Government to help incubate clean-tech start-ups

The Department of Energy picks Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers, Foundation Capital and ARCH Venture Partners to support entrepreneurs at national labs.

Elsa Wenzel
2 min read

The Department of Energy announced on Wednesday its choice of three venture capital firms to send promising clean-tech entrepreneurs to collaborate with national laboratories.

The government's new Entrepreneur in Residence plan is designed to speed the development of the green technology sector.

"Government has to cultivate the conditions for these technologies to thrive," U.S. assistant secretary of energy Alexander Karsner told attendees of the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco. "We felt very strongly we had to build bridges over the commercialization valley of death."

The venture capitalists include Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers to work with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado; ARCH Venture Partners to partner with Sandia National Laboratory in California; and Foundation Capital to collaborate with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

"This is the most exciting time I've seen at the lab for commercialization," said Tom Williams, director of technology transfer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Col.

Each firm has 12 months to assist one start-up at a time in working directly with laboratory staff, aiming to spin off successful clean-tech companies. The Department of Energy will offer $100,000 per entrepreneurial round for overhead costs, with additional funds provided by venture capitalists. After each year-long period ends, the government will newly select venture firms for the ongoing program.

"This is a brilliant program," Paul Thurk, principal of Chicago's ARCH Venture Partners, told CNET. "It forces us to focus on one particular institution."

Areas that interest Thurk include energy efficiency, green building and smart-grid systems.

Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers of Menlo Park, Calif., has some 30 clean tech companies in its portfolio, with a particular emphasis on solar and biofuels, said managing partner Ray Lane. And his firm would also likely consider for the national labs effort entrepreneurs in energy efficiency and storage, among other technologies.

Steve Vassallo, a principal at Foundation Capital of Menlo Park, noted that it usually takes up to six months to help a start-up get its feet off the ground, but he hopes that the program can spin off successful companies in half that time.

The sooner a new venture can be established within the year-long residency program, the sooner a new entrepreneur can be sent to a national laboratory.

"We've had that inertia for quite a long time, so much so that many of you turned away from Washington," said Karsner, telling the conference nevertheless not to consider the government's commitment to reducing greenhouse gases as too little, too late.

He called the public-private partnership the first of its kind in the world. The United States and Japan--whose ministry of trade's clean tech support most echoes that in this country--are responsible for 80 percent of global research and development, Karsner told CNET.