VCs On McCain Battery Prize: Good Intention, Bad Plan

John McCain this week announced that, if elected, he would offer a $300 million prize for “the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”

I was interested in the reaction from cleantech-focused VCs, including those who invest in battery technology.I plan to expand on this later today (check back), but here is the general consensus:

* McCain’s announcement illustrates that we are about to see a sea change in federal policy toward clean energy. No matter which candidate is elected, the White House will be home to someone who believes that petroleum is not the be all and end all – content to simply chuck a few empty bones toward those who disagree.

* The actual proposal is gimmicky. First, anyone who develops such a battery is looking at a multi-billion dollar market opportunity, so $300 million is just a drop in the bucket. Second, these types of prizes usually get created for technologies that aren’t already being funded, perhaps due to a lack of adequate commercial scaling opportunity. That obviously doesn’t apply here, due to both current VC investment in the space and the aforementioned multi-billion dollar market opportunity. Third, the current plan is way too thin. Where is a white paper or additional info (I’ve been promised a call back from someone knowledgeable in the McCain campaign, but nothing yet).

* Battery projects are particularly difficult because of the advanced chemistry involved. For example, I’ve repeatedly heard things from new battery CEOs like: “We only incorporated last year, but our founder began the research a decade ago.” Most VCs say they would support taking that $300 million and putting it into some sort of federal R&D program focused at the university level, like what has been done with solar and biofuel.