Monday night, Green Wombat swung by SF Green, one of a growing number of green tech networking events sprouting up around San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The draw – beyond drinks with a standing-room-only crowd of bright-eyed twenty-and-thirtysomethings in a San Francisco art gallery – was the appearance of leading venture capitalist Ray Lane of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Darryl Siry of Tesla Motors, maker of the Roadster electric supercar.
Despite the fact that Tesla has sued a Kleiner company, Fisker Automotive – which is producing an electric hybrid sports sedan – for alleged intellectual property theft, no sparks flew. (Though at Fortune’s recent Brainstorm Green conference, Lane couldn’t resist taking a jab at allegations that Fisker founder Henrik Fisker appropriated Tesla technology when he did design work for the Silicon Valley startup: “It’s ridiculous,” Lane said. “Henry Fisker wouldn’t know a drive train from a glass of water. He’s a designer.)
Siry, Tesla’s vp of sales, marketing & service, said five of the $100,000 Roadsters have rolled off the assembly line so far with one car tooling around Los Angeles, and others in the Bay Area and London. By year’s end, Tesla, which has been wrestling with drive train problems, should have more than 100 cars on Bay Area roads, home to many the company’s tech titan customers.
Tesla has raised $145 million, Siry noted, and will do another round before an IPO. The Roadster will always be a limited production marquee car but to mass produce its next vehicle, a five-seat sports sedan code-named White Star, Tesla will need that IPO or project financing. Siry also sketched a future where Tesla might supply electric drive trains to automakers in exchange for project financing.
“Tesla is a tech company wrapped in an automotive brand,” he said at the event co-sponsored by VentureBeat.
Lane and Kleiner Perkins have gone beyond investing in electric car companies to running one. Lane is chairman of Think North America, the U.S. arm of Norwegian electric carmaker Think Global. Kleiner and Rockport Capital took a 50 percent stake in the North American operation, which launched last month.
The Think and Fisker investments are emblematic of a new direction for VCs who have jumped into the green tech game. Unlike the first dot-com era or even the current Web 2.0 age, there’s no quick exit on the horizon for investments in green tech companies that may be years away from producing a product and require hundreds of millions, if not billions, in project financing to build car factories or solar energy power plants.
Lane compared investing in green tech to the long-term horizon needed for investing in biotech startups, where the key is to hit milestones that allow investors to calculate valuations.
Still, it’s a big gamble, given rising commodity prices and global economic upheaval.
Kleiner is also an investor in solar power plant startup Ausra. “Steel prices are killing us,” Lane said. Ausra’s power plants consist of hundred of acres of mirrors mounted on steel frames. “With Ausra, we [calculate] we could deliver solar thermal electricity at 12 cents a kilowatt-hour. But with steel prices, who knows?”
A shortage of qualified green tech workers has become an issue, according to Lane. The nascent solar power plant business relies on recruiting engineers and project developers from the carbon-based industry. “Talented people in project development at companies like Bechtel are maxed out for years on building projects,” he said.