5 Questions with Bob Hambrecht

Bob Hambrecht has his eye on cleantech. The son of Bill Hambrecht and co-founder with his dad of the W.R. Hambrecht + Co., the San Francisco-based financial services firm that is known for promoting the OpenIPO, announced last month that he left the firm to explore new opportunities in the cleantech space. “I intend to find a role where I can devote all of my time to that sector and make a major impact there,” he said.

Q: Why the interest in cleantech?

A: I’ve been waiting for this sector to emerge for decades. And clearly the time to strike out and do something in that space is now.

I have had an interest in the environment at least since I was an undergrad. But that interest has always been tempered and influenced by dinner table conversations with my father, who taught me that real dramatic changes come from market-driven innovations. Put another way, sustainability is not possible if you’re not profitable. I wrote my honor’s thesis in college on the history of wilderness recreation and my central argument was that wilderness preservation began to find real political support when a real industry (think Northface, Patagonia, Sierra Designs) arose that’s existence depended upon it.

Q: You started W.R. Hambrecht + Co. in 1998 with your dad. Did you always expect yourself to work in financial services, based on your pedigree?

A: I have worked with him for the last 11 years, two years at H&Q Venture Associates and the last nine at WRH + Co. Over the years I have played almost every role you can at an investment bank with the exception of trading. I have been largely focused on the cleantech area during that time, though also looking at the nanotech space and doing other various deals as they came along.

I didn’t really come to banking and finance as much as it came to me. I was a history and environmental studies student as an undergrad and I have a masters in public affairs. But I have always been interested in that place where economics and the environment meet, as well as the idea of public-private partnerships. By the time I was halfway through grad school I realized that venture capital and banking for emerging growth companies was the most effective way to develop economies and that, in turn, is a central first step to addressing environmental issues. So I ended up in banking and eventually, when I moved from NYC back to SF, working with my old man.

Q: So what can you say about your future plans in cleantech? Will you be more of an I-banker or an investor of early or late stage companies?

A: Right now, I’m having a great time connecting with people in the industry and exploring options. Being an investor is clearly quite alluring. I am particularly focused on the space between traditional venture style equity investing and project finance. There is a gap there that needs to be addressed. And the need there is enormous. If alternative energy is really going to make a meaningful global impact on the energy industry at the levels that it needs to to positively effect the impacts of climate change, the amount of capital that needs to be put to work is massive. That suggests a need to think about something that resembles later stage opportunities, though I’m not sure the categories used in traditional venture investing are that relevant to this space. In any event, a lot of folks are thinking about the issue and I’m having many interesting conversations on the topic.

I’m pretty open-minded at this point. My ultimate goal is find a situation where I can have the most impact on this emerging space. If that is as part of an existing organization, great. If that requires building something independently, that’s OK with me, too.

PE Week subscribers can read the rest of the interview here.