When Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard co-founded Tesla in 2003, they started an electric vehicle revolution that is still transforming the auto industry, and shifting energy consumption toward renewables.
Now, Tarpenning has joined eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's venture firm, Spero Ventures, to back the next generation of start-ups focused on sustainability.
Mobility, battery-tech and manufacturing remain obsessions for Tarpenning, given the years he spent making electric cars that would be as appealing as other top sports cars. But the investor and engineer is now looking to fund start-ups solving problems around food, water and land use with emerging technologies.
Tarpenning lights up discussing materials science that could make plastic obsolete, and deliver packaging with far fewer external impacts. He is from California's Central Valley, and says the land around him makes him think constantly about finding smarter ways to use and source water.
The long-time inventor says he favors a vision of the future that is more like "Star Trek" than "Blade Runner." But he hopes to see at least one thing that may seem counter-intuitive — denser cities.
"In California, most of the people live on 5 to 6% of the land, all around the coasts and in places you may expect," Tarpenning said.
"Imagine if the places in between were much wilder, and a world where other living things on this planet have a much bigger say. I'd like to see cities with all the wonderful amenities, but wild landscape in between. So I look for things that drag us into that future. To do that, you have to rethink everything, like agriculture, how we feed ourselves, and of course, how we get around."
Spero Ventures, whose sole limited partner is eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, typically writes $2 million to $3 million checks, backing early stage start-ups that are raising up to $10 million in a round, according to the firm's founding partner, Shripriya Mahesh.
She says Spero is now deploying capital from a $100 million fund into start-ups that line up with a mission inspired by Omidyar. Spero aims to invest in about 20 start-ups in three categories: "well-being" (which includes sustainability), "work and purpose" and "human connection."
Mahesh and Tarpenning think of what they do as simply venture investing, not "impact investing" or "social venturing." All investors, they believe, should care about the impact of their portfolio companies on people and planet. And self-professed social ventures can sometimes lack ambition to massively scale their products.
In recent developments, the withdrawn IPO plans of WeWork and disappointing performance of Uber and Lyft in public markets have sullied the reputation of venture capital. But Tarpenning remains optimistic about this corner of finance.
"Venture capital is what allows the entrepreneur to actually work," he said. "There may have been excesses with some firms, but you cannot give up on this model. It drives everything. Tesla would never have been successful if we didn't have the ability to access venture funding early on."
Mahesh added, with a nod to the companies created in the wake of the dot-com bust, "When the venture capital industry has been mostly beaten down — that was when you have seen some of the greatest companies getting off the ground. Right now, we think there is opportunity around sustainability. An awareness has grown with consumers saying what they want. And in the midst of a 'talent war,' tech employees are willing to leave high-paying jobs at big firms to work long hours, as long as their employer is on an authentic mission."
Asked if he would ever work on another automotive deal, Tarpenning replied with enthusiasm: "Mobility can still be totally part of sustainability. Electric vehicles are just one part of that. Getting around is still a big deal. We spend a lot of time and energy simply getting around."
The Tesla co-founder still drives a Model S, one of the first that the company produced, with more than 125,000 miles on it. But chances are good that he'll add another EV to his family's vehicle lineup soon.
"I am delighted when I see all of these new electric vehicle competitors," he says. "It's just surprising to me that it took so long for the big guys to decide that electric drive trains were the way to go. They are so clearly superior in performance, cost and [are] very reliable, besides being environmentally friendly. It has surprised me that it took them 10 extra years to get their act together. But I am thrilled that it is happening."