Kevin Surace: Green Rock Star, Entrepreneur of Year

Kevin Surace: Green Rock Star, Entrepreneur of Year

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

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Silicon Valley’s Kevin Surace has just achieved Rock Star status – of the Green Biz variety. The CEO of Serious Materials was picked as Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine and joined Time Magazine‘s list of Tech Pioneers Who Will Change Your Life, along with another Silicon Valley Green Rock Star: Bloom Energy’s KR Sridhar. It’s an incongruous status for someone from the mundane world of building products, but Kevin is being described as ‘savior of the world’, ‘the Larry Ellison of green’ and has even turned down an invitation to the White House. He knows he’ll be invited back.

In an exclusive Fresh Dialogues interview recorded before the accolades descended, Kevin revealed his motivations for waging war on climate change and the lessons learned in building a green company. He discussed the influence of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in helping create a market for green products; how Serious Materials changed its focus; and whether consumers are willing to pay a premium for green. Kevin outlined how his company uses new media to get its message out and what the future holds for this rapidly expanding company.

On Kevin’s motivations for wanting to help save the planet

“When you have children, you start to think what world are you leaving them? I think that affects everybody.”

When did he focus on energy saving products at Serious Materials?

“If I sat here and said in 2002 I had the great vision to design energy saving building materials – there was no market in 2002 – people would think I was nuts.  By 2005, the climate issue had come to the front of minds:  on scientists’ minds, at the United Nations, in the world. By ’06, we began coming out with energy efficient windows… ”

On the relative importance of buildings vs. cars in CO2 emissions

Kevin argues that residential and commercial buildings account for the largest proportion of CO2 emissions (52% of world emissions for buildings and their operations) compared to passenger cars which only make up only 9% of world CO2 emissions.

On how An Inconvenient Truth helped create a green market

“When that movie came out, it allowed the American public to get the story in a way they never got it before and that’s when I could step back and say: there’s an opportunity here to actually make a difference…LEED took off, green buildings took off…that had a profound impact on the entire industry.”

On the pace of global warming

“When you look at the raw data, everything’s happening five to ten times faster than the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) said it was going to. So this is extremely scary and wakes you up. So  have to do something.”

Are consumers willing to pay a premium for green?

“I don’t think they’ll ever be willing to pay a premium. That’s been our thinking from Day One.”

How does Serious Materials use New Media?

“We blog, we Twitter, we Facebook, we do an awful lot with the web, that’s unusual in the building materials space …. Our constituents  are educated, they get it. They want to see video, hear audio, you’re on the web: that is new media today. Many of the eyeballs -and ears- have moved to the web, and we have to go with that. ”

What does the future hold for Serious Materials?

“This is a venture backed company… they need to ultimately see an exit…you build these companies towards a potential IPO… you are ready for whatever life brings you: if that’s M&A, if that’s independence, an IPO…whatever. Over the next five years, one of those things will surely happen… We’ve increased our capacity ten X  over a year ago and are ready for the onslaught here. Our business keeps growing…our products save people money.”

The interview was recorded on June 30, 2009 at Serious Materials in Sunnyvale, California.

To hear an exclusive interview with Bloom Energy CEO KR Sridhar, No. 4 on Time Magazine’s List of “Tech Pioneers Who Will Change Your Life 2009” click here