There’s a truism in Silicon Valley: Investment money flows to good ideas, but it flows more freely to good ideas with credentialed people behind them. The truism played out this week when start-up EcoMotors scored a $23.5 million Series B round of investment from Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and alternative energy investor Vinod Khosla. The money will be used for engineering and further testing of the company’s Opoc engine.
EcoMotors, a two-year-old start-up with fewer than 40 employees, is headed by ex-G.M. executive Don Runkle. Its piston-opposed engine design is conceived by ex-VW powertrain executive Peter Hofbauer, who designed the high-speed diesel engine that became the foundation for the Volkswagen Jetta Clean Diesel. The Opoc engine operates on a two-cycle principle, generating one power stroke per crank revolution per cylinder. It comprises two opposing cylinders that move in opposite directions with a crankshaft between them. The engine can run on unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel.
While the investment in EcoMotors is dwarfed by the hundreds of millions of dollars backing various battery and plug-in car ventures, the company may be able to more quickly deliver its engine in volume—partly because it doesn’t represent a significant shift in automotive technology or infrastructure. The key word is affordability. Electric cars are expected to face cost obstacles for some time, and the economics of fuel cells are even more challenging.
Investing in Internal Combustion for the Masses
EcoMotors promises that the Opoc engine will provide a 50 percent fuel efficiency improvement on current engines while using half as many parts, and delivering a modular engine architecture capable of dramatically reducing emissions especially in city driving. Gates, who invested through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said, “The Opoc engine can be an important step in providing affordable, low-emission transportation for the developing world.”
EcoMotors is awaiting word on a $200 million U.S. Department of Energy loan that would enable the company to build engines at an old GM plant in Livonia, Mich. Runkle said the engine will be on the market in the next few years. “There is a revolution going on right now in propulsion systems,” Runkle said. “There’s far more investment in internal combustion than in electrification.”
Khosla, in true venture capitalist fashion, is spreading his bets. His fund is a major backer of cellulosic ethanol ventures, battery development companies and other automotive efficiency ventures—all of which are likely to play a role in a greener automotive future.