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Bill Joy bets big on energy's 'grand challenges'

Famed technologist spends his time investing in green tech where he's seeking riskier technologies with the potential for a big gains.

When it comes to tackling the world's challenges around energy and natural resources, incremental improvements don't interest famed technologist Bill Joy.

Joy, who co-founded Sun Microsystems and is now a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has led investments in about 10 startups pursuing risky, yet potentially game-changing, technologies.

Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

In terms of the economic gains from green tech, "the default outcome" is that Asia and Europe will become leaders because of more supportive government policies, he said during the EmTech conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology today. The conference is being streamed live on the Internet.

Within the green-tech investment community, there's a debate whether it's better to fund experimental technologies or less risky, cheaper ventures. In Joy's case, he's tending toward the experimental but staying away from marginal improvements and basic research.

When Joy made the transition from the IT industry into energy and resources about five years ago, he set out a number of "aspirational" goals such as cheaper solar photovoltaics or low-energy desalination processes to meet the world's "grand challenges." From there, he sought out scientific experts in different areas and funded them in an effort to commercialize the technologies.

One company called Solidia Technologies, for example, came out of research from a Rutgers professor for making concrete in a low-polluting way through a new chemistry that uses carbon dioxide as an ingredient. Rather than shave down the carbon emissions from the traditional process, Joy's preference is to pursue a breakthrough material with better properties and a lower cost, he said.

"You have to find a hook, some technological reason why you can be a lot better, not just some incremental improvement from throwing an additive in concrete," he said. "You're not going to meet aspirational challenges that way."

In his approach, he wants to fund companies that have a 50-50 chance of achieving the desired results within a certain amount of time. One solar company called Solasta, which Joy was involved with, for example, got a series A investment from Kleiner but went out of business after it wasn't able to meet its technical targets.

There's also room for companies pursuing more modest technological changes as well as riskier science research, which is the role of the government, said Joy.

Developing technologies for energy and resources can draw on biology, chemistry, and physics and is being sped up by new technologies, such as robots which can do material discovery or carbon nanotubes.

"A lot of things become possible only in the last 20 years. Innovation is likely to be co-located in use with some of those things," he said.

For green technologies to grow in the U.S., the government should ensure there is demand for renewable energy and there should be policies to advance manufacturing in the U.S., he said.

"We're strongly disadvantaged right now except for some programs in California, Massachusetts, and a few other places," Joy said. "We don't have the strong support for manufacturing that they have in China where the government is providing low-cost loans. Instead we have the political circus going around Solyndra causing us to essentially drive in the wrong direction."