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Valley VC learns to embrace government

Famous venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson avoided politics--as long as he could. Now dealing with the feds is a job skill.

This is the fifth in a series of profiles that look at how the tech industry is working with the federal government.

"We joke about the Internet routing around bad government," venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson said when I asked him about launching and running companies that have to make nice with Uncle Sam.

Jurvetson, a managing director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson, made his first big venture capital score by putting money into Hotmail. He also invested in Skype. Of these early investments, he said, "They fell outside the realm of regulatory friction."

But times have changed for Jurvetson. He's investing in electric cars (Tesla, Revo), space travel (SpaceX) and biotechnology (Synthetic Genomics). Learning to deal with government is now a job skill. "For groups like us who moved from pure IT to energy and clean tech, it's inevitable."

Steve Jurvetson of VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Rafe Needleman/CNET

Nonetheless, DFJ does not invest based on prevailing political winds. In fact, Jurvetson said, they have "trepidation" if a business they're considering depends in any way on government largesse such as consumer rebates or tax credits. So the company will look at solar power investments, for example, but the company has to look like it can make a go of it without the government's help.

Cases in point: DFJ's investments in solar energy companies SolarCity and Solar Junction are based on the companies' balance sheets working without government credits or rebates.

But when policies shift and money comes the way of its start-ups, "we don't scoff at it," said Jurvetson. DFJ doesn't make bets based purely on where today's dollars are flowing, but Jurvetson does note that a large-scale governmental balancing act seems to reinforce good businesses even when the economy overall takes a hit. "We might not have predicted the financial crisis," he said, "but as some sources of money dried up, the Obama dollars flowed, and filled in some of the cracks."

Other industrial investments are also turning out to be politically charged. The electric car company Tesla, in which DFJ invested, received $465 million in loans from the U.S. Department of Energy. The company has promised to locate its manufacturing plants in the U.S., which has turned out to be politically astute: The real political engagement comes at the state and local levels from municipalities that want the plants in their backyards. California, where Tesla is located, is letting the company acquire $320 million worth of manufacturing equipment without paying state sales taxes.

At Tesla, the decision to be an American company is an ongoing one. The company's vice president of business development, Diarmuid O'Connell, said, "Even beyond creating American jobs for American workers, the most compelling business reason for Tesla to build products in the USA is that doing so enables a tight feedback loop between manufacturing and R&D. When you have engineers who can talk directly to assemblers, you shrink product cycles and ensure continuous improvement of the product."

While Synthetic Genomics isn't in one the highly politicized areas of biology--it doesn't do stem-cell research--Jurvetson does think the hostility toward stem cell research under Bush has relaxed under Obama. That, he said, has had a tangible result at research universities. "And there's the symbolic respect of science that Obama brings," Jurvetson added. "If you're at the fringes of science, that makes a difference. In the past it wasn't clear if you wanted to go to the U.S. to do research. Now it's on a more even keel."

Not surprisingly, Jurvetson said he was "personally excited about Obama," and he and his family campaigned for him. Of the partners at DFJ, not all share Jurvetson's beliefs. Managing director Tim Draper leans libertarian, for example. Is that a business problem or merely fodder for water-cooler debate?

Neither, Jurvetson said with a straight face. The diversity of opinion is a strength, he argues. He betrays no conflict over working with a man whose political platform is at odds with his own.

It appears to reinforce his business belief that "diversity can be more important than ability" at a company. "A group of diverse thinkers can make better decisions than groupthink. In our firm, for example, Draper and [managing director John] Fisher are completely different in every way. But they found mutual respect. And when I came on I was the tie-breaker."