Bill Gates Revs Up His Investment in EcoMotors

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With the successful IPO of electric-car maker Tesla Motors (TSLA) -- among many other factors -- any company focused on the internal combustion engine would appear to be be far behind the times. Yet, some savvy investors still think its imminent demise has been greatly exaggerated. Particularly if the engine in question isn't your grandfather's combustion engine.

For example, Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates has recently invested in the $23.5 million series B round for EcoMotors, which develops next-generation engines that run on gas and diesel. And he's not alone. The funding round also attracted the attention of Khosla Ventures.

EcoMotors' Innovative Breakthrough

Peter Hofbauer started EcoMotors in 2008. Before that he spent two decades at Volkswagen, where he pioneered the mass production of the company's first diesel engine. He has been awarded over 50 patents for his inventions.

At EcoMotors, Hofbauer has masterminded yet another breakthrough innovation: the "opposed piston opposed cylinder" (OPOC) engine. The design essentially involves placing four pistons into two piston cylinders. The system also has 62 parts, compared to 385 for the traditional engine.

The result? The OPOC engine is truly innovative. It costs a quarter of a traditional engine and generates up to 50% more fuel efficiency. The greenhouse gas emissions are even lower than electric vehicles (keep in mind that electricity often requires large amounts of coal). And by relying on conventional fuels, there's no need to deal with huge investments in energy infrastructure.

Market Potential?

The OPOC technology is still in the prototype stage and will take at least two years to hit the market. Nonetheless EcoMotors has been able to attract top-notch talent. The company's CEO, Donald Runkle, had prior stints in high-level positions at GM and Delphi. And he seems to understands how to scale an organization, as well as deal with government agencies. In fact, EcoMotors is in the process of getting a $200 million loan from the U.S. Energy Department.

If the technology gains traction, it's likely to see an enormous market opportunity. The EcoMotors engine will be able to power not only cars but perhaps even aerospace vehicles. What's more, emerging markets are likely offer opportunities. Consider that the company's first customer is China's Zhongding Holding Group.

The EcoMotors investment isn't the only cleantech deal for Gates and Khosla. Both recently provided $35 million in funding for TerraPower. It develops next-generation nuclear-reactor technology that runs on depleted uranium and can last for several hundred years without refueling.
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