For me, meeting with entrepreneurs developing products that can help us solve the world’s big challenges is really exciting. Recently, I spent two days in Silicon Valley getting to know several dozen startup companies that are on the leading edge of product development—in energy generation and storage, agriculture, building products, and information technology
In much the same way that innovations over the last 100 years have dramatically improved the quality of life for much of the world’s population, many of the companies I met with will make contributions to generating affordable, clean energy, producing nutritious food products to feed a growing world population, and contributing in other ways to a better world.
Several of the companies I met with are backed by Vinod Khosla, who runs Khosla Ventures and is one of the most astute venture capitalists in the world. You can read about the companies Khosla is backing on his website, but I’ll mention a few here:
- Great Point Energy has developed a process to convert coal into natural gas. Natural gas is a less dirty way to produce electricity, especially compared to burning coal, and the Great Point technology is especially important for the U.S. because we have such huge coal deposits. The cool thing about Great Point’s water-based catalytic technology is that it dramatically speeds the conversion process from coal to natural gas that takes nature thousands or even millions of years to accomplish.
- EcoMotors International’s radical redesign of the internal combustion engine uses 50 percent fewer parts. It’s also more efficient, lighter, and less expensive than the gas and diesel engines we use today and could significantly increase fuel economy and lower emissions. Although the internal combustion engine has been refined over the last 100 years, EcoMotors’ OPOC (opposed piston, opposed cylinder) engine could bring huge efficiency gains in cars, trucks, and marine transport. I’ve written previously about EcoMotors. Take a look at this graphic that explains more about their OPOC engine.
- KiOR has developed a process to take biomass such as garbage or wood chips, put it through a big furnace, and catalyze it into what they call a “renewable crude oil”—which can then be processed into gasoline, diesel and other fuels using standard refinery equipment. Because biomass feedstocks are so abundant, KiOR’s technology could help us become less dependent on foreign oil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create new clean-energy jobs in rural areas.
I’ve personally invested in several of the companies Khosla is backing because I share his belief that we need to invent new clean energy sources and replace our existing energy infrastructure. We also agree that for this kind of bold innovation to take hold, both venture capital and governments have important, distinctive roles to play. While venture capital is often good at exploiting near-to-medium term market opportunities, governments and universities are the key providers of fundamental research which fuels other innovations.
The portfolio of companies Khosla is backing is impressive. They really showcase the kind of breakthrough innovation that’s possible and that we need so much more of to improve the health and lives of the poor and maintain a comfortable lifestyle.