Al Gore: Planet-saving VC
Blood, silver-haired and 48, may be the youngest of the group, but he's accustomed to managing money on a scale that dwarfs Kleiner's (See sidebar, "Talking 'bout their generation"). At Goldman (GS, Fortune 500) he oversaw the company's $325 billion asset-management arm from London. A retired Goldman exec, Phil Murphy, who now raises money for the Democratic Party, introduced him to Gore.
Gore and Doerr got to know each other more than a dozen years ago when they met to discuss technology and education policy during Gore's vice presidency. They were seen together so often that by the late 1990s, VC Stewart Alsop jokingly printed up and distributed hundreds of buttons that read GORE AND DOERR IN 2004. Doerr says he never considered elective office, but he credits Gore for his environmental awakening.
In June 2005, Doerr invited the Gores and Bill Joy, the former chief scientist at Sun Microsystems and now a Kleiner partner, to dinner at his home. Over coffee and dessert Gore hooked up his laptop to a projector and showed the group the slide show that the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim was just beginning to turn into a feature-length documentary. "I didn't get it until Al showed his slide show at our home," says Doerr. (Doerr has on various other occasions credited his conversion to his daughter Mary, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, Bill Joy, and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a pal and cross-country ski partner.)
Last year Gore and Blood came to the realization that Generation's wide-ranging research into public companies could be put to other uses. For one thing, Generation's investment analysts were coming across all sorts of interesting companies and trends, but since they currently invest in only public companies, they couldn't use those insights. Remembers Gore: "We began to think about how we could develop another way of pursuing these ideas in the market. And I said, 'Hey, the best in the world is Kleiner Perkins.'"
Kleiner had been dabbling in green investing, backing companies like fuel-cell maker Bloom Energy and solar energy startup Miasole. It has financed others that stretch the definition of clean technology to the breaking point: Terralliance has a stealth technology for finding fossil fuels, and GloriOil uses superbugs to increase recovery from mature oil wells. "GloriOil ought not to be named GloriOil," says Doerr, sounding defensive. "It ought to be named GloriMicrobes."
When Gore approached Doerr about a Kleiner-Generation "mind meld" last year, Doerr felt it was worth exploring. Capital requirements for startup IT companies had dropped precipitously, so the timing was good to explore a new area.
Doerr asked a younger Kleiner partner, Ellen Pao, who recently had been hired to make consumer Internet investments, to organize a meeting of 50 environmental thought leaders so that the partners could brainstorm with them about opportunities. They met in May 2006 at the San Francisco Four Seasons. R.K. Pachauri, whose UN Global International Panel on Climate Change later would share the Nobel with Gore, was there. So was Jose Goldemberg, a Brazilian scientist who spearheaded his country's push into sugarcane-based ethanol.
Kleiner was by no means the first venture firm to pursue clean-technology investments. Firms like VantagePoint Venture Partners and Nth Power were earlier to the sector, and former partner Vinod Khosla, who remains affiliated with Kleiner and works out of its offices, began advocating alternative-energy investments well before Doerr got religion. Today Kleiner has co-invested with Khosla's new firm in several companies, including Ausra.
The shift has ruffled some feathers within the firm. Ray Lane, the former president of Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500), says some of his partners were concerned that the green focus would distract Kleiner's attention from its historical IT focus. But clearly there's no turning back. When Kleiner announced its latest fund, in February 2006, it designated $100 million of the $600 million total to clean-technology investments, then raised that to $200 million seven months later.
What do investors like Yale University and the University of California think of the move? In general, having profited handsomely, they tend to give Kleiner a long leash.
With Kleiner ramping up its commitment, Doerr has become ubiquitous in the world of green investing. Last year he was instrumental in helping pass a California bill supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that will mandate the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions in the state. Lately Doerr's been driving a plug-in Toyota Prius, and he says his daughter Esther refuses to ride in anything else.
He also attracted widespread attention (and a few snickers) when he teared up at this year's techie TED conference while imploring attendees to save the environment. "He has this incredibly intellectual drive," says Randy Komisar, a Kleiner partner. "John is so passionate that he is almost difficult to take on a daily basis."
Entrepreneurs in particular clamor for Doerr's time -- and his operations expertise. John Melo, CEO of Kleiner-backed startup Amyris, says Doerr recently helped him select a chief financial officer, structure a critical joint venture, and implement a performance-management system in the company's lab that has helped it double productivity.
"I beg for time," says Melo. "Probably the most productive hour or two that I can get in a month is the time that I spend with John."
In front of a group, Doerr's style is part motivational speaker, part grad school seminar leader. At the end of one meeting Fortune attended, Doerr suggests that everyone brainstorm about the questions the partnership should consider at its December offsite. Doerr's aide de camp, Wen Hsieh, who holds two technical Ph.D.s from Caltech, scribbles the questions on an easel with a magic marker as Doerr directs the conversation around a long conference table.
Doerr himself wants to know how Kleiner's green-tech initiative can have the most enduring long-term impact. Gore wonders how to serve Americans who want to live "off the grid," a favorite topic. Kleiner partner Ted Schlein wonders how Kleiner will react if the price of oil falls dramatically. Partner -- and biotech expert -- Brook Byers brings up the most immediate concern: "Should we," he asks, "be hiring more people with expertise in the energy field?" Looking around the room, it's obvious that Kleiner employs a plethora of brainiacs and Ph.D.s, but not a single individual with a deep background in energy.
As a high-tech lifer, Doerr knew he'd have to get out of his comfort zone to lead Kleiner into this new era. So during the summer of 2006 he took a trip up the Tambopata River in the Peruvian rainforest to visit a research center run by the nonprofit Conservation International. But he had a difficult time disconnecting. With macaws swooshing overhead and monkeys screaming from the jungle, Doerr fiddled endlessly with a satellite phone and lap-top, desperate to check e-mail. Recalls Tom Friedman, who was among his traveling companions: "We were beyond the network, and that makes John very nervous."