It’s about time two of greentech’s highest-profile investors got together on a deal. This afternoon V-Vehicle, an auto startup that was founded in 2006, came out of stealth and unveiled that it has gained investment from the venture capitalists at Kleiner Perkins — John Doerr and Ray Lane — along with hedge fund manager and former oil baron T. Boone Pickens. V-Vehicle and its investors aren’t saying much of anything about the technology used (though it sounds like a more efficient internal combustion-based car), only that the car would be designed in a new way, would be “high quality, environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient.”
More than a pure technology play, the venture sounds like it’s using the current lack of innovation and good design in the U.S. auto industry to offer a better-designed, more efficient American-made car. Throughout a promotional video founder and CEO Frank Varasano, who hails from Oracle and Booz Allen Hamilton, emphasized that V-Vehicle is “a new American car company;” Kleiner’s Ray Lane called it “a holistic change” from the current U.S. car industry. If the play is more about design and marketing than technology, we’ll see if the investors’ star power in the greentech world will help it actually sell cars in the consumer market (T. Boone has certainly made the crossover to mainstream quite nicely.) It may also help that the father of the Miata, Tom Matano, is leading the vehicle design team.
T. Boone Pickens’ involvement is interesting, too, as the wind investor has largely been focusing on pushing natural gas vehicles. Part of his Pickens Plan is to replace a chunk of foreign oil consumption with domestic natural gas for transportation. If you look at the funds coming out of the stimulus package for new transportation (not much for natural gas vehicles) and new green car ventures being launched (I’ve heard of just a couple working on natural gas vehicles), you’ll start to see that natural gas vehicles aren’t really capturing investment dollars or mindshare from entrepreneurs. While V-Vehicle could be working on a natural gas vehicle, if it’s going to sell to mainstream consumers it probably isn’t. Perhaps a move by Pickens to back a more efficient vehicle that runs on gas (or even an electric vehicle) coincides with a move away from his natural gas vehicle mantra.
Kleiner also has other auto-related startups, including electric sports car maker Fisker Automotive, a stealthy lithium-ion battery company, and reportedly also energy storage startup EEStor. But going after the mainstream U.S.-made car market is its biggest play in green cars to date.
Even though V-Vehicle says it’ll be a new kind of car company, it’s still using the tactics of Detroit: knocking on government doors. The company is retooling a factory in Monroe, La., that it says will create more than 1,400 jobs. By proposing to retool the former Guide headlamp facility in Monroe (instead of building a brand-new facility), it can earn points from the DOE for loans it has requested under the $25 billion Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program.
Photos from V-Vehicle’s promotional video.