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L.A. as green land

A conference should showcase the city as a natural home for the clean-technology industry.

December 10, 2007

As Al Gore picks up the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo today for his work exposing the dangers of global warming, business boosters and local officials are trying to win a more lucrative green award here at home: a share of the billions of dollars being invested in clean technology aimed at turning down the climate thermostat.

Experts, policymakers, entrepreneurs and investors from around the world will gather today in Century City for the inaugural GreenXchange conference, where panels will explore the best ways to make government environmental mandates a reality. A secondary goal for many of the conference's backers is to showcase Los Angeles as a potential incubator for green tech. It's a terrific idea, even if it's uncomfortably reminiscent of past failed efforts to wrest a piece of the technology action from Silicon Valley.

By rights, L.A. should be a tech-industry powerhouse, given that it's the home of Caltech and seven other engineering schools, as well as the headquarters of four of the nation's top 10 civil engineering companies. Yet a furious effort to make the city a destination for Web and multimedia start-ups during the tech boom of the 1990s -- remember when boosters were trying to one-up Silicon Valley by nicknaming the L.A. area the Digital Coast? -- was mostly a bust. After the dot-com bubble burst, few of the survivors were in L.A.

The problem, then as now, stems from a shortage of venture capital. U.S. venture firms invested a record $2.6 billion in clean-technology companies in the first quarter of 2007, compared with $1.8 billion in all of 2006, according to the National Venture Capital Assn. California accounted for by far the biggest share of any state, raking in $726 million so far this year. But 84% of the money went to Silicon Valley, while L.A. companies took in only about $42 million.

Some of the nation's top clean-tech investors, like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers or Khosla Ventures, are based near Palo Alto, and they like to keep their money close to home. That's too bad for L.A., and shortsighted for the investors that are giving life to the green market. This week's conference should demonstrate that L.A.'s vast marketplace and highly educated workforce make it a natural home for this vital industry.

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