Some notable news and initiatives came out of this week’s Cleantech Forum in San Francisco, including a keynote by the man in charge of building Abu Dhabi’s zero-emissions Masdar City, a new entrepreneur-in-residence program for three national laboratories and, separately, a $33.8 million grant from the Department of Energy for four cellulosic ethanol projects.
Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber has been criss-crossing the world in support of Abu Dhabi’s $15 billion Masdar Initiative, which aims to build a zero-carbon, zero-waste city with a population of 50,000 in hopes it can “re-engineer the way cities are built.”
Although much of that money will go toward construction and infrastructure requirements, Masdar is also becoming a significant force in fostering new technologies. The Masdar Clean Tech Fund has already sunk $250 million into cleantech ventures from its first fund, and is in the process of raising more capital for a second.
The investment dollars are going in large part to ideas for energy generation. The planned power supply of Masdar is to be split between several sources, with solar providing the majority; a 500 megawatt solar thermal installation a 100MW solar concentrator project (which funding has not yet been announced for) are in the works. Research is going into thin film, and the city will play host to a solar photovoltaic manufacturing plant.
However, another 500MW will come from a plant fueled by hydrogen, Al Jaber said in his speech. The new city will provide a rare opportunity to test out utility-scale use of hydrogen, which is estimated to be decades away in this country.
The entrepreneur-in-residence program was announced by the Department of Energy at a keynote yesterday, in collaboration with three firms that won the first slots: ARCH Venture Partners for Sandia National Laboratory, Foundation Capital for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Promising technologies at the labs will be picked through by EIRs sent out from each firm. The firms can spin out as many startups as they like, but are limited to a one-year term. The program runs on a rotating basis, at the end of which each firm will have to re-apply and compete to be chosen again.
While venture capitalists have always had contacts at the major national labs, the program gives them an inside track, complete with an office and startup-friendly terms to licensing any technologies the EIRs discover. “Typically when you license these technologies, there’s a massive up-front fee. For a startup, it’s usually too much,” said Steve Vassallo, a principal at Foundation, to us in an interview. “We’re very excited to get this equity agreement up front.”
The DOE also announced new funding for cellulosic ethanol, with a total of $33.8 million split between four companies: Genencor of Palo Alto, Calif.; Novozymes of Davis, Calif.; DSM Innovation Center of Parsippany, New Jersey; and a publicly-traded company, Verenium (NASDAQ: VRNM). Both Genencor and DSM are divisions of larger European companies.
These fundings have become a fairly regular process for the DOE, which gave away a much larger $385 million funding last year. Most of the money is going toward building pilot-scale demonstration plants, although Range Fuels already broke ground on a full-size cellulosic ethanol plant with the help of $76 million from the DOE.
Both are part of a $1 billion fund that the energy agency announced last year, part of President Bush’s clean energy package. There is also a separate $2 billion loan program. It’s likely that the amount will grow once a new candidate is in office next year.