Corporations Swoop in  On Clean Tech

When the Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture firm The Westly Group raised a $160 million clean-tech fund earlier this spring, one thing stood out.

Pension funds and university endowments, traditionally among the largest investors in clean tech venture funds, were absent. But so-called “strategic investors” — particularly large, multinational corporations based overseas — were in. Of the 50 investors in the fund, the three largest were corporations: banking giant Citigroup Inc., the German utility E.ON and the SK Group of South Korea.

“Corporate investors understand how large this market is,” Steve Westly, the firm’s founder and managing partner, said in an interview.

For Silicon Valley’s clean-tech industry, the expanding role played by corporate investors is critical. The venture capital industry is shrinking, and high-profile blowups such as the bankruptcy of solar manufacturer Solyndra and the troubles of electric automaker Fisker Automotive have led some venture capitalists to sour on clean tech. Corporate investors, from leading energy companies to the nation’s biggest banks, are filling the void and providing young companies cash, connections and confidence.

Earlier this month, San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity, a leading installer of rooftop solar systems, announced that Goldman Sachs was financing $500 million worth of lease agreements, the largest single financing agreement for rooftop solar in the nation.

“As the VC support has wavered, a lot of strategics (corporate investors) have stepped in,” said Ben Kallo, a clean-tech analyst. “It always looks good to have a big brand-name company invest in you. A strategic can bring their contacts in the industry to the startup, and those contacts are invaluable.”

Global clean technology venture investment plunged 33 percent from 2011 to 2012, from $9.61 billion to $6.46 billion, according to the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco-based research and consulting firm. Its preliminary figures for the first quarter of this year show a nearly 30 percent drop from the $1.5 billion raised in the fourth quarter of 2012.

But corporate investment in clean tech is helping fill the gap: Of the $6.46 billion invested in 2012, $2.7 billion included corporate participation. That’s up from $1.7 billion invested in 2006 and $2.55 billion in 2010, according to the Cleantech Group.

Some corporations are investing in traditional venture capital funds. Others, including General Electric, Google and Shell, have created their own venture arms. Several corporations have joined forces to look for new investment opportunities, while others have made direct investments in clean-tech startups with an eye toward acquisition down the road.

Among the dominant players in the field of corporate clean-tech investing are ABB, the Swiss company that helps build the world’s power grids; Siemens, the German engineering conglomerate; and Schneider Electric, which specializes in energy management.

BuildingIQ, a San Mateo software company whose mission is to make commercial buildings more energy efficient, raised $9 million in January from three investors: Aster Capital, a leading corporate venture firm sponsored by Alstom, Schneider Electric and Solvay; the venture capital unit of Siemens Financial Services; and Paladin Capital.

“We’re much better off than if we’d raised traditional VC money alone,” said BuildingIQ CEO Mike Zimmerman, who used to be a venture capitalist. “For clean tech, there’s a realization that the corporate investor has a real value-add. For what we do, success is all about customers and distribution.”

The trend of corporate investment cuts across several clean tech sectors, from biofuels to batteries. St. Louis-based Monsanto, a leading producer of genetically engineered seeds and chemicals such as the herbicide Roundup, made an equity investment of an undisclosed sum in Sapphire Energy, a San Diego-based maker of algae-based biofuels. General Motors is an investor in Envia Systems, a startup based in Newark, Calif., that’s working on batteries for electric cars.

Google Ventures, an independent fund financed by Google, has invested in several clean-energy companies, including Palo Alto, Calif.-based Nest, which makes learning thermostats, and Redwood City, Calif.-based Silver Spring Networks, a leading smart grid company that celebrated its IPO in March.

“As long as the traditional venture firms remain constrained, it’s a great time for corporates with cash to do some deals,” said Sheeraz Haji of the Cleantech Group. “Corporates are really interested in startups, and startups want corporates to participate. The interest is really high on both sides.”