Melting Glaciers and Motivation

tl;dr: Depressing? Motivating? Both.

Team Nordan spent the last couple weeks of summer in three national parks – Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. Weather and wildfires cooperated to deliver spectacular views and lots of wildlife. I came across the gal below on a trail run; her two calves were out of frame to the left.

Moose at Swiftcurrent Lake Glacier National ParkOn our second day we took a long hike up to Grinnell Glacier. You can see it from a distance in the right half of the pic below.

Redrock Lake Glacier National ParkAt the outset a ranger laid out the state of play: When Glacier National Park was established in 1910, there were 150 glaciers. Now there are 25. By 2030 there are expected to be zero. When we reached the end of the hike I continued another half-mile off-trail to the glacier’s edge.

Grinnell Glacier Glacier National Park 1This being 2015, what do we do? We take a glacier selfie…

Grinnell Glacier Glacier National Park 2…before laying our hands on the ice.

Grinnell Glacier Glacier National Park 3As I walked back a disquieting thought came to mind. I’m 40 years old; my daughters are 11 and 13. Should I return with their children, there will be no more ice left to touch.

Posted in Personal rumination | 3 Comments

PRIME Coalition: A New Funding Model for Radical Energy Innovation

tl;dr: PRIME launches today, bringing a new source of funding – philanthropic capital – to clean energy tech.

PRIME_fig1How will we scale the world for 10 billion 11 billion people? How will we double the size of the consuming class – people who eat meat and drive cars – without wrecking the climate or fighting resource wars?

A big part of the answer lies in deploying the best clean energy technologies we have today at massive scale. If we’re smart, we’ll focus those deployments on high-growth economies, where we can inflect the arc of consumption and deliver the biggest impact. My firm MNL Partners does this.

But an equally important part of the answer is coming up with new clean energy technologies that are radically better than what we have now. Olympic judges would assign a much higher “degree of difficulty” score to this, because birthing a breakthrough energy technology requires lots of money, time, and risk tolerance – more than the conventional start-up financing system supports.

PRIME Coalition introduces a new funding model for energy innovation that harnesses philanthropic capital. PRIME aims to birth true breakthroughs: clean energy technologies with planetary-scale impact.

. . . . .

Why do we need better clean energy technologies in the first place? Because the ones we have today aren’t that good. Don’t get me wrong – photovoltaics, wind turbines, and the like are the best technologies we have now and we should put them everywhere we can. But on a number of key metrics, we’ll have to do better to support a growing, prosperous world. Consider power density.

Human history is a journey on many dimensions – a journey of language, a journey of culture. To an energy nerd like me, however, it’s also a journey of power density. First we burned wood: Think of the amount of energy from burning a pound of wood as X. Then we burned coal – that’s about 1.8X. Then oil – 2.5X. Next, we split atoms: 2,000,000X – a huge advance!

Today’s clean energy technologies take us backward – not just pre-nuclear, but prehistoric. A typical coal plant produces around 100-200 watts per square meter of area, and a typical nuclear plant does about 400-500. But a typical utility-scale solar plant yields only about 10-20 watts per square meter – an order of magnitude worse.

PRIME_fig2As another example, while there’s plenty wrong with fossil-fired power plants, they have the virtue of being dispatchable – they possess a “volume knob” that lets us ramp their output up and down to match demand. In contrast, we only get solar and wind power when the sun’s shining and the wind’s blowing. We won’t replace coal with that.

A host of new, breakthrough energy technologies could outperform what we have today. They have been discovered, but not developed, and they’re ready to move from the lab into early-stage start-up companies. They span domains including energy storage, electrofuels, next-generation solar, thermoelectrics, advanced nuclear, and many more. These technologies are to the 21st century what photovoltaics were to the 20th.

So what’s holding them up?

. . . . .

We can answer that question by looking backward to see where past energy breakthroughs came from.

Let’s stick with power generation. When I look for the most recent example of a carbon-free power generation technology that reached mass adoption, I have to go all the way back to the 1950s. In 1951, scientists hooked a steam turbine up to a nuclear reactor and made emissions-free electricity (nuclear fission has its downsides, but “CO2 emissions” isn’t one of them). Three years later, researchers built the first practical solar cell (a photovoltaic with >1% conversion efficiency). Since then: nothing. How were these breakthroughs born?

