Thursday, Apr. 30, 2009

Shai Agassi

How will you leave the world a better place than you found it? When Shai Agassi was challenged for an answer, he responded with swift action: he resigned from the business-software firm SAP, declining an offer to be CEO, and set out to help the world end its addiction to oil by transforming cars from their climate-changing, lung-polluting, gas-guzzling design to one that's clean, affordable and all-electric. The name for his new enterprise was obvious — Better Place.

O.K., so you've heard of a million such plans before — but none are like Agassi's. Yes, he wants to replace gas-powered cars with electric ones, but he also wants to build an infrastructure in which gas stations are replaced by battery exchanges and charging stations and are everywhere. When you start running out of juice, you just plug in or swap out, and off you go. It's as easy as stopping for gas.

Over the past two years, Agassi, originally from Israel, has been turning his ideas into reality, raising more than $300 million in one of the largest start-up financings in history and partnering with utilities and governments to install the Better Place infrastructure in Israel, Denmark, Australia, the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere.

As head of VantagePoint, the leading clean-tech investment firm, I admittedly have a stake in Agassi's work, since we've invested directly in it. But that also means we undertook a very detailed analysis of it. I remember well our initial meeting (which ran 3 ½ hours) as we went from thinking it wasn't possible to being convinced it would happen — and committing to joining his team.

Agassi is the closest we've seen to a Steve Jobs of clean tech — visionary, technologist, businessman. What's it like working with him? Exhilarating, exhausting, challenging, gratifying. He recently turned 41. Wonder what he'll do after transporting us to a better place?

Salzman is CEO and managing partner of VantagePoint