With a little help from his powerful friends, Vinod Khosla is out to reinvent the internal combustion engine.
The 54-year-old venture capitalist from Silicon Valley has a knack for putting technical superstars in the same room with wealthy investors and letting nature take its course.
Last week he signed up old chum Bill Gates as an investor in his tiny Michigan company, after introducing the billionaire to the startup's president, Don Runkle.
Runkle, the former General Motors and Delphi technical executive, said the engine that EcoMotors International is developing can be a game-changer. Its modular design features opposing pistons that fire against each other instead of a head, reducing weight, boosting efficiency, requiring fewer parts and slashing costs.
As a renowned gearhead, when Runkle talks technology people listen.
Still, Khosla, a stickler for detail, took it upon himself to coach Runkle on how to make a pitch to Gates at an entrepreneurship summit that Khosla Ventures put on in California in May.
Khosla, whom associates describe as quiet but insistent, advised Runkle, 65, on how to make the PowerPoint presentation pithy and bright, suggesting that no slide contain more than 25 words.
"Vinod told me that I had 15 minutes to give them my best shot," Runkle said.
Runkle later went to dinner with the Microsoft co-founder to go over additional details.
All went well. Last week Khosla and Gates announced that Gates and Khosla Ventures were purchasing $23.5 million in Class B shares of EcoMotors to accelerate developments at the 2-year-old company.
"I've known Bill Gates for 20 or 30 years," said Khosla, who co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982 and was CEO for two years before becoming a venture capitalist. "He looked at the project [EcoMotors], and his technical team felt it was viable."
Also at the conference was one of Khosla's newest associates: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair, long vocal on global warming issues, joined Khosla Ventures as an adviser. His job is to introduce clean-tech companies in Khosla's portfolio to world financial and political leaders while steering the companies through regional red tape.