4 Questions for Noventi VC Masa Ishii

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ishii.jpgWe weren’t surprised to find Masa Ishii, one of Noventi’s managing directors, on the prowl for investment opportunities at the ASME Energy Nanotechnology International Conference yesterday. Menlo Park-based VC firm Noventi sits on a $100 million fund for early-stage cleantech investments. The firm, once an investor in IT, has made just one investment (in algae biofuel start-up Aurora Biofuels) since the launch of its cleantech-focused fund last year.

Q: Out of the investment opportunities in nanotechnology, what companies or areas are you interested in most?

A: I’m very interested in energy storage, like the battery start-up from this morning’s presentation (Burlingame-based Nanoexa). Ultimately you can generate electricity, but the means to store it in a very efficient way is a very challenging aspect and especially important. I’m also interested in solar concentrating technology.

Q: There are plenty of nanotech applications outside of the cleantech space. There are representatives at this conference from fossil fuel equipment manufacturers and the big oil players themselves. Why not focus on just nanotech investments?

A: Before the cleantech venture fund, we almost put together a nanotechnology fund. We [instead] decided to look at environmental technology and new energy. We first look at applications. People are not interested in buying the technology per say, people are interested in buying solutions.

Q: There’s a bit of talk these days about the potential environmental hazards of the materials and byproducts of nanotechnology production. Does this influence your investment strategy in the space at all?

A: The fear is that we don’t know much about nano hazard. People ask me if nanotechnology material is hazardous. There’s no proof either way.

Q: Looking at a broader picture in VC investment, there’s so much money being poured into cleantech. Is there a bubble?

A: I don’t think so. In 2005 the cleantech area received $1.6 billion dollars (in VC investment) and last year, 2006, $2.9 billion dollars went to cleantech. We’re at the bottom of the technology ‘S’ curve. In cleantech there has been a lot of money received, but a lot of people I talk to, including professors at Stanford University, say that in the past, this sector did not receive enough money. Finally this sector started receiving money, but it’s not enough yet.

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