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Taking on Vinod Khosla

There were many responses to the 60 Minutes piece on cleantech. But I was interested to see Robert Rapier’s take on Vinod Khosla’s irrational exuberance about biofuels, which quite shockingly continues despite the carnage in that sector.

Rapier admires Khosla’s commitment to cleantech investing and genuine concern about climate change. But he expresses real concern about his misleading statements about the companies he invests in, and the fact that those statements set up the entire industry for public and governmental backlash.

Rapier writes:

Khosla’s style is to create a mystique around a company, but he fails to disclose any negatives associated with it. His pitches always sound too good to be true. Again, from his interview with Lesley Stahl:

Vinod Khosla: Nature takes a million years to produce our crude oil. KiOR can produce it in seconds.

Vinod Khosla: And we take that, add this magic catalyst-

Lesley Stahl: This is the secret sauce?

Vinod Khosla: Yeah…

Lesley Stahl: You make it sound almost – sorry – too good to be true. There must be a downside.

Vinod Khosla: There is no downside.

And that’s Vinod Khosla in a nutshell. His catalysts are “magic”, somehow cheating the laws of chemistry and physics. “There is no downside.” Yet there is a downside, it’s just that you won’t hear it from Khosla. But investors in his biofuel companies have learned the hard way.

Beyond my issue that some of Khosla’s early investments were overhyped, took tax dollars on the basis of that hype, and then failed (thus my claim that taxpayers funded his learning curve), I have a real concern when someone promotes advanced biofuels as “easy.” They are not. They are quite challenging to produce economically, for reasons that are well-understood. But when you run around claiming that they are easy and that there is no downside, you do a disservice to everyone who is working to bring them to fruition. Your “cheap and easy technology” may divert funding from approaches that have more merit. After all, why would someone invest in something that’s challenging, when your approach is a piece of cake with no downside? And then when you fail, not only did you perhaps prevent someone more deserving from being funded, the hit to the industry’s credibility means you may prevent future entrepreneurs from being funded.

Given the disaster that biofuels has become I find Khosla’s continued statements about the prospects of biofuels pretty shocking. Biofuels has been plagued with scalability and price-competitiveness problems. I’m not saying that the tech couldn’t evolve to be competitive–Khosla may wind up being proven as just early to market.

But I am saying his current exuberance is unwarranted. And his current exuberance potentially has other motives–like defending public investments in biofuels and inspiring investor confidence to keep Kior’s financing costs down.

The reality is that cleantech investing requires patient long term outlooks in technologies that have much longer timescales to develop. And the unfortunate fact is that this is the very reason that cleantech needs solid and sustained support from the government. Not promises to the public that can’t be fulfilled.