Susan Sanford believes cleantech will become one of the fastest-growing job sectors in the Triangle as companies and cities try to use less energy to save money and reduce their environmental impact. Sanford, 43, was named executive director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster last year. Here she talks about the industry, and how it could save you money if there’s a water leak in your home.
Q: What exactly is cleantech?
A: Cleantech is technology or solutions that decrease energy consumption while improving the bottom line for companies. There’s a focus on sustainability but also on profit.
One example is having a sensor on a water main so you can detect leaks and use local government revenue more wisely to send people out to fix problems before they happen. This area is so strong in those technologies – hardware, software and analytics.
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Q: Waste Zero, a Raleigh company, helps cities and towns divert trash from landfills. What are some other companies doing?
A: That is such a great example. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of towns in North Carolina using that. ABB is a robotics and automation company here in the Triangle. In Alaska, it has taken wind power from Anchorage and developed a micro grid on a tiny island called Kodiak Island so they can secure power for the 15,000 people who live on that island. It’s about public safety and economic development with more sustainable power.
Q: How does SAS, a software company in Cary, operate in the cleantech sphere?
A: Cary installed smart meters in its water utility and SAS provided the analytics solution. Now the town can text the consumer if there’s a leak, which is so much better than hearing about it at the end of the month and the bill is $300. Those kinds of really cool solutions are happening.
Q: How are you bringing these companies together?
A: We host events and programs around future-forward technology. A few months ago we hosted an event on autonomous vehicle technology. We have quite a few academic institutions focusing in that area. Duke University is working with UNC on research. We have here in North Carolina one of the only U.S. Department of Transportation-recognized 10 autonomous vehicle test sites. The N.C. Turnpike Authority will be testing the technology on 19 miles of N.C. 540 connecting Cary, Apex and Holly Springs.
Q: As a leader in cleantech, what obstacles do you face?
A: Twenty years ago if you wanted to incubate an industry and create jobs and advance research, you’d go down to the legislature and ask for funding. That doesn’t happen anymore. Our organization is coming up on being 5 years old. It’s almost 100 percent industry-funded. It’s a challenge, being a nonprofit with a lot of different masters.
Q: Trilliant Networks recently moved to North Carolina and will create more than 130 jobs in five years in Cary. How did you help convince the company to come here?
A: We’re so excited to have Trilliant here. This cleantech company was in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s growing so fast, something like over 30 percent each year. When it came time to move, North Carolina was at the top of the list. We were able to say, “We can smooth your landing and connect you to the universities for talent development.” It all tracks back to our universities. I can’t overstate how important they are.
Q: What’s the biggest surprise when working with companies around the globe?
A: The biggest surprise is you take for granted your way of doing business is the way you do business. I was really lucky because I got to teach English to business people in Korea. I got to get an insight into their business culture. Some of my students would say to me, “You disagreed with your boss? I would never say something like that in a meeting.”
Q: What do you want young people to know about the cleantech industry?
A: It’s growing really fast. We’re creating solutions here in the Research Triangle region that have global applications. You have a chance to work in the industry and make a global impact. It’s all about saving the planet and helping improve community and quality of life. So I’d say to any young people interested in sustainability, think about cleantech. It’s enterprise-level, community-level solutions.
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Susan Sanford – Tar Heel of the Week
Born: March 13, 1974, in South Korea
Organization: Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, which will host a job fair from 4 to 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at N.C. State University
Education: Graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill
Fun fact: She’s relearning how to play the piano.
Hobby: “A trail run followed by one good craft beer”