VantagePoint Snares Kiwi Cleantech Venture Capital Talent

Leading cleantech venture capital firm VantagePoint Venture Partners this week lured away New Zealand power sector veteran Helen Priest to join its Silicon Valley office in cleantech. Helen had been heading corporate ventures for Meridian Energy, New Zealand’s largest and all renewable state-owned power company. With a reputation for being one of the largest cleantech venture investors, behind such moneyraising fiends as Miasole, BrightSource, Tesla Motors and Mascoma, but also as one of most polarizing firms in the venture capital sector, VantagePoint added some needed benchstrength.

Helen brings experience doing deals in carbon, green building, and a decade of energy experience prior to Meridian as head of strategy and then CIO for New Zealand’s grid operator, Transpower. In one move VantagePoint landed expertise in three of the hottest areas in cleantech venture: carbon, green building, and smart power. Helen’s linked in profile and bio are here.

Meridian is a story all by itself. The state-owned company is not even 10 years old since its formation in the breakup of the New Zealand national power company ECNZ in 1999. It was guided in its early years by Kiwi power icon Dr. Keith Turner, and since his retirement by longtime power and telecom executive Tim Lusk. While generally not on the radar screen in the US, Meridian has been one of the earliest and most aggressive energy technology investors in the world, with a tech portfolio of over $150 mm, and a track record for investing into energy trends years ahead of the curve.

All renewable, Meridian put in the first wind farms in New Zealand, and now has 2.6 GW under development or consent.

A few years after its formation, it made a hedge fund like bet on the Australian deregulation and renewable sector clearing over half a billion in profits when it sold (in contrast to US utilities like TXU who were never able to effectively profit from investments in the deregulating Australian market).

On the technology and services side, Meridian has backed investments or done corporate spin-outs in smart metering and energy IT (Arc Innovations and Powershop), distributed generation & efficiency (Energy for Industry, Damwatch and Whispertech – the largest stirling engine technology company in the world), green building (Righthouse), and carbon IT (Carbonflow, one of mine). It was also an early investor in fuel cells, superconductors (under founding CEO Keith Turner’s watch Meridian’s predecessor funded some of the original work behind 1G superconductor wire at the New Zealand national lab IRL), and energy venture capital (Nth Power). And it runs it all from a state of the art five star green building. And has recently begun making noises about a solar run.

As with venture, every bet didn’t always pay of. The Nth Power investment was in Nth’s second fund, which was before the current cleantech boom and hasn’t delivered returns, and its early fuel cell investment was Ceramic Fuel Cells, which did later deliver a successful AIM listing, but Meridian had declined to re-up. And as with most cleantech investors except for solar, their big tech bets haven’t yet exited to prove the returns, and it has been the project oriented side of the portfolio that carried the early profits. But with a portfolio loaded with energy efficiency and energy IT bets whose time has come, and a state-owned entity’s cost of capital behind it, Meridian will probably be punching outside their weight in the tech category, too.

Besides renewable energy and technology, Meridian also did some of the earliest carbon credit projects under Kyoto off its first windfarms, and later issued some of the first Gold Standard VERs ever (verified by DNV), again reaping profits from its early move. It holds the record for the highest price ever paid for voluntary carbon credits at over $100/ton for a tranche of Gold Standard VERs auctioned on Trademe, New Zealand’s eBay (proceeds donated to charity). And it also used its carbon project experience to brand as one of the first utilities globally to certify its whole utility as carbon neutral in 2007.

Meridian was not the first energy technology stop for Helen. Prior to Meridian, Helen held the CIO’s role as head of IT for Transpower, New Zealand’s transmission grid operator, and was Transpower’s head of strategy before that. A chemical engineer by training, she previously oversaw global strategy for New Zealand’s 11,000 strong diary cooperative, Fonterra. She has been Meridian’s representative to the boards of the NZ Green Building Council and Carbonflow. And now she’s moved back global with this position, moving to Palo Alto join VantagePoint.

Neal Dikeman is a partner at Jane Capital Partners and the CEO of Carbonflow. He is the Chairman of and edits Cleantech Blog. Note; Meridian has been a longtime client of mine, and is an investor in Carbonflow, where I am serving as CEO.