Bill Gates just revealed more information about his plan, first unveiled about a year ago, to bring together a group of billionaires to fund breakthroughs in energy technology that can fight climate change.
The group, which has a collective net worth of $170 billion, is one of the most star-studded and diverse ever assembled to fund any kind of technology innovation. But will the big new fund be more successful than the mostly lackluster attempt at cleantech investing of the past decade?
On Monday, Gates and his group announced a new $1 billion fund -- called Breakthrough Energy Ventures -- which will invest in science-based energy research, entrepreneurs and companies in areas like generating cheap clean energy, capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions, and making buildings more energy-efficient.
The fund plans to make investments in both early-stage tech projects and later-stage companies. Unlike a traditional VC fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures plans to make investments over a 20-year period, intends to offer larger amounts of capital to companies that can be commercialized, and also plans to partner closely with university labs.
The fund includes investments from well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, who both led cleantech investments at their firms over the past several years. Among the list of 21 investors, big names include Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Virgin founder Richard Branson and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Board members include energy hedge fund manager John Arnold, the Chairman of Reliance Mukesh Ambani, SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, as well as Ma, Khosla and Doerr. Gates is listed as the chairman of the board.
The fund will be a rare source of new financing for energy tech innovation, an area which has been fairly neglected in recent years in many regions.
About a decade ago, many investors in Silicon Valley jumped into funding cleantech startups, but years later many dropped those efforts after losing money. High-profile cleantech failures like solar startup Solyndra, electric car company Fisker Automotive, and biofuel company KiOR scared off many.
However, the devil will be in the details for how the fund plans to make its investments, and if it will be more successful than past attempts. Gates, Khosla and Doerr have already funded dozens of companies around energy storage, biofuels and solar manufacturing with few big wins to show so far.
Will the trio use Breakthrough Energy Ventures to double down on their prior model of investing, just with a bigger fund and with capital outside of the confines of their firms?
According to the investors on a media call on Monday afternoon, their cleantech investing will be different this time around. Gates, Doerr and Khosla gave every indication on the call that the fund would take full advantage of everything they’ve learned from the industry’s past mistakes.
Doerr described the fund as “bespoke,” and designed “for the unique nature of the opportunity.”
“We’ll take a lot of learnings over the last decade of energy investing and apply them here,” he said.
Doerr described the lessons learned as: Energy tech breakthroughs need to be revolutionary instead of evolutionary, technologies need to have a clear market and the innovations need to be backed by an outstanding team. Investors also need to take “a really long point of view,” and also be willing to put two, three or maybe even five times more capital into companies than in an average VC investment, said Doerr.
He also noted that winning with energy tech breakthroughs is “harder than usual.”
“I can’t guarantee that it will happen,” said Doerr on commercializing successful energy tech companies, but he said the group is focused on enabling better, faster and cheaper energy and a zero-carbon planet by 2050. “I would never underestimate the power of energy entrepreneurs to change the game here,” said Doerr.
Khosla said that the fund would give investors the “ability to be patient and take larger risks.” That type of investing can also create a much better opportunity for returns, said Khosla. However, the board members didn’t provide more details on what expected returns might look like or how deals would be structured.
Arnold said the fund would only make an investment if the technology could have a large impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In that way, the group is very mission-focused.
Gates said that investors would take more of a hands-on approach with entrepreneurs and companies, helping them find strategic partners and follow-on financing.
Within the next three months, Breakthrough Energy Ventures plans to hire managers to make its investments and do due diligence on entrepreneurs and research ideas. It’s unclear just how much involvement and influence the board members like Gates, Doerr and Khosla would have over investment choices.
The selection of the management team will be very important to determine just how different this cleantech investing project will be, compared to past efforts. Will these folks come from the traditional Silicon Valley venture capital world?
After it became clear that the traditional Silicon Valley model of VC investing hasn’t worked so far for cleantech, a variety of new models have been introduced. Those include Cyclotron Road, which is collaborating closely with university labs; the energy research shop of Otherlab; regionally focused groups like the Energy Excelerator; and industry-focused projects like Powerhouse. Former Khosla Ventures partner Andrew Chung recently launched a $200 million fund with 1955 Capital to invest in technologies to manage resources in emerging markets like China.
Whatever team ends up managing Breakthrough Energy Ventures, they should be well versed in what’s worked and what hasn’t.
Breakthrough Energy Ventures says it plans to invest on a 20-year horizon, instead of the typical VC model which expects returns in a much shorter time period, like five years. Breakthrough investors will also be willing to put in larger funding rounds -- seven-, eight- and nine-figure investments -- into established companies that can be commercialized, said Arnold.
The fund, which has a pool structure, has already had a first close with a commitment of a billion dollars, and plans to have a second close in the spring of 2017. The fund will also invest internationally, said the board members.
The investors, like Khosla, still plan to make their own investments through their own firms. Arnold said on the call that the group is developing a “conflict of interest” policy to examine investments by Breakthrough Energy Ventures compared to investments backed by funds from board member’s own firms.
While the board members said all the right things on the media call, the fund appears to be an evolved venture capital fund with some important different parameters. But will that be different enough to get different results? The question remains if any form of venture capital is really appropriate to fund difficult-to-achieve energy tech innovations.