Honing the Edge

Clean contender sets up shop in Minnesota

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 5:00 PM

If Minnesota becomes an alternative-energy powerhouse, Doug Cameron will likely have played a key role.

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Doug Cameron is the former chief science officer for Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley that specializes in clean tech. Cameron recently joined Piper Jaffray to develop its green-energy business. He believes Minnesota has the potential to become a major player in green energy.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Why on earth would Doug Cameron leave a cushy job at a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm in sunny California to work at a struggling investment bank in cold and blustery Minnesota?

Because he's Doug Cameron. That's why.

At heart, Cameron, 51, is a scientist who manages his life with the same precision and logic he would apply to a chemistry equation. He has already been a researcher, teacher, entrepreneur, corporate officer and venture capitalist. Joining Piper Jaffray & Co., Cameron says, will simply round out a career that has mostly focused on early stage innovation.

"As a professor, I got to see the early research side of how a new innovation occurred," he said. "As a VC [at Khosla Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif.], we took small ideas from research labs and turned them into start-ups. But how do you turn a small little start-up company into a big successful corporation? That was a real gap. How do you do the end game? I'm like a chess player who only knows how to do the opening move. I'm looking at how do you play the final moves of the game."

Officially, Cameron is chief science adviser to Piper Jaffray, where he will help guide the bank's alternative-investment portfolio. In reality, he is more of a clean-tech czar, the point man for all things clean and green. And not just for Piper Jaffray. Cameron is arguably Minnesota's most prominent authority on clean energy, including biofuels, solar and renewable materials. If the state, known mostly for medical devices, has any shot at creating a thriving clean-tech industry, it's a sure bet Cameron's experience and expertise will be in play.

"Doug is a first-rate scientist," said Lois Quam, Piper Jaffray's managing director for alternative investments and a former top executive at UnitedHealth Group Inc. "He understands what will make a successful company in the green economy."

Adept intermediary

Colleagues and family describe Cameron as the ultimate go-to guy, someone who can make things happen. "What's unique about Doug is that he tries to connect people with close interests and something good will come out of it, whether it's a new business or scientific collaboration," said Olga Selifonova, co-founder and vice president of corporate development at Segetis Inc., a green chemistry start-up based in Golden Valley.

In person, though, Cameron can seem guarded and methodical, a low-key demeanor that belies a quick wit and dry sense of humor. Growing up in the Chicago area, Cameron was a popular child but did not seek attention.

"He wasn't a wallflower," said brother Greg Cameron, executive vice president and chief development officer of WTTW 11 in Chicago. "He was much more thoughtful and a little more graduated in the way he developed relationships."

Cameron's father, Carlyle, was a frustrated scientist who hated his job as an accountant. Though Carlyle took Doug, Greg and sibling Steve to the zoo or museum every weekend, he did not pressure his boys to pursue his unfulfilled ambitions.

"My dad always let us know he hated his job," Doug Cameron said. "He constantly encouraged us to do what we love. [He said:] 'I got into this job because I needed money and I had a family. Don't ever get yourself in that situation.' He had some other very good talents but always felt he made the wrong choice in what he had done and let us know that."

The science took to Doug Cameron, who later attended Duke University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied biochemical engineering. At MIT, Cameron worked at a government-funded lab that researched alternative energy in response to the oil crisis of the 1970s.

"Doug has always been very thoughtful about his research," said Noubar Afeyan, an MIT classmate who now runs Flagship Ventures in Cambridge, Mass. "I think he has pretty good knowledge of the fundamentals. He is quite precise and methodical at what he does, which is not always the case with other scientists."

After teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cameron moved to Minnesota in 1998 to start a biotechnology development center at Cargill Inc. There, he helped develop microorganisms and enzymes used in food processing, industrial chemicals, vitamins and animal feeds. But Cameron eventually grew restless.

"At the time, there was a strong push for us to be at the cutting edge at what we did," Cameron said. "We are going to develop totally new technology. Over time, it became much more 'listen-to-our-customers, be-a-fast-follower, first-to-be second.' In retrospect, I would never have left [the university] in the first place to be a fast follower."

'B' companies

Cameron became chief science officer at Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm started by Sun Microsystems founder Vinod Khosla in 2004 to invest in clean technologies. There, Cameron found the ambition and excitement he was looking for.

"Khosla only wanted to invest in 'B' companies -- the potential to have $1 billion [market] valuations," Cameron said. "All of the decisions that were made assumed that this was going to be a B company. You do things differently if you think the company is only worth a few million dollars."

On Cameron's advice, Khosla invested in two Minnesota start-ups: Segetis, which is developing agricultural feedstocks as substitutes for plastics and specialty chemicals made from petroleum, and Draths Corp., a Plymouth-based company that combines biology and chemistry to produce environmentally friendly nylon fibers. Cameron also nudged Khosla toward Gevo Inc., a firm in Colorado that is developing isobutanol, a second-generation biofuel that can be transported in traditional oil and gas lines. One of ethanol's big drawbacks is that it must be shipped by truck or rail because it won't flow efficiently through pipelines.

"Doug has an extremely deep understanding of a diverse number of technical areas," said Alex Kinnier, a partner with Khosla. "Having a strong technical understanding is very important to creating leading-edge start-ups.''

Start-ups are inherently risky and need several years to develop. Although Khosla's portfolio includes some cutting-edge technology, it's far from certain whether any of the start-ups will ultimately become a successful business.

In some ways, Cameron's return to Minnesota comes as a bit of a surprise. In past industry conferences, he said the state's clean-tech industry lacked any excitement or buzz. Today, Cameron admits he's coming around.

"I am sensing more excitement," Cameron said. "There are quite a few innovative companies here. They still seem to be pretty low-profile. I have to work pretty hard to find them. I do see the lack of having these VCs who have as their goal growing $1 billion companies from Day One. It just changes the mind-set. I often see companies whose aspirations are not as big."

"There is a quasi-joke," he continued. "When you are in Silicon Valley and you are working for a big stable company your friends feel sorry and wonder what's wrong with you. They say they will look out for a good start-up for you. In the Midwest, it's the opposite. You work at a small start-up, your friends say ohhh ... can't get a job at a big established company? Maybe I'll keep an eye out for a job at General Mills or 3M."

Cameron believes demand for alternative energy will not fade away as it did after the 1970s. For one thing, the Obama administration's economic stimulus package directs billions of dollars toward clean energy. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has also proposed $10 million in tax credits over four years for investments in companies that create green jobs.

"Clean tech will just become main tech," Cameron said. "In five years or so, this way of thinking will become so ingrained. If we get it right, this will be the way you think of doing everything. I don't think it will be a nichey little area. I think it will roll into all industries. We are at a cusp."

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744

To read the rest of the Honing the Edge series, go to www.startribune.com/business/18534229.html.

  • about this series

  • A continuing series on innovation in Minnesota.
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