Following along with Kleiner Perkins’ greentech investments isn’t always (or ever?) a good thing. As Josie has been chronicling, V-Vehicle had basically bet everything on securing $321.1 million in federal loans under the Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) loan program to set up manufacturing at an old General Motors-Guide Corp. plant in Monroe, Louisiana. But the DOE denied V-Vehicle’s loan application in March, much to the “surprise” of then V-Vehicle CEO and founder Frank Varasano. Varasano left the company soon after and Kleiner Perkins managing partner Ray Lane stepped in as temporary chief executive.
While Google isn’t normally expected to be an expert on what next-generation green technology will prevail, now that it’s placed itself alongside the greentech venture capital players of the world — which are trying to back the winners — it’s going to have to trek up the investing learning curve pretty quickly.
Deathwatch: V-Vehicle Loses CEO, Cancels Lease On Future Plant Site
UPDATE: See below
V-Vehicle Company — the startup automaker backed in part by oil baron-turned-wind baron-turned-CNG baron T. Boone Pickens — has dipped a few more toes in the deadpool. According to reports, V-Vehicle has not only lost its founder and CEO, Frank Varasano, but the company has also canceled its lease on a site outside Monroe, Louisiana where it planned to build a new manufacturing facility.
This is the latest in a string of bad news for V-Vehicle, which has been working since 2006 to accumulate the necessary capital to launch a line of new-tech vehicles. A couple of weeks ago, we learned that the Department of Energy had declined V-Vehicle’s $320 million application to the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program. That rejection had a domino effect, causing the State of Louisiana to withdraw its offer of $87 million in cash and other incentives. So, instead of ending the day with upwards of $450 million in the bank, V-Vehicle was left with only the $86.5 million it had raised from private investors like Mr. Pickens.
Reports indicate that Varasano was fired from his CEO position, which could be read as a positive development. It shows that investors haven’t given up on the company, and they want to replace Varasano with someone better equipped to raise money and to put V-Vehicle on the right track. Had Varasano resigned, on the other hand, that would imply that the situation was so hopeless that even V-Vehicle’s founder — the man whose dreams and determination helped build the company — didn’t see a way out.
Also on the positive side, although V-Vehicle may have canceled the current lease on its future plant site, the company plans to renegotiate, taking into account the longer time-horizon necessary to finance and build the plant. What’s more V-Vehicle is working on a second application to the DOE’s ATVM low-interest loan program — one that will hopefully address some of the concerns that the DOE cited in its rejection. And finally, according to reports, the company began testing a prototype in February that claims to earn 40mpg and could launch with a sticker price of around $10,000.
To be fair, we’re not holding our breath on this project. In its rejection letter, the DOE cited concerns with V-Vehicle’s financial viability, and given the company’s precariously wobbly state right now, they might’ve been onto something. Still, we love rooting for an underdog, so we’re not giving up just yet. We’ll keep you posted.
UPDATE: April 6, 2010 — “The new head of V-Vehicle Co. says the company will be going back to the federal Energy Department in a quest for $321.1 million in loans.”
Buy or invest? Maris and Google CEO Eric Schmidt insisted that the matter of Google acquiring a company or investing in it is wholly different, and that there are really two categories of companies — those seeking funding, and those seeking to get bought. Schmidt said that Google will continue to make one acquisition per month, initiated by product managers who identify a need, find the best startup to fit it, and send the company through vetting and approval. Google Ventures’ mandate seems to be more broad and long-term.
What Google Offers: Google Ventures wants to find promising companies that Google can help, rather than companies that will “wholly” help Google, said Maris. So, for example, portfolio company Pixazza, which uses image recognition to embed relevant ads in pictures, was able to significantly increase user responsiveness to ads by tweaking its interface on the advice of Google Ventures partner Braden Kowitz. Or, said Maris, Google Ventures might invest in a protein design company because it could put Google’s massive computing assets to use.
Sourcing and referrals: If you want to get Google Ventures to invest in you, the best way is to get referred by a Google employee or someone in one of the partner’s network, or work with one of the two VC firms that have closely aligned themselves with Google: Kleiner Perkins and August Capital. To date, approximately one quarter of the firm’s investments have been in companies referred by Googlers. Interestingly, none of the companies Google Ventures has invested in to date were founded by former Googlers (that’s a marked contrast to the companies Google has been buying lately).
Investment size and terms: Google Ventures investments have so far ranged from less than $500,000 to the tens of millions, said Maris. The firm has already done some follow-on rounds — in fact it has yet to decline to participate in one. Its deals contain “no special hooks” and no rights of first refusal, said Maris. The firm is also careful to move quickly; “We’ve never been a gating item” on a deal, Maris said. Google Ventures holds board seats for about half of its portfolio companies so far.
Selling to competitors: Google and its M&A team would prefer to keep their prize deals out of the hands of competitors, but Google Ventures is mandated to help its entrepreneurs first. “It’s been made explicitly clear that if an entrepreneur wants to sell to a company that Google considers an competitor it’s not in the calculus,” said Maris.
The fund: Google Ventures is planning to invest $100 million this year, as part of its second fund. It’s set up in an unusual way where every new year has a new fund, with a separate allocation of money. Maris did not disclose the total amount of last year’s investments but said this year’s was expected to be bigger. Google is the sole LP in the fund, and partners are incentivized as VCs to see returns on their investments.
Regions: Until now Google Ventures has been solely focused on North America, and its team of 11 partners (up from two last year) is split between the West and East Coasts. Schmidt said at the event, to Maris’ surprise, that the firm should go global to address the worldwide opportunity — so expect that soon.