Insight: How cleantech tarnished Kleiner and VC star John Doerr
In the spring of last year, John Doerr received some bad news: Miasole, the solar-panel maker backed by his famed venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
If Miasole went under, it would be a dramatic collapse for a once-promising startup that in its heyday had been valued at $1 billion. It would also be a failure for Doerr, who for years had argued passionately that clean technology could be the biggest business opportunity of this century.
So Doerr, best known for making billions from backing the likes of Google, Netscape and Amazon in their infancy, dipped into his own pocket for the roughly $2.5 million that Miasole needed to make payroll, according to two people familiar with the situation. The highly unusual personal loan allowed Miasole to stay afloat long enough to be sold to a Chinese renewable energy company for $30 million.
The quiet fix shows the lengths to which Doerr was willing to go to avoid the embarrassment that would have come with a collapse. It also underscores U.S. cleantech's dramatic turn for the worse after the financial crisis, due in part to competition from China and a surge in the production of abundant and cheap natural gas at home.
The market changes have left Kleiner, the most active venture capital firm in cleantech, with dozens of investments that may never pay off, threatening its image as the gold standard of venture capital.
Doerr, 61, remains bullish on cleantech and in an email to Reuters called Miasole a well-run company that "was caught in a perfect storm." He did not respond to questions about his personal investment.
"Certainly the cleantech sector has challenges, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the size of the opportunity," Doerr said in the email, adding revenues in Kleiner's cleantech portfolio rose 70 percent over 2011, to $2.4 billion in 2012.
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