Here's an idea for a plentiful source of energy: tap the hot air that can emanate from overly excited visionaries in Silicon Valley. That invention might derive lots of juice from one hotshot VC in particular: John Doerr, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers--and one of the masterminds behind such financial home runs as Netscape, Sun Micro-systems and Google. Doerr is also responsible for the later-regretted statement, made during the height of the stock bubble, that the Internet was responsible for the "largest, legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet."
These days, Doerr speaks about one topic with unusual passion: clean energy. He funded the nonpolluting, electric Segway scooter and talks frequently about the challenges the planet will face over the next 50 years as billions of people move from the countryside to cities. "We're going to have to get fuel cells that work," he told the Venture Capital Journal. He went on to note that clean water, transportation and energy are "the big markets of the future."
So it was no surprise when, at the launch of another start-up, Doerr last year started talking about an investment he had made in a secret, under-the-radar energy company that would, naturally, change the world. NEWSWEEK subsequently asked about it several times, but no new information, then or now, was forthcoming. Still, there's a slight buzz about the firm among Valley watchers who've heard whispers about it. They say the stealth energy firm is working on solid oxide fuel cells--large, quiet, stationary devices for homes or office buildings that convert oxygen and hydrogen from natural gas and other fuels into electricity. These Valley watchers also say the company is working on one component in particular: the "interconnect" that separates the oxygen and hydrogen in order to lower the temperature, which in turn will increase efficiency and lower operating costs.
Whether that's true or just the Silicon Valley echo chamber at work, the eventual investment of Doerr's money into the clean-energy sector is widely anticipated. In Valley parlance, an investment by kingmaker Kleiner Perkins means a sector is ready for prime time. And no one underestimates Doerr's talent in the marketplace. "Everybody is looking for Kleiner to bless this space," says Rodrigo Prudencio of energy-investment firm Nth Power. Secretly, John Doerr and his colleagues may already have.