PRIME_fig3We got nuclear fission from the Manhattan Project, a wartime effort sparked by fear of Nazi hegemony that cost $26 billion in today’s dollars. Nothing like it exists today.

Solar power came from Bell Labs, a massive corporate R&D operation lavishly funded with monopoly profits. We don’t have those any more.

“But Matthew,” you interject, “that’s not how we fund innovation in the 21st century. Today breakthrough technologies get productized by start-up companies, which are primarily funded by venture capital. We should look to start-ups – not government labs or corporations – for the next energy breakthrough.”

Rarely, venture capitalists make early-stage investments in energy game-changers – which historically need more than a decade to develop and even longer to scale up. But for the most part, that time frame is too long, the amount of capital required is too great, and the risks are too high. Venture investors need to show a return within 10 years, so they stick with what works, namely faster-developing businesses with lower capital requirements – think Instagram, bought for $1 billion at three years old with just 14 employees! When VCs do hard tech, it’s mostly in industries like pharmaceuticals that have much higher profit margins (and attendant valuations) than in energy.

Venture investors are smart. They know that there are fortunes to be made from transformative energy technologies, because the markets are huge. They’d be happy to back a truly breakthrough energy tech company – but only after its earliest stages, once a substantial amount of risk has been retired and the time-to-exit fits in a 10-year box.

This puts VCs in a race to be second. When no one is willing to go first, breakthrough companies don’t get launched.

PRIME’s mission is to go first.

. . . . .

PRIME is the brainchild of Sarah Kearney. Sarah ran the Chesonis Family Foundation, which between 2007 and 2010 disbursed $10 million in grants for energy-related science and engineering research at universities, primarily MIT. In parallel, she assisted the foundation’s benefactor with investments in clean energy start-ups. In the process she saw how the most game-changing ideas were paradoxically the least likely to be financed by traditional VC.

I met Sarah in 2010 when I was making venture investments in energy at Venrock. I roamed the halls of elite universities, getting to know the most enterprising professors and grad students whom I might earn the right to fund. At many of MIT’s best labs, I heard the same thing: A mysterious woman had shown up months before me and made a grant. I figured I should get to know her.

Over a period of years, Sarah and I traded notes on energy investing and the problem of early-stage funding. In January 2013 – after spending two years and an MIT master’s thesis on the topic – she sat across a table from me and outlined a solution:

  • Family foundations command lots of capital – $600 billion in 2011, of which $47 billion went out in grants.
  • Only 0.1% of this money went to energy innovation – despite the fact that many foundations believe in the power of technology to transform energy.
  • Foundations aren’t absent due to lack of interest, but because of two barriers. First, they have no way to distinguish the truly promising candidates. Second, if they want to do anything creative, the transaction costs are high.
  • A new intermediary could smash these barriers. On one hand, it could do the hard work of selecting and diligencing candidate companies, which requires deep domain knowledge. On the other, it could bring legal and accounting resources to bear that could reduce transaction costs.
  • If done right, this intermediary wouldn’t simply channel grants. It would enable philanthropic organizations to use a more advanced set of tools that let them earn a return on their concessionary dollars in the event of a breakout success – yielding more money to be given away in the future. These tools include program-related investments (PRIs) and recoverable grants. (Hence PRIME: Program-Related Investment Makers for Energy.)

PRIME_fig4I found Sarah’s ideas compelling and asked lots of questions about how the model would work in practice. We decided to team up to answer them. An intensive research process ensued over the next six months, involving about 150 interviews with donors, intermediaries, and generally smart people.

While we found a very high level of interest in the philanthropic community, we encountered an equally high education hurdle. Energy tech was new to family foundations and so were tools like PRIs; combined, this meant that PRIME would have to prove out its thesis gradually, one transaction at a time.

As a result, PRIME set three goals:

  • Raise sufficient operating capital to run a lean organization for two years. By mid-2014, eight visionary backers – six family foundations and two family offices – had stepped up to meet the target.
  • Receive a 501c3 exemption determination from the IRS. This would make PRIME an official public charity with a mission to harness philanthropic capital for energy innovation. We got it in September 2014.
  • Make a series of proof-of-concept investments to demonstrate the model (i.e. one-offs done with a “coalition of the willing” each time, not out of a committed fund). The first such investment was completed in May 2015.

. . . . .

The recipient of PRIME’s first investment is Quidnet Energy.

