Al Gore Eyeing Big Investment in Clean Energy Prize Winner
It’s been a big week for FloDesign Wind Turbine. On Monday the company placed first in the MIT Enterprise Forum’s Ignite Clean Energy Competition, winning $100,000 in cash and services. On Tuesday, the company netted an additional $200,000 in cash by winning the MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize Competition. Which means that the company, a spinoff of aerospace technology consultancy FloDesign in Wilbraham, MA, earned a total of $300,000 in a little more than 24 hours.
And there are hints of much more money to come. Xconomy has learned from a source with insight into the company that Al Gore, the former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has offered FloDesign venture financing totaling as much as $10 million.
FloDesign CEO Stan Kowalski volunteered in passing earlier in the week that he had talked to Gore, but when we followed up today he would not comment on whether the company is in discussions with Kleiner Perkins. However, Xconomy has confirmation of Gore’s involvement from another source—a person close to a Boston-area venture fund who says that fund had nearly finalized an agreement with FloDesign when Gore suddenly swept in and spirited off with the deal.
Kowalski, for his part, says it’s been an incredible week for the company. “We are still coming down to Earth,” he says. But it took a lot longer than 24 hours for the company to reach its breakthrough moment. “We’ve been working on the wind turbine concept for three years now,” Kowalski says.
FloDesign’s concept is radically different from today’s wind turbines, with their large propeller-like blades. Drawing on technology that the company initially developed for use in aerospace applications such as the engines on the Gulfstream II jet, the design resembles a turbojet fan, with all its blades placed inside a shroud. The design “will outperform existing turbines by a factor of three or more in a much wider range of wind resources,” the company says. (There’s a video explaining the concept here.)
According to Bill Aulet, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management (and an Xconomist) who is one of the key organizers of the MIT Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize Competition, a turbine that produces power efficiently even under low-wind conditions is the holy grail of the wind power industry. And since FloDesign’s turbine reportedly works well at slow wind speeds, “that’s a very attractive value proposition,” Aulet says. “Basically it opens up wind to a whole new dimension.”
Gore apparently agrees—but FloDesign now seems to want to avoid the crush of publicity that is likely to come along with the former vice president’s blessing. Last week, when I met Kowalski during the semifinals for the Clean Energy Entrepreneurship Prize, he hinted at Gore’s strong interest in FloDesign’s technology. But today, when I asked him to confirm Gore’s interest, he was demure. “Oh, I don’t know that he has interest,” Kowalski said. “There are many firms that have an interest in the technology, so we are under scrutiny or due diligence to see if it’s worthwhile to invest in.”
I also asked him specifically about receiving a $10 million term sheet from Gore and Kleiner Perkins.
“How much?” he asked.
I repeated the figure. “Oh, no, no, no. That thing is a long process.” Kowalski said.
Still, Kowalski confirmed that FloDesign is trying to raise somewhere in the range of $8 million in venture financing. The money will go into building a full-scale prototype wind turbine that can be certified by regulators; the enclosed-turbine concept has so far been tested only in small-scale models. Kowalski says the company already has orders for its turbine, though they’re contingent on the company hitting certain milestones in the development process. The first FloDesign turbine to hit the market, he says, will probably generate 500 kilowatts to one megawatt of electricity.