Pivotal Makes First Investment in Solar, Bets Small and Strategic on Northwest Cleantech

On Tuesday, we reported that Pivotal Investments has led a $2 million financing round for Tuusso Energy, a solar power developer based in Seattle. Tuusso is an intriguing startup focused on developing and operating solar plants to supply renewable energy to utility companies; its first plant is slated to be built in the California desert by 2011. But the deal is worth a closer look through the lens of what Pivotal is doing.

Pivotal Investments is a venture capital firm that started investing in cleantech and sustainability companies out of its first fund in January. The firm, based in Portland, OR, is led by managing directors Gregg Semler, Brad Zenger, and John Miner. (Semler and Zenger previously were co-founders, along with Reference Capital, of the Sustainability Investment Fund 2007, which backed Northwest firms EnerG2, SeQuential Biofuels, Plas2Fuel, and RNA Networks.) Pivotal’s investment focus is primarily early-stage startups in the Pacific Northwest, often with first-time entrepreneurs. The firm’s areas of expertise include clean energy, water, air, green materials, and sustainable agriculture.

Semler confirmed via e-mail that Tuusso Energy is the first investment from Pivotal’s new fund. He says his team is excited about the solar company because of its strong team; it’s in a big market; it is capital efficient; it provides strategic insight into multiple facets of the renewable energy market; and it represents a “strong opportunity for investor returns with or without an IPO or acquisition.”

The Pivotal team says it has evaluated more than 250 companies since January. “This deal flow in quantity, breadth, and quality is a proof point that the Northwest is a great place for investing in sustainability,” Semler says. “It also validates the premise behind Pivotal Investments as the only venture fund in the Northwest completely dedicated to these opportunities.”

Earlier this summer, Semler and Zenger told me a little more about their investment themes. And what they said rings true with Tuusso Energy. “We get excited about investments that have systemic disruption in large markets that can be proven in the Northwest, and then scale to other markets like California and Asia,” said Semler, a cleantech entrepreneur himself who has led firms such as ClearEdge Power and PolyFuel over his career as an executive.

Yet if you ask Seattle entrepreneurs and investors alike, they’ll say alternative energy and sustainability are not in most local venture capitalists’ comfort zone. “We talked to most of the VCs in Portland and Seattle, and this is a new space for them—new markets, new technologies, and many times new teams,” Semler said. (A notable exception would be Rick LeFaivre of Kirkland, WA-based OVP Venture Partners, who notes that cleantech VCs should invest in the sweet spot between mom-and-pop companies and $100-million-upfront deals, like wind farms, that call for private equity or other means.)

Which is also why cleantech and sustainability can be such an attractive field—for the right firm. “This is bigger than the original Industrial Revolution,” said Zenger, a co-founder of Portland-based Pixelworks (NASDAQ: PXLW) and an expert in global technology markets. “The scale of these opportunities is just huge.”

Huge investments, however, are not what the Pivotal VCs have in mind. Their typical deal structure will be to contribute around $3 million, investing over multiple rounds—often with other investors—to ensure the company has the resources it needs to achieve its plan. I wondered how much you can really do with $3 million in a capital-intensive space like energy. Quite a bit, they said. “Entrepreneurs need to be creative and find ways to use less capital to make the same progress,” Semler explained, “especially in the current market environment.”

“While we’re a little concerned about the amount of capital pouring into the cleantech sector, we believe it’s a great time to be a cleantech investor in the Northwest,” Semler said. “Valuations are low, innovation is high. If you’re willing to do early-stage work, there is a great opportunity for reward.”

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