Quidnet tackles the problem of grid-scale energy storage – the mechanism needed to power the planet via renewables – with a radical new approach. It uses pressurized water as the storage medium within depleted oil and gas reservoirs. In the “charging” event, an electric pump pushes more water down, causing the reservoir to elastically deform – like a spring – and push back against the water. In the “discharging” event, a valve at the surface opens and the water rushes up to drive a pressure turbine, making electricity.


PRIME facilitated Quidnet’s seed investment, the initial injection of capital that brought it from concept to company. Four investors joined: the Sorenson Impact Foundation (which made a PRI), the Will and Jada Smith Foundation (which made a recoverable grant), and two angel investors (who issued straight convertible debt). The money is being used not to simulate how the technology would work in a computer model (that had already been done), but to test it for real at a carefully-selected site in central Texas.

Quidnet shows the hallmarks of a PRIME investment:

  • A step change improvement. Most approaches to energy storage involve batteries. They are expensive. While these technologies can tap billion-dollar markets, they’re unlikely to reach the ultra-low-costs required to compete with fossil-fired generation. Quidnet can realistically achieve such low costs if the technology proves out.
  • A compelling team. Quidnet’s founding team pairs a business leader – a seasoned energy tech entrepreneur with multiple companies under his belt – with a technical leader who has top-tier reservoir engineering experience.
  • A high-risk experiment unsupported by conventional capital. The Quidnet seed round would not have happened but for philanthropic capital. When venture investors heard the pitch, their answer was “that sounds really promising and really risky – I’d like to learn more, but only after it works in the field.”

. . . . .

PRIME_fig6I co-founded PRIME and serve as chairman of its investment committee. (The other committee members will be announced this summer). We’re developing a comprehensive philanthropic investment process. It starts by screening the full universe of early-stage resource innovation projects (energy, agriculture, waste, water) for climate impact and for charitability, and then narrows them down based on attractiveness, misalignment with conventional venture capital, and potential impact at scale. An alpha version of this process led to the Quidnet investment, and the investment committee will go through a full-featured version of it this year.

PRIME’s unveiling today is the result of two and a half years of work, and the intellectual and financial contributions of many smart, committed people. It’s our hope that there are many more investments to come – and that PRIME will help build long-term philanthropic capital into an established funding source for world-changing innovation.

Posted in Philanthropy, Venture capital | 1 Comment

Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Innovation

I spoke a couple of weeks ago at the NextWave Greentech Investing conference (organized by my friend Rob Day at Black Coral Capital). My aim was to describe the past, present, and future of investment in energy and environmental innovation in a way that would not epically bore the crowd… So I brought props.

While I failed in my stretch goal to break something onstage, I hope I articulated the square peg/round hole challenge in this field. Here’s the video:

Feedback is welcome. I’ve also put up a version of the slides on the tools page.

Posted in Numbers, Venture capital | 1 Comment

Energy, Human Evolution, and Neuroscience

There’s a dividing line down the center of energy and environmental community. On one side are Amory Lovins types who say that we should focus exclusively on deploying the technologies we already have, because no breakthroughs are needed to scale the world for 10 billion people. On the other side are the likes of Bill Gates, who describes today’s solar and wind as “cute” and says we need radical innovation to keep the world turning.

While I don’t think either extreme is helpful I’m on the Gates side of the continuum.

My point of view is informed by my work as an investor, but just as much by my initial academic training in human behavior. Human beings are wired not to achieve some specific standard of living, but to always have more – “more than those around me, more than I had yesterday” – and evidence from sociology to brain imaging speaks to the fact. I gave the rapid-fire version of this thinking in the talk below from last month’s VERGE Boston event:

Take a gander and let me know what you think. At some point I’ll get around to writing up the long-form version of this thesis, which has sat half-composed on my laptop for several years now.

Posted in Consumers, Energy efficiency, Leprechauns | 4 Comments

Five Lessons Learned From Bringing Cleantech to China

tl;dr: Experienced cleantech CEOs leverage China instead of fearing it – enlisting self-interested partners to defend IP and manage risk.

This post was co-written with George Miller, an MIT MBA student who conducted this research while interning with me. A version of it also appeared at GigaOM.

One morning it dawned on me that of the nine energy companies in our Venrock portfolio, a third are focused on China – yet none of them planned it upfront. I figured it would be good to understand how other cleantech start-ups have approached the middle kingdom, so I enlisted MIT MBA student (and fluent Mandarin speaker) George Miller to interview a representative sample and collect best practices.

