Kleiner Perkins’ Organic Waste-to-Energy Play, Harvest Power, Bets $150M on Turning Compost Into Natural Gas

Xconomy Seattle — 

The team at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers gets inundated with pitches from entrepreneurs who dream of winning support for their own big ideas. But once in a while, the big VC firm turns the tables by hatching the idea, crafting the business plan, and recruiting the founding management team to make it into a real business.

That’s how Harvest Power got off to its start in 2008, with the real rev-up of operations coming in the spring of 2009. The company, with headquarters in Waltham, MA, and operations in Vancouver, BC, and Seattle, has since raised about $150 million in equity, debt, and grants, built a team of 150 employees, and already started operating in the black. I heard this story last week from co-founder Jan Allen, one of the featured speakers at Xconomy’s alternative fuels event in Seattle on May 19. Our Boston readers will be able to hear more from CEO Paul Sellew at our XSITE 2011 conference at Babson College on June 16.

Harvest‘s big idea is all about putting garbage to good use. Every year, we in the U.S. produce 160 million tons of organic waste—including lawn clippings, banana peels, leftover pizza, restaurant grease, wood, and paper products. Some of that gets composted into soil today, but a huge amount ends up getting trucked to the nearest landfill. Instead of letting the organic waste sit there and rot, emitting waste natural gas, Harvest wants to capture that valuable gas. It is developing “dry fermentation” technology to capture natural gas quickly from the trash, and turn the solid residuals into high-quality compost for soil that can be sold on its own.

This approach will never be a single silver bullet to the world’s climate change problem, or the world’s need for new sources of fuel and electricity. But the company estimates that if its method is widely implemented, it could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 8 percent, and do something productive with the estimated 1,200 pounds of organic waste that the average individual produces every year in wealthy countries.

“The idea of taking the wettest, ugliest urban waste and making power out of it, and soil out of it, is beautiful,” Allen says.

From left to right: Harvest Power co-founder Jan Allen, business development associate Elizabeth Lowell, and outreach manager Meredith Sorensen

There’s an interesting story behind how Harvest got into its current position. The company was hatched by Amol Deshpande, a young partner who joined Kleiner Perkins in April 2008 to focus on cleantech.

Urged along by Deshpande, the original management team came together as a band of five, each playing his own distinct role. Paul Sellew, the CEO, was the entrepreneur with a track record building the No. 2 producer of compost-based lawn and garden products in North America. Nathan Gilliland, the president, has a finance background and a strong relationship with Kleiner, Allen says. Wayne Davis, the head of incentives and governmental affairs, is the legal expert. Paul McMenemy, the leader of business development, has Wall Street experience and contacts. And Allen is the engineering guy, known for helping lead one of the nation’s top compost facilities outside Seattle, back in the late ’80s, before compost was cool.

Allen resisted a couple of overtures to leave his most recent job at the architecture firm CH2M Hill to join Harvest’s founding team, but ultimately he was enticed by how his longtime friend and colleague Sellew described the concept. “We eliminate the export of waste, and eliminate the import of power. The whole zero waste philosophy is what we’re doing,” he says.

This isn’t the most high-tech concept you’ll ever see. Harvest Power’s strategy is … Next Page »

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