Never Mind That Bailout: Venture Funding for Auto Innovation Accelerates As Startups Race to Leave Detroit in its Own Dust
Tomorrow, Detroit’s automakers are expected to give Congress a detailed plan that explains exactly how they intend to use $25 billion in taxpayer funding to engineer a turnaround—no doubt refueling the nationwide debate over the auto industry bailout.
Meanwhile, venture capital funding for innovative automotive technologies has accelerated dramatically over the past five years. Investment data reviewed by Xconomy shows venture deals in automotive startups have increased by more than 2,979 percent—from a near-standing start of $8.1 million put into five deals in 2003 to more than $250 million and two dozen deals in just the first nine months of 2008 (see charts at the end of this article).
Bill Klehm, CEO of Fallbrook Technologies, a San Diego startup which itself has raised some $25 million to help it develop a gearless transmission, says he laughs when he hears Detroit auto executives fret about competing against China’s low-cost manufacturing. “Nobody should be worried that the Chinese are coming,” Klehm says. “But the U.S. automakers should be concerned that the U.S. entrepreneurs are coming.”
While total VC funding for automotive startups is relatively small—venture firms put more than $1.35 billion into U.S. biotech companies in just three months that ended in September—the explosive growth in automotive deals reflects a phase change among VC firms nationwide. (The total also is clearly an underestimate, since it does not include startups such as battery developer A123 Systems of Watertown, MA, which counts major carmakers in the United States and Europe as its largest target market.)
“They are realizing that there is a big gap between consumer demand and the supply of the kinds of vehicles that the country is going to need,” says Bilal Zuberi, who specializes in energy and cleantech deals at General Catalyst Partners, a $1.7 billion venture firm in Cambridge, MA. “It’s a difficult industry, but there are opportunities. It is a $100 billion industry in which innovations are really needed, really fast.”
Any automotive technologies that can help the big three U.S. automakers meet tougher fuel economy standards and other “pain points” could be helpful, says Boston lawyer Tom Burton, who heads the energy and cleantech practice of the Mintz Levin law firm.
“In the last year and a half, we’ve really seen an uptick in the VC flow into these companies,” says Burton, who has been involved in the financing of several deals. “The downturn in the economy and the fact that Detroit is battered is what creates an opportunity for many of these guys.”
Fallbrook Technologies CEO Klehm contends the opportunity is big enough to drive a truck through.
Companies and small businesses that operate delivery fleets are searching for ways they can retrofit their trucks and vans to reduce fuel costs, which were acutely painful when gasoline was more than $4 a gallon, Klehm says. At Wal-Mart, for example, Klehm says a 1 percent improvement in fuel economy is worth $52 million. “Ford is talking about improving the fuel economy of next year’s lineup,” he says. “Fleet operators need solutions today. They don’t need promises for the next year.”
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