George spoke confidentially with 15 venture-backed cleantech start-ups that have set up Chinese operations. Every interviewee was either a C-level executive or VP of business/corporate development; the majority were CEOs. Nine of the 15 interviewees entered China primarily to sell into the domestic market, while the balance aimed to export from Chinese manufacturing facilities. The average company is 11 years old and entered China five years ago.

China entry timeline, 15 start-ups interviewed

Most of our research findings are confidential to Venrock and the companies interviewed, but some high-level conclusions deserve a broader airing.

China strategies have been mostly improvised. At all of the companies we spoke with, China is a big, board-level deal, ranking somewhere between “an important growth market” and “our sole focus.” Yet only four firms had a specific China plan at the formation stage, and three initially didn’t plan to enter China at all.

“In the company’s initial business plan, China entry was…”

Nearly all companies partner. The most common engagement model we found was a joint venture (JV) with a Chinese enterprise, represented by eight of the 15 interviewees. Six have set up distribution agreements but not full-blown JVs. Only one has gone it alone in China, with a standalone, wholly foreign-owned entity that manufactures and sells directly.

China entry approaches

IP is the big challenge. When we asked about key challenges experienced in China, intellectual property (IP) protection topped the list. This is no surprise – tales of IP leakage in the country are legion, with cleantech’s most glaring example being the outright theft of American Superconductor’s wind turbine software. General transparency in business dealings came second, and a cluster of people-related challenges followed. In contrast, interviewees didn’t find market access difficult: We heard that with strong government support and large pools of capital, the risk appetite for capital-intensive projects is greater than in most developing countries.

Key challenges cited in China entry

JVs are the solution. Conventional wisdom says to protect IP by building moats – like splitting manufacturing steps across sites so no one person knows them all, or supplying a key “black box” component from outside China. Our interviewees employ these moat-building tactics, but they think bridge-building works best: The technique rated most effective was forming a joint venture with a large Chinese partner, incentivizing that partner with outsized ownership, and relying on its self-interest to defend the IP. Notably, every interviewee with a JV ranked this tactic the highest.

“What IP protection method was most effective in China?”

JVs address secondary problems, too. When we delved into interviewees’ secondary challenges about transparency and people, it turned out that a strong JV partner was effective in resolving them as well. The stories we heard addressed…

…conflicts of interest: “We had no idea that the largest shareholders in [a potential distributor] are also in the seats of power at [the end customer]. Only once you reach the goal line do they open the kimono.”

…internal corruption: “One of the executives we hired was marking up purchase orders and taking kickbacks. He didn’t have a bad heart, and that practice is common in China – so instead of ‘firing’ him, we ‘retired’ him.”

…training: “Because our technology is so unique, we didn’t have trouble attracting and retaining talent. The challenge was educating them on exactly what we do.”

…workforce management: “It’s not just the government that’s socialist; it’s also the labor force. Financial incentives don’t work well. We used vacation time as a key motivator.”

It’s self-evident that these challenges can be mitigated by a strong in-country partner that knows the value chain and manages lots of people.

. . . . .

Chinese joint ventures are no walk in the park. The average JV in our sample was three and a half years old, had taken longer to get going than expected, and was considered too early to call as a success or failure. Interviewees complained about long government approval processes and culture clashes along the way, and we didn’t hear any silver-bullet tactics for doing it right: The best practices were all things you’d expect, including intensive background checks of partner executives, JV agreements that maintain “face” for both start-up and partner (usually relying on profit-sharing), and experienced domestic legal representation. And clearly, you’ve got to be obsessive about picking a trustworthy partner – American Superconductor’s widely-publicized IP dispute is, in fact, with its former JV partner Sinovel.

Despite all those caveats, I drew a clear conclusion from this work. Most cleantech innovation is happening in the U.S., but most adoption will be in growth economies building new infrastructure – with China at the top of the list. Chinese incumbents like Wanxiang, Shenhua, and ENN are scouring the west for technologies to pick up. In this environment, a cleantech start-up can either play defense at the barrel of a financial gun (see A123 Systems), or play offense, entering China on its own terms and timeline. If you’re going to do the latter, be prepared to partner up.

Posted in China, Unsolicited advice | 3 Comments