Early Investment In Tesla, SolarCity, Zola Electric, & More — Nancy Pfund on #CleanTechTalk

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In this episode of our CleanTech Talk podcast interview series, Zach Shahan sits down with Nancy Pfund, founder and Managing Partner of DBL Partners. They discuss Nancy’s journey from policy and politics to business and impact investing, especially her work in the clean technology sector with companies like Tesla, SolarCity, and ZOLA Electric. You can listen to the full conversation in the embedded player below. Below that embedded SoundCloud player is a brief summary of the topics covered, but tune into the podcast to follow the full discussion.

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Zach and Nancy talk about Nancy’s journey into clean technology and venture capital. When Nancy graduated from college, she started out working with the Sierra Club as an intern in Washington, D.C. Her passion lies in protecting the planet and combating climate change, and while she started to pursue that passion through government and policy, she discovered a new means of impact: investment. While she understood the importance of government and policy, she also realized the importance of innovation and investment within the private sector and therefore moved into the world of business. And, when she moved to the Bay Area, she got an opportunity to work in clean technology. 

Nancy was an early investor in prominent clean technology companies, including Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, and several other notable companies. She shares the story of her involvement in Tesla in the early days and why the company was so appealing to her fund. Nancy explains that one of the goals of her fund is to not only invest in great companies but also invest in companies that will create jobs, jobs that are not only for people who know how to code, Nancy explains, but also for people who do not have access to education and other opportunities. For Nancy, Tesla checked DPL’s boxes of sustainability, job creation, interesting founders, and a big vision. That initial investment led to much success and partnership with the company for many years.  

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As the podcast continues, Zach and Nancy explore the topic of job creation within the solar industry and electric vehicle industry. Nancy noticed that when the financial crisis of 2008 happened and the world saw dislocation and job loss, the job numbers related to solar increased. The solar industry was actually creating jobs at a very fast clip. Nancy explained the need for politicians to understand the job-creating potential of renewable energy and how job creation would be one of the solar industry’s greatest assets.

According to Nancy, the solar industry is completely different in terms of scale and cost today than when she first started to get into impact investing. Through efficiency development and a higher capacity to scale solar, the industry has become much more competitive in energy markets. Nancy explained that while the storage component is still not as mature as she’d like, if developed properly, renewables and storage are “unstoppable,” and could seriously displace the use of fossil fuels.

Image courtesy ZOLA Electric

Zach and Nancy then move to a discussion on one of Nancy’s investments, ZOLA Electric, which focuses on the next generation of solar and storage for less developed countries. By combining Bay Area energy technology chops with an on-the-ground, locally driven African business model and employee base, Nancy said this combination could “change the world.” ZOLA has seen tremendous growth and impact and has been able to attract impact investors from venture capital communities. Weak traditional power grids have caused many to rely on diesel generators, which has many negative impacts on climate and health and can be a real financial burden on families. Therefore, the work ZOLA does tackles that problem and seeks to provide Africa with a solid, sustainable electricity system. Nancy explained that there’s a huge opportunity for innovation and improvement in this sector.

So, how does Nancy evaluate startups for DPL? The podcast shifts to Nancy’s evaluation process for the companies she chooses to invest in, which are even broader than clean technology. Nancy explains DPL’s trifecta approach. First, they choose companies that are addressing a massive problem when it comes to carbon. Second, they look for companies that are not just assessing the problem but have come up with a solution to fix that problem. And finally, if the company is addressing and challenging a sector with incumbent companies that are hundreds of years old, that means it is time for new investments. When all three of those categories align with the backing of a powerful and determined management team, that’s when Nancy jumps in.

To close out the podcast, Zach and Nancy explore the question of the potential for clean technology to boost U.S. manufacturing. Clean technology and related fields rely on the strength of the economy and human capital, and they believe that embracing modern manufacturing techniques through clean technology could help to wake up the U.S. manufacturing scene to the value of staying in the U.S.

To hear more on how Nancy Pfund and her team are building the future and making the world a better place, listen to the show!

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