Clean tech, biggest investment opportunity of the century

Clean tech, biggest investment opportunity of the century
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First Published: Tue, Jul 21 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Leveraging potential: KPCB partner Ajit Nazre says India has a fantastic opportunity of making the clean technology sector strategic. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Leveraging potential: KPCB partner Ajit Nazre says India has a fantastic opportunity of making the clean technology sector strategic. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Updated: Tue, Jul 21 2009. 11 37 AM IST
New Delhi: Start-ups built around so-called green or clean technologies—broadly those that help reduce pollution and increase energy efficiency—have attracted venture capital and private equity (PE) investors, that have poured billions into the sector in the last few years. Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers (KPCB), one of the most successful venture capital firms in the world, is one such investor with five deals in the space just in the June quarter.
Leveraging potential: KPCB partner Ajit Nazre says India has a fantastic opportunity of making the clean technology sector strategic. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Silicon Valley, California-based KPCB, which has an India portfolio of eight companies, made its first clean-tech investment in Kotak Urja Pvt. Ltd, a maker of solar water heaters and solar photovoltaic systems, last October.
Ajit Nazre, a partner at KPCB, also leads the venture capital firm’s India investment initiative. He joined KPCB in 2003 from business software maker SAP AG, where he played a key role in formulating and executing the company’s Internet strategy. In an interview, Nazre talks about what makes the clean technology space so hot, the investment prospects, and why India should not miss the opportunity. Edited excerpts:
How has clean tech as an investment concept evolved?
We really believe that clean tech is the single biggest investment opportunity of the 21st century. As far as market size is concerned, if you add up the energy and transport sectors, that’s $6 trillion (around Rs290 trillion) worldwide. That is massive; it dwarfs sectors such as information technology (IT). But that does not mean you will have hundreds of companies with billion dollar market caps immediately. The risks and hurdles are also big. The biggest hurdle is, obviously, that you need more capital.
There are several factors why I think clean tech is such an interesting investment opportunity. First, there is a consensus in the world that climate change needs to be addressed. The debate may be around what is causing climate change, but everybody agrees that there will be a change, signs are there. Addressing that is a motivating factor, which is driving investments into the sector.
The second is global policy. The tailwinds are very strong towards a carbon-pricing system globally. If you look at what happened in Kyoto versus what is likely to happen in Copenhagen, there is far more possibility that something globally is going to get passed that will price carbon. This will be a very positive policy change towards clean tech.
The third is volatile fossil fuel prices. The world had seen oil prices jump to $148-150 per barrel last year, and it was $35 three months ago, and now it has doubled to $70 per barrel. That volatility is something that people have realized we cannot deal with, and we need to have some stability.
Then, there are two factors, which are technology-driven, which I think are causing a lot of innovation and investment opportunities in the space. There are advances in material sciences, which are enabling innovations of magnitude that would not have been possible (even) 10 years ago, definitely not 20-30 years ago.
The reason I bring this up is because in the 1970s, too, there was a clean-tech revolution. Oil prices had peaked at that time, and there was a lot of funding for innovation. But as soon as oil prices came back down, every thing went away. I think that is not the case today, because other factors are there, and innovation capability is far superior. Simply speaking, if you want to have a photovoltaic cell with high efficiency or a better battery, new materials are enabling it. We are not just constrained with a periodic table, we can engineer new materials.
Second, thanks to Moore’s Law, the computing capability we have today can simulate systems. Giving an example, if you want to build a car or an airplane today, it takes much less time and dollars. You can simulate most of the systems and test them. Earlier, you had to build and then test them, which takes a lot more time and money. You can effect changes with much less capital, which also holds true for clean-tech innovation.
A lot of venture capital firms have been focusing on and investing in clean tech since 2006 and 2007. Since then, how have companies evolved in this sector?
I would say that clean-tech investments have been going on since 2004. In 2004, investment in clean tech across research and development, manufacturing, and deployment was $35 billion. In 2008, it reached $155 billion globally.
If you look at successful companies, there are seven solar companies which went public with a market capitalization of more than $1 billion. There are nine wind companies which have a market cap in the same vicinity. There are clean-tech companies which have gone public, are profitable, and which the markets have rewarded.
clean tech is not a theory, and people have made money. Perfect example is Suzlon, which has reported revenues of more than $1 billion. And there are more sectors to come. Energy generation is one, I think transportation is going to come soon, then energy storage, and efficiency will happen.
So there are many sectors, and you can build large companies and make money. And it very much applies to India. We have invested in a company called Kotak Urja, based out of Bangalore, and it’s a large and profitable company. Ever since we got to know them in 2007, they have grown fourfold in two years in revenues. They are the largest deployer of solar water heaters in the country.
Which segments in clean tech do you find attractive for investment in India?
I believe definitely that waste-water treatment, water remediation (the process of removing or reducing contaminants) and desalination are going to be very interesting for India because scarcity of water is a big challenge.
Waste is also a big opportunity. The big challenge here is that urbanization is happening at a very large scale. Look at the number of cities in India and when people start living in a city what are the problems that you have to solve—water, waste and electricity.
Third, I think is energy efficiency. Here, of course, there is no policy and very few companies. But I think there is a lot of room for policy innovation, which can effect changes in this sector.
How do you think Indian government’s policy towards clean tech has been?
I think they have talked a lot, but I wish they had done more. They are not an obstacle, but I think they have not come out and been openly supportive. Taking an example, look at the stimulus dollars which China has. Out of their $580 billion stimulus, $106 billion is targeted towards clean tech.
Just like India made IT services hugely strategic 10-15 years ago, I think the country has a fantastic chance of making clean tech strategic too. Because there is a huge domestic demand. I think entrepreneurs and companies can come up at a fast pace, which can make them globally competitive and go onto exporting.
The Indian government should look at this as an investment opportunity. The Chinese government is doing this not just because it’s good for the environment, but because they think it’s a competitive advantage they can create. Similarly, for the US, out of the $787 billion stimulus, $102 billion is set aside for clean tech. The EU (European Union) is also investing $60 billion. So where is India? I think the government has a unique opportunity to do something.
Several venture capital-backed clean-tech start-ups headquartered in the US have made India their first market for product implementation. Do you see more of that happening?
That will happen; you will see more of that happening if access to deployment financing would be available here. We have three-four companies in Germany, I would love to bring them to India. The technology is so relevant and so applicable to India, and economically viable. But I need to find financing partners for deployment, not equity. And if India does it first, it could become the platform to take it to Africa, South America and other regions.
Several electric car companies have raised funding. Do you think scaling will be a challenge?
I think that’s a tough one. There are two challenges. One is that storage technology, especially batteries, have improved, but they have improved (only) by 10-20%. There is no 2x-3x (two-three times improvement) in that. It is at a very incremental evolution. And still extremely expensive.
Reva (Reva Electric Car Co. Pvt. Ltd) is a good company, and has a great entrepreneur behind it. But to offer a (viable) car, they need a cheap and long-range battery. You can put a lithium-ion battery, but that would put the car out of reach for many. Technology and cost makes it challenging. But three-five years down the line, I think it will be a very good opportunity.
Second is the commercial challenge when you are looking to sell an expensive car with a battery. There is a company called Better Place, where they lease batteries. I think such commercial innovation is necessary for electric car companies to take off.
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First Published: Tue, Jul 21 2009. 01 15 AM IST