Interview: Bob Hertzberg
Erik Jaques meets Bob Hertzberg, former Speaker of the California Assembly and co-founder Renewable Capital
Everything about Bob Hertzberg – the former California Speaker of the State Assembly and policy-weaving virtuoso turned renewable energy entrepreneur – is big.
There is his sheer physical bulk – broad, ursine and imposing, yet inherently warm and welcoming; he has been called “Huggy” and “Hugsberg” for his tactile charm offensives with everyone from colleagues to opponents. Former Governor of California and good friend Arnold Schwarzenegger affectionately calls him “Hertzie”.
More importantly, although the appearance and demeanour certainly complement them, are the ideas: big-picture thinking and diplomatic deftness that has marked him out as one of renewable energy’s most exciting players.
Getting things done is his bag, and he is clearly utterly obsessed about getting them done right. The devil, it would seem, is in the detail. This, after all, is a man who wrote a 400-page handbook, entitled A Commonsense Approach to English, while studying to become a lawyer.
His influence on all things green and renewable encompasses policy (albeit in a more backgrounded advisory sense these days), law (as a partner of Mayer Brown, the US’s 6th largest law firm), consultancy and investment (he’s a venture partner at California-based Pacific Capital Group), while his presence is keenly felt on the boards of a dizzying number of socio-environmentally progressive organisations and charities.
“It all makes sense. It all weaves together,” he says brightly. “How many minutes do you have on this planet? I’m just trying to make the most of every one of ’em.”
For all his far-reaching influence, however, it is his start-up in Cardiff, Wales, that is starting to stand out, both in terms of scope and sheer potential. G24i’s intriguing technological offering is a proprietary thin film, dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC) that can be transformed into flexible and infinitely versatile nano-enabled photovoltaic material capable of converting light into electrical energy.
The big story here is that energy generation does not rely on direct sunlight and can occur even in low-light indoor conditions or, say, a sun deprived locale such as Cardiff. G4i boldly claims that its process is the closest that mankind has come to replicating nature’s photosynthesis.
The product is churned out at a state-of-the-art assembly line (powered by wind power) that injects dye into kilometre-long strips of foil that can be sliced and diced into any shape and size. In G24i’s crosshairs is mobile power or, in other words, it wants to replace batteries – a $50B market, not to mention a hugely energy intensive one; making a battery takes more than 30 times the energy you get out of the end product.
Hertzberg is also at pains to point out that the technology could be hugely advantageous in developing countries. Many impoverished countries have jumped over fixed-line phones to mobiles, he notes. Technology of G24i’s ilk can help them jump over fixed infrastructure like big fossil fuel power stations and develop distributed generation. “The mistake in the green technology field is they are not making it available to everybody,” he says.
Since forming in 2004, G24i has been plied with $120M in investment from sources such as the private equity arm of Morgan Stanley; 4RAE, a Luxembourg venture capitalist; and Renewable Capital (an investment firm founded by Hertzberg). There have been no subsidies; Hertzberg does not like the way they often make companies resort to reductive lobbying rather than innovating and creating.
“I’m not into subsidies,” he says, not without a hint of pride. “They are fine in the short term, but otherwise I don’t think it reels in real business.”
Although G24i’s technology is already present in a range of consumer goods (bags and mobile phone chargers, among them), it has been avidly seeking markets that stick, and has yet to take off in a big, profit-making way. The world’s first commercial shipment of DSSC was to Mascotte Industrial Associates, a Hong Kong bag manufacturer, in 2009. A milestone though this may have been, it didn’t quite set pulses racing in terms of making a big carbon emission dents.
But with the technology fine-tuned and mass production finally possible, business is starting to crystallize; today’s focus is the greening of electrical appliances (whose standby modes account for around 8% of the UK’s energy demand).
A deal was recently struck with Texas Instruments, the American electronics group, for a year-long strategic partnership, and there is an imminent team-up with a major computer manufacturer on the horizon. A raft of companies bearing kit with remote controls and sensors are expected to follow suit.
“We had a vision of wanting to form a green company that was different to what other people had. A new technology. Something cutting edge. Something disruptive,” says Hertzberg.
G24i came into being when Hertzberg and business partner and co-founder Ed Stevenson came into contact with Michael Graetzel, a Swiss chemist who had developed the dye technology. Although the dye was ostensibly inefficient, it had enormous potential, including its ability to eschew rigid solar panels.
This, says Hertzberg, is a big boon. “Silicon is yesterday’s news,” he notes, “the energy footprint is so huge.”
Graetzel currently sits on the G24i’s advisory board and feeds into a team Hertzberg describes as “phenomenal” and “bullet proof”.
This is not the first time Hertzberg has dabbled in the solar business. He and Stevenson were attempting to strike it big with the technology way back in 1984, before both went on to form Solar Integrated, which focused on integrating roofing material with large industrial roofs. The company, the first of its kind producing renewable energy equipment in Los Angeles, won the Wall Street Journal award for innovation in 2005 and its success has helped pave the way for G24i.
What makes Hertzberg so different from other entrepreneurs working in renewable energy space is his political nous and track record. His stint as speaker of the California State Assembly is shot through with achievement that begat impact bills on areas such as renewable energy, the environment, anti-gang measures and legislative ethics.
In 2005 he was narrowly defeated in a bid to become mayor of Los Angeles. Never one to languish in defeat, he went on to chair the transition team for his opponent Antonio Villaraigosa.
He was also on the Transition Committee for Governor Schwarzenegger and was offered the position of chief of staff. Hertzberg declined, choosing to stay in the private sector, although he continued to provide advice on an informal basis.
Not surprisingly, his political sagacity is still in much demand. “In the last three weeks I’ve sat down with seven or eight politicians running for office,” he says.
“I just beat ’em to a pulp. I give ’em homework. ‘Here’s a bunch of stuff to read, I wanna see how deeply you understand this. I don’t care if you win, I don’t care if you’re fancy or good looking or have a ton of money – if you can’t solve the problems, you are the problem.’ I don’t raise money for people, I raise ideas. I do the homework, do the homework, do the homework and then help people in politics get to their success and fade into the background and try not to hog the limelight.”
If his time in politics has taught him anything, it is that the notion of sustainability as it applies to business and technology is no flash in the pan. “I don’t care what country it is, what language, what culture – the green issue is here to stay,” he says.
“The world is moving at an absolute breakneck speed, so what I’m trying to do is use my understanding of political processes to get ahead of the game.
“Politics is going to so inform the green movement for a long time to come.”
Hertzberg describes himself as a “New Democrat”, much like Bill Clinton; a pro-business, pro-labour stalwart who is not afraid to brave bi-partisanship if necessary. At the end of the day, he says, his only focus is to get results – a trait that is relentlessly reiterated in both his political and business incarnations.
“Unlike most people in politics, I always focus on the close – always about the close,” he says. “How do you get to the goal, what is the exit strategy and how do you get there? It’s all about the results, results, results, results.”
He adds emphatically: “In business if you don’t perform you lose your job. It’s all about deliverables. All about the close.”
While G24i might just be getting off the ground, Hertzberg is confident it now has the momentum and purpose to break through and make a real difference.
“I’ve spent my whole life doing this,” he continues. “It’s not magic. It’s sheer hard work and will and now it’s all come together. I can see the big picture, I can see how to do it, I can understand the nuances – the vision and the nuts and bolts it takes to get there.”
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