Rich Miner, New Manager of Google Ventures, Calls New England “A Fertile Ecosystem…A Great Place to Be”

3/31/09Follow @wroush

It’s official: Google has launched a venture investing wing called Google Ventures, and Rich Miner, who is based at the company’s Cambridge, MA, office and is the former leader of its Android mobile operating system project, is one of the managing partners.

A sharp-eyed reporter for Reuters broke the news about Miner’s new job on March 20, after spying a nametag at a Silicon Valley investing event that identified the Android guru as part of Google Ventures. At the time, the company would only tell Reuters that Google Ventures was “a project we’re working on,” with no further details forthcoming.

Last night, though, Google went public with the project, in a company blog post written by Miner and his co-managing partner, Bill Maris, an entrepreneur and former neuroscientist hired by Google to start the fund. Miner and Maris said Google Ventures will make early-stage investments in a range of industries; they mentioned the consumer Internet, software, cleantech, biotech, and healthcare by name, but that added the firm would also invest in “other areas we haven’t thought of yet.”

Coincidentally, I’ve been in touch with Miner recently about next week’s Xconomy Forum on the Future of Mobile Innovation in New England, where he’ll be participating in a fireside chat that I’m moderating. So this morning, I had a chance to ask him a couple of questions by e-mail.

I asked him first whether he will be staying in Boston, and whether he will function, in effect, as Google Ventures’ eyes and ears on the East Coast. Related to that, I asked whether he’s optimistic that the New England area is a fertile place to hunt for young, investment-worthy startups.

Rich Miner“I am staying in Boston as an East Coast partner,” Miner replied. “We think New England is a great place to be. It’s a fertile ecosystem with the right combination of top universities, seasoned entrepreneurs and experienced management.”

I also asked Miner about Google Venture’s areas of emphasis. According to a FAQ published as part of the new Google Ventures website, the fund will not be a strategic vehicle for future acquisitions by Google. But I wondered whether Google Ventures will be putting any special emphasis on investing in companies whose technologies are allied in some way with Google’s oft-stated mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

“I would not say special emphasis,” said Miner, “but we are able to look at startups with the domain knowledge of Google and we leverage that to help guide our thinking about possible investments.”

I take that to mean that as Googlers, Miner and Maris will be looking at companies through a Google lens—which could mean that startups with ideas about how to improve people’s access to information will have a leg up in the vetting process. But Google also has an increasing range of other interests—including, for example, green initiatives to reduce the company’s carbon footprint, and, through the non-profit Google.org, global health and citizen empowerment.

Numerous press reports, including one today in the Wall Street Journal, have said that Google plans to commit $100 million to the new venture fund. However, last night’s announcement named no specific figures. The Google Ventures FAQ says the company is “able to invest amounts ranging from seed funding to tens of millions of dollars, depending on the stage of the opportunity and the company’s need for capital.”

Why would Google start a venture operation—especially considering, as Bob pointed out last week, that corporate venture wings have a generally mixed record of success? Well, venture investing, with the right dose of skill and good fortune, is still one of the best ways to make lots of money—and the Google Ventures FAQ makes it clear that the fund will be looking for companies with “the potential for significant financial return.”

But as with most Google projects, there seems to be something more at work here—call it a spirit of irreverent inventiveness. “First and foremost, we’re looking for entrepreneurs who are tackling problems in creative and innovative ways,” the FAQ says. And the company clearly believes that its internal intellectual resources in areas like search, advertising, marketing, networking, user-interface design, and fundamental computer science—what Miner calls the company’s domain knowledge—put it in a unique position to scout out and support innovative young companies in similar areas. The fund’s tactical approach, Miner and Maris wrote in last night’s blog post, will be to marry “the best practices of top-tier, financially focused venture capital firms” with “Google’s unique technical expertise and brand.”

The state of the economy may also have been a factor in the founding of Google Ventures. As Miner and Maris wrote in the Google blog, “Economically, times are tough, but great ideas come when they will. If anything, we think the current downturn is an ideal time to invest in nascent companies that have the chance to be the ‘next big thing,’ and we’ll be working hard to find them.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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