Silicon Valley venture capitalists like to crow that it’s now cheaper than ever to establish a startup company. While that may be true for internet firms, the amount of money required to fund a Silicon Valley green tech startup can be mind-boggling.
Case in point is fuel cell maker Bloom Energy, which Fortune today reported had taken its total raised to $1.1 billion, thanks to a new $130 million round.
The company is one of Silicon Valley VCs’ last big bets on green tech, with funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and other marquee venture players. None of those firms, however, appeared have to participated in the latest round. Citing unnamed sources, Fortune said that an unidentified new investor kicked in $100 million while Credit Suisse put in $30 million. (Bloom chief marketing officer Matt Ross told Quartz the company would not comment on the report.)
One of the explanations for the mammoth $1.1 billion funding is that Bloom has been around since 2001. Another is that it’s in a capital-intensive, research-heavy business. Bloom unveiled its fuel cell with great fanfare in February 2010 at a star-studded event at eBay that featured then-California governor Arnold Schwarznegger, former secretary of Colin Powell, Google co-founder Larry Page and a host of tech luminaries.
In contrast to the usual Silicon Valley practice of announcing a coming product, Bloom spent nearly a decade developing its solid-oxide fuel cell technology while saying nary a word. Over the past year and a half, it has quietly sold and installed 100-kilowatt Bloom boxes at Google, Bank of America, Wal-Mart and other big companies. The boxes cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece.
Such fuel cells have been something of a holy grail as they can operate at extremely high temperatures to maximize efficiency and can use a variety of fuels, like natural gas and biogas. Since the heat allows the fuel to be directly transformed into electricity through an electrochemical process, the expensive precious metals and rare-earth elements used in other fuel cells to act as catalysts could theoretically be eliminated. But finding cheap common materials as substitutes and ensuring fuel cells don’t crack and leak under such conditions have stymied scientists for more than 30 years.
Since then Bloom has continued to sell its Bloom boxes to Fortune 100 companies seeking a low-carbon source of electricity that can operate 24/7 independently of the power grid. Last year, AT&T became Bloom’s largest customer when it bought 17.1 megawatts’ worth of fuel cells.
But the latest funding round will only intensify one of Silicon Valley’s favorite parlor games: What’s Bloom’s exit strategy? At some point soon, those investors are going to want their money back.