By Yuliya Chernova
Of DOW JONES VENTUREWIRE
Khosla Ventures is searching for capital-efficient projects in the clean-technology sector, but that doesn't mean avoiding traditionally expensive solar energy and biofuel companies, said founder Vinod Khosla in an interview with VentureWire.
"In every sector you'll have smart capital-light strategies and brute-force capital-intensive strategies," said Khosla, adding that the press and others tend to focus on the companies that got the most money, but they are often not the most interesting cases.
Khosla brought up two examples of portfolio companies--solar company Stion Inc. and biofuels developer Gevo Inc.--which, he said, are playing in their respective markets without gobbling up tons of venture capital cash.
In June, Khosla Ventures participated in a $70 million Series D round for Stion, a thin-film solar panel maker. Of that round, $50 million came from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSM, 2330.TW), which will help Stion produce the panels to drive down operating costs. Stion also uses a monolithic manufacturing process that the company says cuts materials costs and eliminates certain steps from panel assembly, as well as a lot of standard equipment that allows it to expand quickly without having to wait for equipment to be made to order. It currently operates a 10 MW facility and is planning to expand that with the new cash.
"With the equity Stion has raised, even without the TSMC fab and all that, Stion can be cash-flow positive," said Khosla. He noted that it means the company can break even on about $100 million in equity compared to competitors that may require upwards of half a billion dollars. Competitors include Nanosolar Inc., which has raised more than $300 million in capital, and Miasole Inc., which has raised at least $100 million in equity.
"Stion was able to put together a strategy that didn't need much money and had technology that's radically different from others," said Khosla, noting that the company is developing a tandem-junction high efficiency panel that would compete with low-cost silicon suppliers, not just the thin film darling First Solar Inc. (FSLR).
"My point is in a market like solar you can't make money if you need $1 billion," Khosla said. "You'll need a $10 billion market cap and that will be very hard to come by." Solyndra Inc., for example, another company using copper indium gallium diselenide, raised close to $1 billion in equity and pulled its planned IPO because in June it found a public market valuation too low.
Another portfolio company, Gevo, develops isobutanol by biosynthetically converting sugar into chemicals. The Denver company raised about $57 million, according to VentureWire archives and has been in the process of raising another $40 million according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing this spring. It's not building any plants to develop its fuel; instead it's buying and retrofitting existing ethanol plants, many of which were operated by companies that went bankrupt around late 2008.
Though the biofuels industry is facing challenges, Khosla is still a believer in addition to a big backer. "Bottom line is biofuels are looking pretty damn good," he said, adding that the market is large and companies that can beat oil in price will succeed. Khosla has invested in such biofuels companies as Range Fuels Inc., Coskata Inc., Mascoma Corp., LS9 Inc., and Amyris Inc., which is registered to go public.
Khosla Ventures, which earlier this year raised a $1 billion main fund and a $300 million seed fund, has made some riskier investments recently. It invested in nuclear start-up TerraPower Inc., for example, whose first demonstration reactor could cost about $3 billion to $4 billion and require another nine years to come online. "That's a high risk, high upside" kind of deal, said Khosla, adding that in the nuclear space there's also history of bigger companies buying technology designs from younger ones.
"The whole point is it's not true that you always have to have capital intensity" in clean-tech, said Khosla. "You can have clever strategies that dramatically decrease your capital needs and dramatically increase your competitiveness."
(Dow Jones VentureWire covers news about venture capital investing and start-up companies.)
-By Yuliya Chernova, Dow Jones VentureWire; 212-416-2020;