invest strategically."

 

Beyond the fund, WBBA has mounted some initiatives, as have supporting organizations, in seeking to develop alternative sources of capital, given both the now-challenged traditional lending sources and the problems facing the venture capital industry.

 

Bruce Jackson, vice president for business development at EnterpriseSeattle and ex-officio member of WBBA's board, says that despite the success of the biotech and medical-device sector, these are "clouded times" for young companies seeking to ramp up.

 

"In addition to the fact federal regulations can create a headwind for companies, access to capital for some deserving companies can be difficult," Jackson said.

 

EnterpriseSeattle's year-old partnership with the City of Federal Way in a medical-device incubator called Cascadia MedTech Association is an innovative approach to helping grow the industry, though Jackson concedes "the model hasn't been proven yet."

 

"The companies we're supporting must transition from being supported by grants to creating cashflow," Jackson added.

 

WBBA itself touts the program it created called VIP Forums, through which quality investors and strategic partners (VIP's) are invited to Seattle for a showcase of the most promising life science companies and research opportunities.

 

In addition, in spring of 2009 the association formed a non-profit angel network called WINGS, whose role is to close the early-stage funding gap to speed medical-technology innovation "from lab bench to patients."

 

The gathering of industry leaders and others for whom the industry is part of the economic hope for the future will likely hear an upbeat assessment as they review the WBBA's third annual Life Sciences Economic Impact at their gathering on November 18 at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue.

 

Comments from the governor, who will be attending her last WBBA annual conference, and University of Washington President Michael Young, attending his first, are likely to focus on upbeat prospects for the sector's future. But both may also share concerns about the impact of funding availability on that bright future.

 

And a comment from Rivera during an interview this week could set the stage for some discussion among attendees: "I understand and know that these are difficult times, but I hope that our state leaders are strategic in where they place our precious resources, and help this state maintain its competitiveness nationally and globally."

Continue reading

Spokane mom's autistic children provided lessons that prepared her for new venture

With her three autistic children as her "classroom" for the past decade, Laura Kasbar learned the unique ways autistic kids learn. Now she is ready to launch a business whose video-based web platform will offer parents, schools and health therapists a new tool to harness that process of learning for a dramatically growing number of kids with autism.

 

Kasbar, a Spokane mother of six, including twins Max, who was severely autistic, and Anastasia, who was moderately so, says the new company, called GemIIni (named for the twins), will launch in the first quarter of 2012.

 

Funding for the launch has come from the Spokane Angel Alliance and its leader, Tom Simpson, and an unusual commitment by Spokane's Inland Imaging and its CEO.

 

It was 11 years ago, Kasbar recalls, "that I walked into the tv room and saw all my kids lined up on the couch watching television and I couldn't really tell which were the autistic ones."

 

"At that time, the conventional wisdom was that the television should be off if autistic kids were around. But that experience was the catalyst that made me realize I should be using video to teach them," she said.

 

So over the next decade, with the help of her oldest son, Nicolas, who was on the autism spectrum as Asburgers, she developed the method embodied in the video. Her special focus was to help Max, who doctors told her, when he was four, would never talk.  She says he is now mainstreamed in school and excels in class without an aide. 

 

Now 14 and featured on a GemIIni video, Max has recently tested as having a college-level reading ability, a dramatic advance from his original diagnosis of being a lifelong non-verbal autistic. 

 

Kasbar says all three of her once-autistic children have now been removed from the autism diagnosis.

 

When Kasbar decided earlier this year she and her husband, Brian, were ready to launch the company, she was introduced to Simpson, who formerly guided a Spokane-based venture fund and now oversees the Spokane angel group.

 

Simpson set up a presentation for the start-up company a few months ago and wound up investing, as did some of the angel-group members. The presentation also drew the interest of Steve Duvoisin, Inland Imaging's CEO, who personally invested as well as bringing his company aboard. 

 

"I briefed our 60 physicians after the presentation and their attitude was: 'You mean we can make an investment that will help a lot of kids and could also provide a return on the investment?'," Duvoisin recalled. "It was an easy decision, but I emphasize their focus was on how much help this would be to the kids."

 

The number of children on the autistic spectrum and who thus need the learning help amounts to one in 38, and is growing at an amazing 17 percent per year.

 

"Autism is a very genetic disorder with an environmental trigger," she explained. "There are things in the environment that are the triggers for those genetically predisposed to autism."

 

The range of the autism spectrum, she says, "suggests a range of susceptibility to the triggers."

 

Explaining the role of video as a learning tool for autistic kids, Kasbar noted that the autistic avoid looking directly at a speaker's face and thus lose much of the normal learning process of mimicking articulation in speech. But, she says, they are not uncomfortable looking on-screen personalities in the eye and watching their faces.

 

"I've spent thousands of hours working with families in Europe and in the U.S. over the past three years to perfect the method," she said.

 

She says Nicolas, now 24, and a salsa instructor, as well as a coach of sales teams, helped with actual interaction between the program and the child, adding:"It was very helpful having someone on the autism spectrum work to refine the program."

 

Materials prepared for the marketing of GemIIni indicate it will use a subscription-based model with online computer-based training platform that Kasbar hopes to sell to families with autistic children, but also school districts, independent therapists and treatment centers and health insurance companies.

