Saturday, April 23, 2011

Kleiner Perkins' Bill Joy Ends Silence About EEStor

Six years after leading the Kleiner Perkins effort to invest in EEStor, billionaire venture capitalist Bill Joy has finally commented publicly about the investment at the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge this past Thursday evening.  During an open Q&A session, an attendee asked about progress at EEStor and Joy spent about five minutes talking about energy storage in general and offered a few thoughts about EEStor in particular. His comments end speculation about whether or not Kleiner Perkins still has an interest in EEStor.  They do and Bill Joy is still hopeful they will come through but not ready to cease hedging his bets in the energy storage space.

The fireside chat was hosted by Jason Pontin, editor in chief of Technology Review. Below is rough transcript of the exchange on EEStor. (The audio supplied to me was a little rough in places)

Attendee Question:
Since tomorrow is Earth Day and we're here at MIT, it seems like a unique opportunity to ask you about a portfolio company whose lead researcher got his start here at MIT. I'm talking about Carl Nelson & EEStor. I was wondering if you are happy with the progress to date at EEStor and also if everything pans out there, what is your vision for that company?

Bill Joy: 
Well I think. Ok so EEStor is a company that is trying to do a barium titanate giga...I dont know what you call it. It's not hyper super ultra. It's a capacitive energy storage using barium titanate. And it's difficult to do what they are trying to do. And the product isn't out yet. 

But if you look at energy storage you know for...what have we typically done? We pump water uphill and let it run downhill.  People would propose to maybe make an underground cavern and pressurize it and let the gas out something or you do have flow batteries. You start to go into electrochemistry batteries. Flow batteries or you do lithium ion batteries or sodium ion batteries that we talked about.  But ultimately at the end of the day you say, ah,  you know, it's volti, right the voltaic cell. This is old stuff. Kind of violates my rule of not doing something that could have been done in the 19th century. I like to think the future isn't gonna just be electrochemistry that we could have solid state energy storage something that's based on you know maybe early 20th century stuff. It could be a quantum effect or some something that lets us have something which is almost perfectly efficient and has some kind of Moore's law effect to it and be very very durable, high power and  high energy density. 

So you like to have that. And EEStor is an example of something solid state. I always say in investing I prefer solids to liquids and liquids to gases.  And we prefer... semiconductors is our favorite kind of solid.   So... It's just because we can engineer it. When things sit still, we can engineer their structure more and it's more predictable.  And we get access to semiconductor physics which lets us interact with heat and light and all these. There's all of these magical things we can do that came out of say quantum theory.  We're gonna....liquid phase or chemistry, you've got free energy bounds on everything you do and you know, it can get messy. .............reactions and materials fall apart. Whereas a solid state, it is the basis of electronics and it can last basically forever.  And gases, things move around it's hard to have alot of innovations there.  

Energy storage is the same thing. I'd like to see it go from liquid phase chemistry essentially to solid state physics. That would be very desirable. And then you limit cases of energy storage that should be solid state.

Now it is an open question probably whether that...will that transition occur in this decade or the next decade or two decades from now. I'm mean. It's great to have people trying it but it is hard.  And so, when we had this list of 25 grand challenges...when we went out looking for things, we didn't think we would find them all. And if we find investable things that are bred(predicated?) on one of those grand challenges, we don't necessarily expect it to work.  If the list of 25, 10 of them work, that would be a miracle. Because they are set to be very aspirational. So solid state energy storage would be on the list. And that's an example of an investment that is trying to ...with a improvement on an existing technology essentially because barium titanate is used as a material, common material in capacitors. An improvement on the technology to get there through a very you know controversial way of using that material. So.

You can't always predict....things we can't always predict what materials are going to do. You can't do computational level of algebra. We don't have computer simulations with perfect fidelity for any of these things so we have to go try things. One of our sayings is...we prefer things that work in practice to things that work in theory. It's nice if they work in theory but we can always invent the theory afterwards. 
I prefer not to violate the 2nd law of conservation of energy, the standard model. Some things we don't know...any magnetic monopole (?) ....I'm not really interested you know but so we can't always simulate things and we are willing to lose a couple millions dollars to try and see if some effect is plausible or will work ....that we dont have a close form computer simulation. But it's plausible to people trained in the art that it's not.....they can't explain to me on a napkin why it wouldn't work. 

Jason Pontin:  
For what it's worth, every year, Tech Review chooses the 10 technologies we think are most promising to have some kind of a breakthrough in the near future and Solid state was one of them and EEStor is one of the examples we pointed out.

Bill Joy: 
I'd love to find....if someone has another solid state energy's hard enough to invest in another one of those. 

After the fireside chat, Joy answered questions from a small crowd of people for over an hour. 

So, are you still hopeful about EEStor?

Bill Joy:  
Oh yeah. I mean these things are hard so there is always a chance they won't work. But we're very uh......We'll see. I don't know anything that isn't in the press. 

Question:  ....a person team somebody that already may already have a solution that hasn't been discovered, is that something you think is possible?   Like a crowdsouring...somewhere in world that's working....

Bill Joy: 
It doesn't tend to work that way. It proceeds from somebody who has deep expertise in a domain who acquires interdisciplinary collaborators. Thats a better formula. There are no child prodigies in these fields that involve physics and chemistry. 

You really just mentioned Carl Nelson he is like 90 years old an MIT PHD material scientist, who is one of the inventors under EEStor. If you don't have someone like Carl. I mean you ask Carl, tell me something about halfnium. Carl will talk to you for 15 minutes about halfnium. He knows something about every element in the periodic table. He can tell you off the top of his head what its crystal forms are and alot of interesting properties. I mean you have to be intimate with the periodic table to do this kind of stuff.  You have  know... .you really have to have had a career.  With somebody like that, he's probably the oldest founder I ever backed.  But you just have dinner with him and you realize he really understands what he is doing with materials. 

Now what they are proposing to do is wild. And there's lots of reasons in which some of these things could fail to be commercialized. I'm not saying whether it's worked or not and if we've announced it or not, I'm just saying it's hard.  What they're trying to do...obviously, it's took get....since's not easy to do these things. So...but the worthwhile things usually are hard and they always take longer