NEWS ANALYSIS -- David Gelbaum, the secretive investor behind the Quercus Trust, has publicly stated that he has had to cut charitable donations due to financial issues with the trust.
“I am willing to be publicly named now because my investments in alternative, clean energy companies have placed me in a highly illiquid position as a result of the general credit crisis in the American and world financial systems,” he said in a public statement.
Although the credit crisis clearly has played a role, the Quercus Trust also seems to suffer from what I'd call the Superman Complex. (see the first comprehensive article on Quercus here). Simply put, the firm has made a large number of investments – 47 alone by our tally in January – making it one of the most active VC firms in the greentech space. Several VCs – who in their brave way have declined to go on record second guessing the strategy of a competitor – have questioned in the past year whether any firm can actively monitor that broad range of investments, particularly a firm that seems to be managed by a handful of people.
Entrepreneurs who have received funds from the Quercus Trust have told us that Gelbaum is a hands-on advisor and manager. He expects results and does not look at the companies the firm invests in as charities. But with 47 companies, that means engaging in a constant stream of board meetings.
Then there are the types of investments the firm specializes in. Many of the firm's investments are in high-risk experiments straight out of university labs that may not pay off for years. The firm, for instance, has an investment in Advanced Hydro out of the University of Texas that has created a coating that was inspired by the mucus secreted by mussels. Another UT company, Graphene Energy, wants to make ultracapacitors out of pure sheets of carbon.
Some of the firm's investments it incubates itself. Gelbaum reads scientific literature and contacts the researchers when he's intrigued. Khosla Ventures also invests in high-risk science projects as well. But there are a few crucial difference between the two. One, Khosla Ventures gets large sums of money from limited partners. Khosla also has a staff and plenty of connections in the scientific world. Quercus, as far as the outside world can tell, largely is managed and run by Gelbaum. The firm often works with 21Ventures, particularly on Israeli investments. But it is also a small firm largely managed by David Anthony.
Gelbaum can be considered a genius. The formulas for stock trading he came up with as a young math whiz in his teens and twenties earned him millions. (He worked with a professor at the University of California Irvine.) Still, can two guys really be experts on wind turbines that look like airplane propellers (Technospin), waste heat (Regen Power Systems) bacteria for cleaning up oil spills (BioPetroClean), and piezoelectrics (TBT Group)?
The firm also invests in a number of turnaround cases – i.e., over-the-counter stock companies that need to be revitalized to survive. The firm has an investment in DayStar Technologies, one of the earliest companies in copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells. DayStar, however, has chronically faced management and technology problems. It appointed a new CEO on September 21 and he resigned a month later.
Entech Solar, which has an interesting solar system that combines solar thermal and PV panels, has undergone management changes in the past year. Competitors have also begun to market similar systems.
And then, like Superman, the firm has shouded itself in secrecy. Visit Quercus.com: You see a picture of acorns. Quercus means oak in Latin. Quercustrust.com, registered to a Southern California address, redirects back to Google. Other URLs lead to blind alleys. I almost met him once by accident, but it never occurred. All that skullduggery has got to take its toll.
To his credit, some of these firms have done well. Ener1, the Indiana-based battery maker, was not a favorite of VCs. But it landed the contract with Think, the Norwegian electric car maker, after Tesla Motors backed out. Ener1 also received a grant from the Department of Energy.
BlueFire Ethanol recently received an $81 million grant to build an ethanol plant at a landfill. It was the largest grant in a recent biofuel round from the DOE. He was also an early investor in GridPoint, one of the bigger names in smart grid.
But if you take away the notable successes, it still leaves many companies in need of guidance.