The headline-grabbing news this week is Khosla Venture's recent fund closings, of their $275M seed fund and $800M "main fund".  It's good to see more seed capital available in the sector -- as we've talked about here before, things have probably shifted too heavily toward late stage deals over the past few quarters, leaving a critical funding gap at the seed stage for cleantech startups.  And it's also good, I think, to see such seed efforts split out into a separate fund from later-stage efforts.  In many of the larger recent cleantech funds, seed and growth stage have been conflated within the same fund, which sets up some internal management challenges and also from an LP's perspective makes it tough to find specialized early stage focus.

In the NYT article about the closings, however, I was a bit surprised to see the suggestion that a few million dollars' worth of investment is all it takes for a cleantech startup to prove their technology to the point of being able to secure project financing.  Now note, I'm not going to pick on Vinod for that quote, because I would bet there were nuances to it that didn't pass through the journalist-editor translation.  But it brings up an important point to discuss, nonetheless.

There is in fact a huge capital gap for cleantech startups around early project finance.  In most cleantech startups that will actually be producing anything (as opposed to software-based cleantech startups), building out production or manufacturing capacity is capital-intensive by definition.  To build out a commercial-scale solar fab could require tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.  Ditto for biofuel plants, for utility-scale solar generation facilities, and for battery manufacturing lines. 

The problem is, project finance is traditionally very risk-averse, and very intolerant of any new technology.  Project finance firms are very good at structuring deals to enable the build-out of large generation or manufacturing projects, as long as they're not taking any technology risk and as long as the construction timeframe and future revenues and costs are very well understood.  That's why project finance will take a much lower expected rate of return than venture capital, because it's correspondingly lower risk.

So what we've seen this decade in cleantech has been the inability of cleantech startups to raise project finance or high levels of leverage for their first or even second commercial-scale facilities.  Even after having "proven" the technology at a pilot plant scale, it's still too early for project financiers to feel they have a good understanding of the construction timeframes and costs for a first of a kind ("FOAK") commercial scale plant.  Also, in many cases the market acceptance is still not locked in, and furthermore the technology will likely not be proven out to nearly the level of confidence that the project financiers would want to see.  So they just don't touch such things.

Thus, for the past few years we've seen venture capitalists stepping in to fund the FOAKs out of necessity.  When you see a $100M+ solar round, for example, there's some working capital and growth equity in there, but the majority of it is going to fill the gap that project finance is unwilling to fund.  It's not really venture capital.  It's quasi- project finance. 

I'm not against this type of activity per se, it can still provide some attractive risk-adjusted returns when it's done creatively.  But it's tough to see how that type of activity can be expected to generate the kinds of absolute returns that VCs are telling their LPs they're targeting, unless there's an opportunity to push a very, very attractive near-term exit afterwords (and there are few such exits right now).  And so when it gets done out of the same venture fund, it's just important to note that it's a bit of a stretch on the definition of "venture capital" as traditionally used.  So be it, rules are made to be broken.

However, what we've seen very clearly over the past 12 months is that such financing will greatly dry up at times.  And a number of high-flying startups have been left high and dry by the pull-back of VCs from FOAK funding.  So it's strange to get the impression from the NYT article that it's fine for VCs to invest in early stage capital-intensive opportunities, because it won't take much capital for the henceforth "proven" technology to bring in project finance to support full-scale commercialization.  FOAKs remain a big gap, one that has already killed a number of promising cleantech startups that had taken in tens of millions of dollars just to get to that point.  What I'm guessing the quote was really intended to say was that non-traditional players like corporate partners, large family offices and government financing can help solve the FOAK challenge, and to an extent that's true.  But it's far from the slam-dunk prospect that comes across in the article.

With $275M to put to work, at around $2M per first-time check, that "seed" Khosla fund must be planning on doing some significant follow-ons (tough to see how they would be able to manage upwards of 100 investments).  And then with the additional $800M in the "main" fund, it's probably a safe bet that KV will have to put some money into FOAKs just like many other VCs have.  Investors may have been advocating for smaller funds focused on capital efficient opportunities.  But there's little evidence such advocacy has really taken hold in Silicon Valley.

Deals from the past week or so:

  • Think Global AS has emerged from bankruptcy and has taken in a capital infusion of around $47M, from investors including several strategics.  Ener1 has put in $18M as part of the financing, in exchange for getting exclusive rights to supply Think with lithium ion batteries, and along with converting $3M in debt is now the biggest shareholder in the company at 31%.
  • Membrane-based separation startup BPT has taken in a $12M Series B, co-led by US Venture Partners and Pitango Venture Capital, and including existing investors Aurum Ventures and Elron Electric Industries.

Other news and notes:  Another nobel laureate has come out as a pessimist on fuel cells -- at least "present" ones...  Here's a good list of the recipients of the recently-announced ARRA battery and EV awards...  Finally, if you're going to be in Boston on October 27th, check out the cleantech networking session being organized by PE Hub, featuring five insightful panelists (oh, and yours truly as well).