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Archive for the ‘sustainable agriculture’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

Green Wombat has been in transition so I’m a bit behind on posting. In case you missed it, in the Sunday New York Times on May 9, I wrote a profile of David Gelbaum, one of the nation’s biggest — and until now — most reclusive green technology investors and environmental philanthropists:

AMID the $6 million homes perched on a beachfront cliff in this conservative Southern California enclave, the seven-year-old Honda Civic hybrid with the Obama bumper sticker is the giveaway.

It’s not the usual drive of choice for wealthy former hedge fund managers like David Gelbaum. Then again, there’s not much that is business as usual about Mr. Gelbaum, an intensely private person who happens to be one of the nation’s largest — and largely unknown — green technology investors and environmental philanthropists.

Mr. Gelbaum has invested $500 million in clean-tech companies since 2002 through his Quercus Trust, amassing a portfolio of some 40 businesses involved in nearly every aspect of the emerging green economy, be it renewable energy, the smart electric grid, sustainable agriculture, electric cars or biological remediation of oil spills. He has poured almost as much into environmental causes.

“I think his impact on green technology is huge,” says Bill Gross, the serial technology entrepreneur and founder of eSolar, a solar power start-up in which Mr. Gelbaum has invested. “He is supporting bolder and riskier bets, and he’s doing it from a different filter than a traditional venture capitalist, and I think that makes a wider opportunity for success.”

In this economic downturn, many venture capitalists have grown cautious about putting money into what Vinod Khosla, the prominent Silicon Valley green tech investor, calls “science experiments.” But Quercus Trust is still taking chances on blue-sky start-ups pursuing technological breakthroughs.

Working outside the clubby venture capital network, Mr. Gelbaum has, until recently, maintained an obsessively low profile. In Silicon Valley, he remains something of an unknown. Associates say his near-invisibility is owed to a genuine modesty and concerns over the security of his family because of his wealth. Recipients of his philanthropy, for instance, signed confidentiality agreements that forbade mention of his name.

Mr. Gelbaum says he decided to break his long silence upon becoming chief executive in February of Entech Solar, one of his portfolio companies that is publicly traded. “This is what’s best for the company,” he says, pointing out that Entech benefits if he maintains a more public profile.

It is too early to predict whether Mr. Gelbaum’s big green bets will pay off. But he’s been capitalizing on two trends: the rapid decline in the price of photovoltaic power, and a focus on cutting capital costs as solar power competition with China intensifies.

His environmental philanthropy also gives him an influence beyond laboratories and boardrooms. He has given $200 million to the Sierra Club and $250 million to the Wildlands Conservancy, a land trust he co-founded that has acquired and preserved 1,200 square miles of land in California, including more than a half million acres of the Mojave Desert.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In The New York Times’ Business of Green special section on Thursday, I write about Janine Yorio, a 33-year-old former Wall Street investment banker who is connecting sustainable agriculture startups and venture capitalists:

SILICON VALLEY’S apricot and cherry orchards disappeared decades ago, replaced by semiconductor plants and office parks populated by technologists. Now some of the Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists are looking to the region’s roots for what could be the next new thing in an old business: agriculture.

“Sustainable agriculture is a space that looks as big or bigger than clean tech,” said Paul Matteucci, a venture capitalist with U.S. Venture Partners in Menlo Park, Calif. “Historically, we have not seen a ton of entrepreneurial activity in agriculture, but we are beginning to see it now, and the opportunities are huge.”

A catch-all phrase for environmentally beneficial farming, sustainable agriculture has long been the province of organic enthusiasts. But venture capitalists say a growing awareness of conventional agriculture’s contribution to climate change and concerns over its consumption of water and energy are creating markets for technological innovation to minimize those effects.

The Johnny Appleseed of what is being called Agriculture 2.0 is a 33-year-old former Wall Street investment banker named Janine Yorio. Her New York firm, NewSeed Advisors, brings together sustainable agriculture entrepreneurs and investors.

At the Four Seasons hotel in East Palo Alto, Calif., last month, NewSeed Advisors attracted a crowd of well-dressed investors from some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms. They packed a ballroom to hear entrepreneurs pitch start-ups developing everything from nontoxic pesticides and analytical tools for soil analysis to indoor urban farming systems.

“If you’re interested in investing in energy and water, you become interested in investing in agriculture,” said Amol Deshpande, a venture partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who attended the conference. “A lot of ag opportunities are going to be driven by water, it’s availability and cleanliness.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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