February 12 2008: 1:26 PM EST
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Al Gore: Planet-saving VC

Indeed, for three decades most of Doerr's best investments were just around the corner from Sand Hill Road, where he could be in close contact with management and leverage his deep network of tech contacts, which, Doerr always has acknowledged, is his greatest strength as a VC.

Distance is one of the new challenges he faces, and so is developing an alternative-energy brain trust. Doerr is a quick study but a newcomer all the same. Ray Lane spent years as a software executive. The younger partners, like Trae Vassallo and Ellen Pao, come straight out of the IT industry and have been busy educating themselves on green. Even John Melo, the CEO of Amyris -- who formerly ran BP's fuels business in the U.S. and relies heavily on Doerr's counsel -- acknowledges the deficit. "I don't think they understand the structure of the energy market," he says. "I don't know of anyone in the Kleiner environment who has dealt with the complexities of that scale."

Doerr says Kleiner will hire more experts, but insists that the ability to vet and assist entrepreneurs is more important for venture capitalists than industry experience. And the green field is something of, well, a green field. "You can't hire an expert in the recombinant-DNA industry when there isn't one," he says, making a reference to the similar problem Kleiner successfully faced when it backed Genentech in the 1970s.

Gore can certainly help in this arena by, for example, introducing Kleiner people to top atmospheric scientists or government decision-makers. Policy and politics, his specialties, will have a huge impact on the business of clean technology.

Another new twist: The capital requirements in the energy business are massive compared with what's needed to start a software or Internet company. So while Kleiner's cash can help companies get going, building power plants or cars requires complex financing that's well beyond what it can offer.

Doerr understands the complexity of what's ahead. Most venture capitalists are judged on return on investment alone. Asked how he'll judge the success of the green initiative, he reels off five measures: "the company we keep, the quality of the companies we help grow, the quality of the partners we add, returns on the investments we make, and by the CO2 that's taken out of the atmosphere."

Balancing those factors is Gore's challenge as well. Toward the end of the meeting at Kleiner's offices with Ausra, the solar thermal company, one of the executives starts to boast that the plants Ausra is building will thrash nuclear, geothermal, clean coal, and photovoltaic solar solutions. Gore cuts in, a mildly alarmed look on his face. "You know, all of these technologies are going to play a role," he says. "I hate to see you assassinate the competition as a key messaging point."

It's a reminder of what Gore and his partners are trying to do. After all, making money has always been paramount in Silicon Valley. But these guys have a planet to save as well.  To top of page

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