Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2008

John Doerr

John Doerr became America's most famous venture capitalist by spotting the "disruptive innovations" that will change the world, by betting on stars like and Google in their infancy, by building ideas into powerhouse companies — and by tolerating risks so high that 9 out of 10 bets were liable to fail.

Now he's focused that vision on unmaking the greatest disaster of our time. It was Doerr who first persuaded many of us that we could stop global warming, not by retreat but by harnessing innovation and entrepreneurialism. We're at the beginning, he has said, of "the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century." Doerr's firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into green-tech start-ups. His portfolio includes a company developing power plants driven by the heat of the sun, and another that will mass-produce cheap solar cells to roll out on roofs like tar paper. He has bet on a high-performance plug-in hybrid car; on biologists making cellulosic ethanol from nonedible plant material; and on a Berkeley team that has re-engineered yeast to ferment sugar into fuels indistinguishable from those we get from oil.

For all their promise, Doerr expects these environmental innovators to confront even greater obstacles than those that faced firms like Amazon and Google. The playing field for these new companies is not virtual but real — the concrete-and-steel world of refineries and power plants, transmission corridors and automobile production lines. KPCB has stepped up with bigger money, longer-term commitments and a new level of attention to regulatory challenges. "We need to pass laws that make doing the right thing profitable," he has told legislators. "It has to cost less to be green than not to be green, and the only way to do that is with a cap on carbon." Doerr advocates an emissions-trading system, so those who find the cheapest ways to cut pollution can sell these reductions. "We don't want the heavy hand of government telling us how to do this. We just want them to level the playing field and get out of the way to let the markets work."

In the past year Doerr has redoubled his commitments. He brought Al Gore into his firm as a partner and joined the board of Gore's Generation Investment Management, a $1 billion fund investing in public companies focused on sustainable technologies. His green-tech team now includes 32 KPCB partners.

With all the money he now has at stake, Doerr could be pressing for rules that specifically favor his companies. But he's not. He's genuinely trying to stop global warming. Because for all his willingness to make risky bets, there's one risk this billionaire is not willing to take. He talks often about his daughter Mary, of the night at dinner when she told him how afraid she is of the disaster hurtling toward her generation, and urged him to do something. To those delaying action, he now asks: "Do you want to run an uncontrolled experiment on the only planet you'll leave your sons or daughters?"

Fred Krupp is president of the Environmental Defense Fund, which develops market solutions to environmental problems