Posted on 31 March 2008.
In 2004, in mid-career, already having grown and sold two companies, and after an extensive investigation into the energy-related applications of nanotechnology, Matt Trevithick joined the Venrock team. Venrock was started in the 1930′s by Laurance Rockefeller, with their first big hit being an investment in McDonnell Aircraft Company. Since then, Venrock has scored again and again, making early investments in Apple, 3Com, and Intel, to name just a few. Venrock recently announced Venrock V, a $600M fund, and they have over 2.0 billion under management.
Trevithick has a personal heritage of innovation, being a descendant of Richard Trevithick, who in 1799 was the first inventor to develop a high-pressure steam engine, and in 1800 built the first full size steam-powered vehicle, called a “road locomotive.”
Last week we had a chance to catch up with Matt and talk about Venrock’s investments in clean technology.
“New electrons,” technology and techniques that efficiently harness and store energy and electricity are a focus of Venrock’s clean tech portfolio, both in terms of who they’ve invested in and where they’re looking to make new investments.
As Trevithick noted, “when we step back and look at opportunities, I think we will see an all-electric future, and there are a lot of ways to get us there.”
One of Venrock’s newer portfolio companies is Transonic, pioneering a new combustion concept that could deliver huge fuel savings. Transonic’s new fuel injector has the “glimmer of greatness” that Venrock always looks for. “The inefficiencies with internal combustion engines is largely due to waste heat – if you had a faster ignition pulse you wouldn’t have as much engine or tailpipe heat, and you would be able to shrink the overall engine size,” said Trevithick. “This is a novel technology, and if it works it will have a novel impact.”
Another company Venrock has bet on is Boston Power, a company manufacturing lithium ion laptop batteries. Boston Power’s “Sonata” line is reputed to charge in 30 minutes, last three years, and have superior safety and sustainability characteristics. A relatively new entrant, it should be interesting to see how these advantages help Sonata in the market, and also what additional products Boston Power may introduce that build on these technologies.
The transition to the electric age won’t happen overnight, according to Trevithick. The evolution of the car provides a good illustration of the challenges facing electricity technology. As he put it: “With electricity, we have always had a better motor, but with gasoline, we have a better fuel. History tilted in favor of the fuel.”
Indeed, if you look at the energy required to move a car one mile, expressed as BTUs (yes, I’ll start using Joules soon!), a gasoline engine that gets 25 MPG, given about 125,000 BTUs per gallon of gasoline, requires about 5,000 BTUs of fuel input per mile. An electric car that gets 3.5 miles per kilowatt-hour, given there are about 3,450 BTUs per kilowatt-hour, only requires about 1,000 BTUs of fuel input per mile. The electric motor is five times more efficient than the gasoline powered motor. But until now, there has not been a good way to store electricity.
When asked about the series hybrid, a technology where an onboard gasoline (or diesel) engine runs at a highly efficient constant RPM, solely to turn an electric generator which in-turn powers the electric motor, Trevithick didn’t hesitate: “It’s the future,” he said. We couldn’t agree more.
When asked about fuel cells on cars, Trevithick was diplomatic: “There’s a lot of interesting technology there, but it hasn’t been market pull, it’s been technology push. To mass market [automotive fuel cells] they have to target primary purchasing characteristics – lasts longer; costs less. Otherwise they [fuel cells] will succeed on secondary purchasing criteria – indoor operability; low heat characteristics – which will make them successful in niche markets such as for forklifts.”
Regarding whether or not $100+ per BBL oil is enough to drive innovation towards the new electrons of the coming electric age, Trevithick was skeptical. “Fuel is still too inexpensive to impact behavior.” But he threw in an interesting nuance: In the USA where the average new car is $30,000 or more, the annual fuel costs probably will only total about 10% of that – not much compared to the lease and insurance. But in developing nations where a new micro-car such as the Tata Nano can be purchased for $2,500, operating costs will be a significant portion of the annual expenditure. In these environments, fuel costs are already substantial enough to stimulate adaptation.