Voyager Capital’s Daniel Ahn on the Firm’s Refocused Clean-IT Strategy

To Voyager Capital managing director Daniel Ahn, “cleantech” is just a buzzword. “Clean IT” is much more precise—and, to the point, it’s something a hardcore techie venture capitalist can get his hands around.

Last week, I spoke with Ahn by phone about Voyager’s recent investment in Coulomb Technologies, a Campbell, CA-based startup focused on electric vehicle infrastructure (networked smart chargers). The deal was a little different from what the Seattle-based VC firm is best known for investing in—digital media, software, and wireless—so I wanted to know if it’s a strategic shift, and whether this means we should expect more action at the intersection of energy and software. I particularly wanted to hear Ahn’s thoughts, since he is one of the Silicon Valley-based partners with Voyager who I don’t see as often as the firm’s local partners.

“It’s a very conscious focus rather than a huge shift,” Ahn says. “This is a big opportunity,” for the “long term.” Voyager has made two previous investments in clean-IT, including Tropos Networks (green, cellular Wi-Fi) and Sensys Networks (vehicle traffic detection), both based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Coulomb builds on Voyager’s favored theme of using smart networks to increase efficiencies—this time in the burgeoning electric vehicle market.

The Coulomb investment came about in part because of Jim Billmaier, the CEO of Seattle-based digital music firm Melodeo, which is also in Voyager’s portfolio. Billmaier is a founding investor in Charge Northwest, a five-person startup based in Woodinville, WA, which has a partnership with Coulomb to distribute its networked charging stations in Washington, British Columbia, Alaska, and a few other U.S. states. (At least one charging station has been deployed in Washington state so far.) Billmaier helped introduce Coulomb to the Voyager VCs, and once they understood the startup was solving a big software problem—not a capital-intensive energy problem—they were in.

Voyager is looking at the “whole energy distribution problem,” Ahn says. “How can IT networks be used to make this more efficient, and make the electric grid more efficient?” He emphasizes that a lot of cleantech-related companies are not right for VCs, because of the large amount of money needed to develop projects in solar or biofuels, for instance. (This sounds similar to what Rick LeFaivre from OVP Venture Partners told me almost a year ago about the sweet spot for cleantech venture investing.)

Ahn says he is looking at several other prospective clean-IT investments, in both Washington state and the Bay Area, which involve software and energy efficiency. “It really ties into our multi-location geography strategy,” he says. “It really helps to have a presence in all these different markets.”

Not surprisingly, Ahn sees a huge market for electric vehicles, especially in the Northwest. Besides the eco-friendly stereotype, fueled in part by things like having the highest penetration of Toyota Prius hybrids in the country, there are state mandates and incentives for electric vehicle use and infrastructure development in Washington. (Meanwhile, some other techies in the Seattle area, like Mark Aggar of Microsoft, have raised concerns about electric vehicles and the environment.)

Billmaier, who helps run the startup that sells electric charging stations locally, is naturally bullish on electric vehicles, too. “Washington and Oregon are going to set the model for how the nation does this,” he says. Billmaier also talks about his involvement with Charge Northwest with an eye toward the long-term sustainability of transportation and the environment. “We had the ‘a-ha,’” he says. “We’ve caused our children a lot of problems, so it’d be nice to solve a problem.”

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