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Clean Coal Technology Is Making Venture Investors Money

One of my friends, John Moore. the CEO of Acorn Energy (NASDAQ:ACFN), recently sold off their rapidly growing CoaLogix investment for a quick return. I caught up with John to get the story.

So John, who the hell is Acorn Energy anyways?

Acorn Energy (NASDAQ:ACFN) is the Sun Studios of the energy sector. We have created companies and categories like Demand Response (Comverge-(NASDAQ:COMV)) and the less well known SCR catalyst regeneration market through CoaLogix which we just sold to Energy Capital Partners for $101 million yesterday.

Why did you invest in this deal in the first place?

We look for companies that have created a new category in energy technology but have yet to be recognized. We look for specialty businesses that help the energy industry “get more out of what it’s already got”. Given that coal provides 48% of our electricity in the USA and 75% of China’s output we felt it was an area where we could make an impact. At ACFN we believe in the Power Law which states a small change in a big number is still a big number. In CoaLogix we found a proven technology where the regulations were in place, a great management team and a market near an inflection point. Acorn provided the capital and management really executed. We created the world’s largest catalyst regeneration business with 75% US share and 40% of the SCR capacity under long term contracts. We exited with a 43% IRR after three years and ten months.

Who does Coalogix compete with for these products, and what made you comfortable originally that they could take market share?

CoaLogix competes with new catalyst producers like Hitachi. The company’s value proposition was that we regenerate the catalyst at half the cost of new catalyst. The competition with the new catalyst producers was driven by the new functionality that they were adding to the new generations of catalyst. The key risk factor in the investment was whether we could keep up the net value proposition to the end users versus the new catalyst offering. Management changed the industry by forming an alliance with the largest US catalyst producer, Cormatech- a joint venture between Corning and Mitsubishi and we both prospered.

I thought “clean coal” was dead as an investment category?

There have been some notable flops in the clean coal business like coal benefication and coal gasification deals. What these failed investments have in common is unproven technology and business models that require massive investment to achieve commodity margins at scale. I would refer readers to your insightful blog post on Jane Capital’s rules on energy technology investing.

How did this exit come together?

China passed NOx regulations as part of their new five year plan. We visited China in September 2010 and discovered the new NOx regulations were going to require $6 Billion of catalyst to be installed and there was going to be a really big market for regeneration. We decided that CoaLogix’s epic opportunity was China and management needed a sponsor with a lot of resources and contacts to repeat the company’s success in China. We hired UBS to lead the process and they found the perfect partner, Energy Capital Partners which manages $7 Billion in capital. They did such thorough due diligence on the company that in the end I think they knew the company and the management team better than we did.

So this is Acorn’s second big hit after Comverge?

Yes. We exited most of our stake in Comverge after the Goldman Sachs led secondary at a $600 million valuation or $29 per share. The CoaLogix ransaction was our second successful transaction with EnerTech Capital. They have incredible domain knowledge and initially sourced the CoaLogix opportunity but were between funds. We invited them in after we acquired the company and they added a lot of value. I get by with a little help from my friends.

What are the metrics on this deal? How much was Acorn in it for and when? How much did the business grow during that time? And what was the exit multiple for Acorn?

Acorn bought CoaLogix for $9.6 million in November 2007. We invested an additional $8.6 million to build a new plant and our gross sale proceeds were $61.9 million for a 43% IRR or 3.4 times our investment.

So you guys do both minority and controlling investments?

We have done both but we only make minority investments with an eye to buying a majority stake if we like management. One of the lessons I have learned is management must have a really large economic opportunity and that means ACFN owning 85% and management around 15%. We provide a balance sheet, some big picture guidance and contacts and stay out of the way and let management execute.

You’re essentially an evergreen fund, so what are you going to do with the proceeds?

We plan to reinvest in our three operating businesses; DSIT the leading underwater security company, GridSense a very promising smart grid distribution optimization provider and US Seismic a pioneer in the emerging field of 4D seismic for the oil and gas industry. We feel that each of these three businesses have huge potential and are capital light so we can stick with them longer than CoaLogix or Comverge. Of course, we always have our eyes open for new opportunities that benefit from “economies of connection” amd solve a major energy industry pain point.

One more thing John, your comment “We look for specialty businesses that help the energy industry “get more out of what it’s already got”. This is very articulate thesis that certainly isn’t typical for venture investors, can you expound a bit on what you mean by that?

Great entrepreneurs look for a fulcrum from which to leverage their ideas to market. The number one use of energy is the extraction, refining and distribution of energy. The existing energy systems waste and scale is the fulcrum. The entrepreneur’s new technology or system is the lever. I have been astonished by how many cleantech entrepreneurs want to try to reinvent our huge scaled energy systems from scratch missing the opportunity to use the fulcrum. Even the biggest venture funds don’t have the activation energy necessary to radically change our energy supply. The smartest play available is to make the existing infrastructure smarter. Last year I wrote a short book “The Hidden Cleantech Revolution” to investigate the really important changes that were happening to the “other 97%” of our energy supply that nobody was talking about. I would invite your readers to e-mail my assistant at jvoisin@acornenergy.com for a free copy.