VCs Compete Hard For Early-Stage Science Projects

Mohr Davidow this month named four researchers — two from Stanford and two from UC Berkeley — as recipients of a new Innovators Award that the venture firm designed last year. Each researcher will get $50,000, which Mohr Davidow’s partners are taking out of their own fees, to work for a year on a high-risk project. Researchers are picked by senior faculty at their schools and can’t be tenured.

“This program is designed to identify, award and accelerate the early careers of professors we think have high potential for research and commercialization,” said MDV partner Erik Straser.

All four winners — assistant professors Nick Melosh and Thomas Jaramillo at Stanford, UC Berkeley assistant professor Ali Javey, and Delia Milliron, who works at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — are pursuing projects that may have applications to clean tech, including new ways to capture solar energy and make buildings more energy efficient.

One of last year’s winners, assistant professor Yi Cui of Stanford, who specializes in nanotechnology, said he is talking to Mohr Davidow about forming a company and has been approached by other VCs. Cui’s group at Stanford used their grant to figure out how to turn ordinary office paper and cloth into batteries that could someday power electric cars or mobile devices that people carry.

They published a paper this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that was picked by Scientific American, the New York Times and several other national publications.

“Unrestricted funding for any idea you’d like to pursue is the nicest award to have,” said Cui. The paper-as-batteries project probably wouldn’t have been funded otherwise, he added, because the government doesn’t fund projects that have such high risk.

Mohr Davidow isn’t the only firm in hot pursuit of new technology at universities, though, especially as it gets harder to create big companies like Google that specialize in information technology, which used to be Silicon Valley’s staple.

Vantage Point, Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, Draper Fisher and Sequoia are all out looking for university science projects. Cui said he thinks Mohr Davidow is the most technical of the group, although one VC who asked not to be named said it’s hard for smaller investors not to get beat to any of these projects by the bigger players.

Straser, meanwhile, said Mohr Davidow may consider expanding the innovator awards to Cal Tech in Pasadena and/or UCSF medical school.