Vinod Khosla, dynamic founder of Khosla Ventures and Kevin Skillern, managing director of GE energy financial services, both just spoke on the “GreenTech Gurus” panel at TechCrunch Disrupt. Here are some highlights of the discussion.
On investment in cleantech:
Khosla (pictured, above) said he sees similarities in cleantech and IT investing. Quick returns aren’t necessarily an issue. Some of the technologies might take 10 years to get to liquidity, “but there’s plenty of other startups that take 10 years.”
He also believes that cleantech investment doesn’t have to be costly if you’re “clever” about it. It’s less about the capital than the ability of venture capitalists to grow a startup.
“My view is, don’t extrapolate the past. Invent the future.” Khosla hammered home the innovation point hard, saying forecasting the future doesn’t work as well as paving the way yourself. He pointed to how Amyris, a biofuels company that had its IPO yesterday, started out wanting to make anti-malarial drugs. “Literally six months later they were producing jet fuels,” Khosla said.
For GE’s part, Skillern (pictured, right) said the company sees itself as an active corporate investor that can partner with startups and grow them to billion-dollar businesses. GE’s analysis of “What are the billion-dollar markets?” yielded 30-plus possibilities within energy alone. “It’s one of the biggest growth opportunities in the world,” he said.
High fuel prices, too, represent an opportunity. “If you go above $40 oil a lot of stuff kicks in. A lot of technologies kick in where there’s a lot of opportunity. That’s biofuels. That’s electrifying vehicles,” Skillern added.
On electric vehicles:
Khosla’s not a fan – he made a strong case against them because of price and expense of the battery. Most will also run on coal-powered electricity, he pointed out.
“Most of the new cars are being sold in India and China and they want cheap just like everyone else,” he said. “You can reduce more carbon by painting your roof white than you can by buying a Prius.”
Instead, he’s investing in EcoMotors, a company that makes more efficient internal combustion engines, which (name-drop) also impressed and got investment from Bill Gates. These engines evidently emit less emissions than the Prius. “Far more practical than electric vehicles.”
(Skillern didn’t have much to say on this topic, perhaps because GE is the maker of an electric car charging station called the WattStation and has teamed up with electrification startup Better Place).
Khosla is, however, investing in some battery technology that has the potential to be game-changing, like Sakti3’s solid-state technology and magnesium-ion batteries, which are “a lot cheaper” than traditional lithium-ion.
Consolation prize for electric vehicles: He called Chevy’s soon-to-be-released electric hybrid Volt a “really good car.”
Intriguing companies and technologies:
For Khosla, he’s investing in startups like Caitin, which is creating air conditioning that will use 75 percent less energy –“If it works. Always a big if,” he acknowledges. It will take about $10 million to figure out whether or not the technology works, then 18 to 20 months to figure out scale. He’s also looking at LED lighting.
“Transportation, lighting, HVAC. What more is there in life? That’s 80% of the problem,” he said.
On GE’s part, Skillern said they’ve invested in a company called Consert in conjunction with Verizon and Qualcomm. The company uses wireless networks to create “mini power plants” in homes. The technology could be deployed in areas of the world that have cellular networks but poor grid reliability. “It works and it’s powerful,” he said.
Another company GE has put money into is called Ciris Energy, which makes clean coal by accelerating the process in which coal turns into natural gas.
“One I wish I’d invested in,” Khosla said.
Both men also bemoaned the lack of clear clean-energy legislation and low-carbon fuel standards in the U.S., a view that’s shared by many in cleantech.
The panel closed off with one final question: What’s one technology you would definitely invest in?
Skillern: “Biofuels at $20 a barrel.”
Khosla: “If somebody solved chemical intensive agriculture problems, I’d be all for it.”