The greatest opportunity

Given the current state of the world economy, entrepreneurs and business leaders may feel that prospects are gloomy for their startups and established companies. With the economies of a number of European countries reeling from the debt crisis, the United States Congress struggling to reach an agreement on raising the government’s de bt ceiling – a nonissue in other nations – and the possibility of another global slowdown on the horizon, some executives are making conservative choices in preparation for difficult times ahead.

But this is not the time to play it safe: Never let mainstream views about markets affect your thinking about new ventures. Uncertain times are often best for setting up new enterprises – talented employees are primed to try new ideas and suppliers are willing cut prices in order to bring in new clients and extra sales. The secret is to find a product or service that will stand out by improving people’s lives.

A number of readers have asked which industries and sectors entrepreneurs should be looking at in this economic climate. In the past, Virgin has often looked for openings in industries where market leaders were under-performing and not treating their customers properly – we have had success in aviation, mobile phone services and financial services. But now we are focusing on the green sector: finding ways to supply renewable energy, produce clean water and figuring out how to conserve both. We believe this area offers the greatest opportunities of our time.

Consider that our society is now facing difficult practical challenges that require innovative, even revolutionary thinking – meat and drink to entrepreneurs. How do we supply enough energy, food and water to meet the demands of our growing global population? How do we lift billions out of poverty without running out of resources? Can we simultaneously restore and protect the natural life support systems on which we depend?

If you are thinking about entering this sector, try to evaluate where the structural opportunities may lie in your region. There should be openings in nearly every market: the International Energy Agency estimates that global energy consumption will increase by almost 40 percent over the next 20 years; to meet global demand through 2035, our society will need to make $33 trillion in investments in energy-supply infrastructure.

Indeed, analysts predict that renewable sources such as solar, wind, biofuels and hydroelectricity will soon supply a quarter of our energy needs. The latest forecast from the research firm Clean Edge Inc. suggests that combined sales for solar, wind and biofuels will grow from $188.1 billion in 2010 to $349.2 billion by 2020.

If you are located in a region where supplies of fresh water are short, you may want to consider that area. Water shortages are only going to get worse: According to United Nations projections, by 2030, more than 60 percent of the world’s population – 5 billion people in total – will be living in urban areas. Through Virgin’s Green Fund we have invested in a desalination business called Seven Seas Water to create freshwater supplies in places where there is great need, like the Caribbean. Providing this resource in a sustainable, environmentally sound way is a technical challenge: Is your team ready to tackle such an exciting assignment?

Another area that offers opportunities is energy and water efficiency, which includes everything from lightbulbs to insulating materials to kitchen faucets. This is the most cost-effective means of reducing CO2 emissions, at the same time making our resources last longer. A recent McKinsey study found that if $170 billion per year is invested in energy efficiency for next nine years, growth in energy demand will be cut in half – a big step toward reducing CO2 emissions and avoiding disastrous levels of global warming. If you and your team are looking for rewarding, meaningful work, think about playing your part in securing the future of our planet!

If you are struggling to find funding for your idea for a product or service, or to determine the way forward for your established business, now may be the right time to try something different. Depending on your location and area of expertise, you may decide that your best prospects lie in the green industry. Nations around the world are confronting daunting problems in terms of shortages of water and energy: let’s offer some solutions.

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