The notion that a lot of venture capitalists — and in particular Kleiner Perkins — have lost money on cleantech startups is now officially mainstream news, via a long article published in Reuters this week. The article isn’t inaccurate, but it misses a whole lot of nuances including the big picture global trends of population growth and resource management, the long term play and some of the newer trends of the cleantech sector, and a few of the more successful companies in Kleiner’s cleantech portfolio.
We’ve been covering this roller coaster ride, and Kleiner’s plays for years. Back in the summer of 2010, I first wrote “Greentech investing: not working for most;” and in early 2012 I wrote pieces on “the perils of cleantech investing,” as well as “We can thank Moore’s Law for the cleantech VC bust.” Last year I wrote “Kleiner Perkins web woes, add greentech,” and Kleiner is not so great at investing in auto tech.
The article does have a pretty amazing tidbit in there, that Doerr dipped into his own pocket for the $2.5 million that Miasole needed to make payroll before it was sold to Hanergy. But here are 5 things I think the article missed:
1). The long-term larger risk, but bigger payoff: A lot of the manufacturing and infrastructure-based cleantech startups have been taking longer to mature and reach commercialization than their digital peers, and they’ve also needed more money. But when some of these rare companies actually do reach scale and are successful, they could be massive players with huge markets. It’s just a different kind of betting — think putting a $100 on 22 on the roulette wheel, versus $5 on a hand of poker. A combination of the two — a small amount of the high risk investments, with a larger amount of the low risk investments — could be a good play.
That was one of the reasons why it seems like investor Vinod Khosla is still investing in cleantech startups. Khosla Ventures’ biocrude portfolio company KiOR — which the firm mostly owns – has a potential market that is no less than an opportunity to displace oil in transportation. Imagine if a venture investor owned a big chunk of Exxon Mobil.
2). The bigger trend of population growth and resource management: Many venture capitalists might be steering away from the cleantech investing style of years prior, but the overall global trends that originally drove these early cleantech investments will only continue to grow. These planetary trends aren’t wrong, it’s just that a bunch of the investments that were made weren’t that smart. The world will have 9 billion people by 2050, and energy, water and food will have to be managed much more carefully. The climate is also changing, because too many people are using too many fossil fuel-based resources. Technologies — including IT — that manage these resources and replace them with more sustainable ones will have large markets, particularly in developing countries.
3). Beyond venture: For many cases, the cleantech investing model isn’t a fit for venture capital. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good fit for other types of investors like private equity and project finance. Google has put a billion dollars into clean power projects, because those can deliver relatively safe and decent returns. Corporate investors — like GE or NRG Energy — are putting money into cleantech startups because it’s more than just a return, it’s a strategic investment. Cleantech innovation will also continue to come out of university and government labs and will be spurred along by government support of basic science research. Does cleantech innovation need a cleantech VC bubble to start changing the world?
4). Kleiner’s portfolio is more nuanced: The Reuters story accurately pointed out Kleiner’s struggling cleantech companies like Fisker, Miasole, Amonix, and others. And also rightly pointed out how the few cleantech companies it backed that went public — like Amyris and Enphase Energy — are now trading below their IPO prices. But the article didn’t mention the exit of solar thermal company Ausra, and also didn’t name some of the more successful and growing companies in Kleiner’s portfolio like Opower, Clean Power Finance, Enlighted, Nest, and RecycleBank. Opower is the energy software company to beat these days.
Honeywell & Opower’s iPad smart thermostat app
5). Cleanweb: See a trend in Kleiner’s more successful and growing cleantech startups? They’re mostly software and digital based. The latest trend in cleantech VC investing is the so-called “clean web,” or using social, mobile, and software to management energy and other resources. Some of these companies are pretty interesting and inspiring, like crowd-funding solar site Solar Mosaic.
Finally, as a side note, it’s now in vogue to point out how cleantech investors have lost money. Many have. But I think investors that have paved the way for world-changing innovation, and taken large risks to do so, should in part be lauded.