Green

Steve Newcomb resurfaces with a political and cleantech bent

newcomb.jpgHere in Silicon Valley, after a turbulent ride at a start-up, founders often find themselves emotionally drained (or charged) and looking for renewal.

For example, natural language search engine Powerset experienced its share of buzz, and hype, but last year its founding team reached an impasse when things weren’t going as smoothly as hoped. In a reshuffle, co-founder Steve Newcomb left, and immediately planned to do his own thing.

I met yesterday with Newcomb to catch up. His tale is a good example of renewal, the desire to find meaning and to have an impact for the good. Although a serial entrepreneur, he’s dipping his toes into politics, in hopes of influencing local government toward stepping up its green initiatives.

Unlike Lawrence Lessig’s recent flirtation with Congress, that doesn’t mean running for office. Newcomb wants to act more like a private lobbyist, pushing notable issues and using his personal network for effect.

He’s targeting two upcoming issues on the San Francisco ballot: One is an expanded rebate program for rooftop solar installations. The second is a push to build a two million square foot “Green Campus” in Hunter’s Point, an area in San Francisco with a reputation for its toxic dumps, high unemployment rate, and isolation from the rest of the city.

newcombsm.jpg The latter initiative is being officially announced by the Mayor’s office this morning. There are no specifics yet, in part because development rights for the land in question are still being contested (a competing bill by Supervisor Chris Daly could halt the entire development project, according to the Chronicle). However, a comparable project successfully took place in Mission Bay, with several million square feet set aside for a biotechnology campus, so there’s precedent.

So exactly what can a private citizen (mostly — Newcomb is on the local Policy Committee) do to help guide policy in a city the size of San Francisco, and why would he want to spend his time doing so, instead of tackling environmental issues with a new startup?

Well, he says, both initiatives require business thinking and management: Solar installation requires a constellation of vendors, while major developments like the kind envisioned for Hunter’s Point are often public-private partnerships. A driven individual is needed to develop the political coalitions required to get results.

The second part of the answer is a bit more fanciful. Newcomb went through a personal awakening last year that made him decide to hold off on another venture idea. First, he saw a video of John Doerr’s emotional speech about global warming at the 2006 TED conference. And second, a “world leader” (specifically who, he won’t say) told him that his green efforts at Powerset (providing subsidies to employees who lived within a mile of work, for example) weren’t enough to make a real difference.

“Don’t get me wrong, though,” Newcomb says. “I don’t think I can really go out alone and change everything.” What he can do, he says, is help start a movement in San Francisco that will be a model for other cities.

As to why he left Powerset, he is, for the most part, keeping mum, citing only disagreements with Pell and a desire to work on sustainability projects like the two ballot initiatives.

Newcomb hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of private enterprise. He’s “investigating” a carbon credit fund that individuals would buy into. However, he says that nothing is certain yet. He’s also starting a regularly recurring event, similar to the popular SF Beta, called SF Green.

What do you guys think? Is it worthwhile to leave the startup world (not to mention your income) to become a public policy crusader? Or is there always a better chance to spark change through business?

Update:  Wired wrote a rather different article on Newcomb that includes a lot more details on the business plan involving crowd-sourced investment that I briefly mentioned above. Newcomb says he wouldn’t be the sole founder and isn’t even close to deciding on whether to try it at all, though.