President-Elect Obama’s team tight with cleantech VCs

As President-Elect Barack Obama formulates his energy agenda, the administration is taking cues from Silicon Valley.

Cleantech venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, many of whom were active fund-raisers for the Obama presidential campaign, are carving out an influential role in his incoming administration, drafting policy proposals and meeting with transition team leaders. Proposed appointees to oversee energy and environmental policy also have ties to the venture industry.

The latest West Coast pick—Steven Chu, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director who was picked to be Secretary of Energy—has been a vocal promoter of technology transfer, particularly commercialization of energy applications. He’s also been instrumental in several big energy projects, such as Helios, a Berkeley effort to develop transportation fuel from solar power, and the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a partnership of the Lawrence Berkeley and other San Francisco Bay Area-based labs researching biofuels.

An active public speaker, Chu’s favored talking points center on the need to combat global warming. He’s well-known in venture capital circles and has spoken at a number of cleantech and investor gatherings, including last year’s National Venture Capital Association conference.

Carol Browner, who will be the top White House official on climate and energy policy, also has ties to the venture industry. She served as honorary co-chair of Cleantech and Green Energy for Obama, a group of clean energy entrepreneurs and venture investors who raised money for the Obama campaign.

Browner, who served as EPA administrator during the Clinton administration, was a principal in the Albright Group after her stint at the White House. At Albright, a Washington, D.C.-based investment advisory firm, she worked with businesses on environmental compliance. She also served on the board of Blue 292 (now called Locus Technologies), a venture-backed provider of environmental data management tools.

A number of VCs, who are also working with the transition team, met with Browner a few weeks ago to discuss their cleantech policy recommendations. The group included Josh Becker of New Cycle Capital, Sunil Paul of Spring Ventures, Sanjay Wagle of VantagePoint Venture Partners and Jason Scott of EKO Asset Management.

All of them previously helped raise donations for the presidential campaign as members of Cleantech for Obama. Members of the group are now looking to create a new organization with a different name, Becker says, to focus on cleantech policy.

“With clean energy, unlike Internet investing, the government plays a very important role,” says Becker, general partner of New Cycle, which has backed several early stage cleantech companies. What investors want most, Becker says, is consistent policy to enable long term planning, rather than quick-to-expire tax credits that have been pervasive in the past.

Eko’s Scott, a former director at Generation Asset Management, the London-based private equity firm co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore, has taken on a more formal role as advisor to the transition team. Former members of Cleantech for Obama are also working on a series of policy memos, Becker says, on such topics as tax incentives, loan guarantees and smart grid infrastructure.

To date, the Obama transition team has laid out an ambitious set of energy policy goals. Initiatives laid out in the transition team website include plans to invest $150 billion over the next 10 years to help build clean energy infrastructure, to put 1 million hybrid electric cars on the road by 2015 and implement a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.