 

The business model provides for a charge of  $36 per student monthly, a fee that she says testing and surveys indicate is acceptable to parents, who would thus have a way to leverage home-time into therapy time at a reasonable cost.

 

She estimates the total special-needs market, including children with language-related disorders, at 7.8 million. Her target is to reach 50,000 families the first year.

 

"I expect that the company will become a leading provider of therapies for children with autism and other learning disorders," said Simpson, who is providing office space and consults with the Kasbars on marketing and development issues.

Continue reading

Support grows for proposals to create jobs by easing some of investor protections

The mounting pressure on Congress and the Obama Administration to find some job-creating ideas to jumpstart the ailing economy is stirring growing interest in a couple of Congressional proposals that would lessen investor protections for the sake of allowing businesses more growth opportunities.

 

One proposal, already filed as a House bill by Rep. Ben Quayle, R-AZ, with the intent of accelerating the growth of younger companies, would suspend for most newly public companies what many view as a costly and troublesome provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

 

Quayle's proposal would allow a much greater number of public companies to opt out of Sarbanes Oxley Section 404, which requires public companies to disclose the scope and adequacy of their internal-controls structure. The measure would raise the current $75 million market-value threshold for reporting to $1 billion.

 

The other proposal would help entrepreneurial and start-up companies, many currently  hamstrung in their ability to attract growth capital, to reach large numbers of investors for limited amounts of money via the internet in what's being called crowd-fund investing.

 

The proposals have come to center stage only in the last couple of weeks. And each has attracted growing support from those who contend the measures are vital to the goal of job creation. And each is also starting to stir opposition from those who question the idea of setting aside shareholder and investor protections.

 

Each proposal merits an in-depth look and thus in this first of two columns we'll examine the discussions surrounding Quayle's bill, the support being gathered for it and the comments of those expressing concerns.

 

Next week's column will focus on the crowd-funding proposal, including a look at those backing it and the concern it is stirring from many angel-investor leaders, particularly those up and down the West Coast.

 

Quayle's bill would allow public companies with market valuations below $1 billion to opt out of Sarbanes-Oxley Section 404 for the first 10 years after going public. The original Sarbanes-Oxley Act was amended in last year's Dodd-Frank Wall Street Protection and Consumer Protection Act to create the under-$75 million exemption.

 

Quayle and supporters of his measure, including the entrepreneur-focused Kauffman Foundation, contend that the costs for complying with the requirements of this section of Sarbanes-Oxley can exceed $1 million for new companies and can cost them up to $20 million in loss of valuation.

 

Quayle's measure is close to a plan outlined by the Kauffman Foundation a few months ago as "a set of non-partisan ideas to jump-start the ailing U.S. economy and increase job creation by accelerating the growth of startups and young businesses."

 

Kauffman, the nation's largest non-profit foundation focused on entrepreneurs, noted that the role high-growth startups play is vital to assure U.S. economic strength.

 

"Virtually all of the growth in U.S. jobs has been driven by the formation of firms less than five years old, and these new firms have been disproportionately responsible for commercializing the cutting-edge innovations that characterize modern life," the Foundation said.

 

"I believe this bill is an important step as we  try to increase the number of companies that go public in the United States," said Robert Litan, Kauffman's vice president for research and policy. "The ability to raise capital in public markets will be essential as new companies create the jobs required to put Americans back to work."

 

One of the most pervasively visible proponents of both lowering the regulatory barriers for newly public companies and the proposal for crowd-fund investing is a Miami, FL, entrepreneur named Sherwood Neise, who has testified before Congress about both. He was co-founder of a company called Flavorx, which added flavors to medicine, that went public and was later sold.

 

In 2006, he was among those decrying what he called the "unintended consequences of Sarbanes-Oxley on small businesses," saying that meeting 404's requirements "ate up 14 percent of our net income."

 

But among those urging caution is former SEC Chief Accountant Lynn E. Turner, who said in an e-mail that contained the subject line "Short Memories:" "Clearly people have forgotten the hundreds of billions in dollars of losses investors suffered during the corporate financial reporting frauds, and the tens of thousands of jobs lost."

 

Neil McReynolds, a corporate-governance consultant in Seattle, said that while the original Sarbanes-Oxley requirements created some real cost and regulatory problems for smaller public companies, the changes brought about by the Dodd-Frank bill corrected some of those.

 

McReynolds, who has been a member of a number of boards of private companies and consulted with boards of public companies, said that while extending the exemption to $75 million cap companies, as Dodd-Frank did, made sense, "extending the exemption to $1 billion companies may be a bit of a stretch." He added that "there's still value in disclosure and internal controls."

 

Sharon Philpott, managing partner of national accounting firm BDO's Seattle practice, agreed, saying her firm supports the positions of the CFA Institute, Center for Quality Audit and the Council of Institutional Investors, who have all urged caution against further exemptions from Sarbanes-Oxley.

 

In the end, success or failure of expanding the exemption for internal controls may hinge on whether the pressure for jobs trumps the pressure to protect shareholders and investors.

 

 

 

Continue reading

52°F

Seattle

Mostly Cloudy

Humidity: 63%

Wind: 14 mph

  • 24 Mar 2016 52°F 42°F
  • 25 Mar 2016 54°F 40°F
Banner 468 x 60 px