3 Start-ups That Could Save the Planet, From the Man Behind Overture and Picasa

Bill Gross, the founder of Idealab, a quirky, Pasadena, Calif.-based start-up factory, thinks he can fix what ails the planet.

Since its launch in March 1996, Idealab has created more than 150 companies, almost all of them dreamed up by Gross. Of that group, Gross reports, about 50 have gone public or been acquired, around 60 have failed, and 40 are privately held operating companies in various stages. Among the companies he has built and exited are CarsDirect, CitySearch, Overture, Picasa, and Cooking.com.

The Idealab strategy is to start companies, give them a little capital, help them find outside investors, and then send them on their way. And then do it again. And again.

Lately, Gross has been focused on green tech. At the DLD tech conference in Munich over the weekend, Gross gave a short presentation in which he made the case that climate change is the world’s greatest challenge—“and one of our greatest economic opportunities.”

To illustrate the problem, he noted that the average person pumps 31 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day—and that the number is as much as 10 times higher for people in wealthy nations. He says that in effect, we are using the atmosphere as landfill for extra carbon dioxide, adding heat to the atmosphere at a rate equal to three Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs every second.

The good news, Gross says, is that we know what we have to do: stop burning fossil fuels.

In his DLD talk and in an interview with Barron’s, Gross said energy is the most important industry on earth, accounting for about 10% of global gross domestic product. Even small changes in energy prices tend to trigger economic and political upheaval.

Gross says the way to get people to use less coal and oil is simply to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels. Indeed, he says, renewables can already beat the price of fossil fuels for generating electricity, but only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

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