The semiconductor industry seems to offer a perfect training ground for the leaders of the next generation of greentech startups. It takes a lot of capital and production know-how to scale chip manufacturing successfully — something thin-film solar, LED, battery, and biofuel startups desperately need to learn how to do as they move from research and development into large-scale production.
As it turns out, many of the execs that led some of the biggest chip companies over the past few decades are now interested in getting into the next hot entrepreneurial space: greentech. Here’s 10 former chip execs that are leading greentech ventures or investment:
MiaSole CEO Joseph Laia: Laia took over as CEO of thin-film solar startup MiaSole in late 2007 after a long career in semiconductor manufacturing at both Novellus and KLA-Tencor. Laia is a bit of a manufacturing guru, and told me recently that when he joined MiaSole, the startup’s manufacturing was “a mess.” The efficiencies were all over the map back in 2007, with machines running differently from day to day, said Laia. Uniformity, precision and consistency are among the things that Laia has drilled into the system, and he cites chip giant Intel as one of his manufacturing inspirations.
Geoff Tate, CEO Nanosolar: Tate was previously the CEO of chip firm Rambus and senior VP of chip maker Advanced Micro Devices. Tate just took over the helm at thin-film solar company Nanosolar and replaced (some say pushed out) Nanosolar founder Martin Roscheisen. While Nanosolar was one of the first thin-film solar companies to start shipping product, some industry insiders have been skeptical about the scale at which Nanosolar is actually producing thin-film panels.
Christian Gronet, Founder and CEO of Solyndra: Gronet has a PhD in semiconductor processing from Stanford University, spent over a decade at chip equipment company Applied Materials and also founded G-Squared Semiconductor Corp., which was eventually acquired by Applied Materials. In Solyndra’s S-1 (the company plans to go public) the solar startup said: “We have drawn on our management team’s extensive expertise in the semiconductor equipment industry to design and construct the customized equipment that is used in the manufacturing of our photovoltaic modules and panels.”
John Van Scoter, CEO, eSolar: Van Scoter, who spent 25 years at chip company Texas Instruments, told me in an interview that the dynamics of the solar markets today remind him of the semiconductor industry of over 25 years ago, right before it took off. “The big breakthroughs have yet to come,” Van Scoter said, adding that new government policies, concerns about energy security, utilities shifting toward renewables, and other factors and mega-trends “all are coming together” to create fertile ground for this innovation.
Peter Van Deventer, President & CEO SynapSense: Van Deventer spent a decade at Intel in operations, management and sales before founding green data center startup SynapSense. SynapSense builds wireless energy-efficiency systems, designed to cut down on the carbon footprint of energy-hungry data centers (for more on green data centers check out GigaOM Pro, subscription required).
J. Craig Hunter, VP and GM, Solar and Energy Technologies for Intermolecular: Intermolecular has developed a process used by semiconductor companies like AMD to speed up research and development of chip technology. In early 2009 the company launched a similar product adapted for large solar panel manufacturers, manufacturing equipment suppliers and solar material suppliers. The division is led by J. Craig Hunter, founder and former general manager of semiconductor equipment manufacturer Applied Material’s thin-film solar business and former entrepreneur-in-residence at venture capital firm Sequoia Capital.
Pierre Lamond, Partner at Khosla Ventures: The co-founder of National Semiconductor and former partner at Sequoia Capital for almost 30 years, Lamond joined Vinod Khosla’s venture firm Khosla Ventures in early 2009 at the age of 78. Lamond told me in an interview back then that his greentech investing strategy at Sequoia had been to invest in companies that have a real product and a competitive advantage.
Rajeeva Lahri, CEO of Signet Solar: Rajeeva Lahri had over 25 years experience in the chip industry before joining Signet, including as the CTO of Intersil Corporation, senior VP of technology and operations at Elantec, deputy CTO of Philips Semiconductors, senior VP of corporate technology for VLSI Technology Inc., and management and technical positions at National Semiconductor and Hewlett Packard.
Mark Swoboda, President, BridgeLux: Mark Swoboda helped turn startup BridgeLux from an LED chip design company into a vertically integrated LED lighting company, serving as CEO of the company from 2007-2010 before shifting over to become president earlier this year. Before joining BridgeLux, Swoboda spent almost 17 years with Hewlett-Packard’s Semiconductor Products Group in various positions and was also executive VP of Philips Lumileds.
Andy Grove: The former chairman of Intel has turned into a plug-in vehicle advocate, and has called for the U.S. to have 10 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the roads by 2012. Those plug-ins should be converted from vehicles with poor mileage like SUVs, pickups and minivans, Grove said at a Plug-In vehicle conference in mid-2008.
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