He’s better known as a tech guru – and, since his retirement from Microsoft, as a mega-philanthropist. But Seattle billionaire Bill Gates is now betting on what some have described as a revolutionary new automotive engine technology.
Gates is one of two new principal investors in EcoMotors, a suburban Detroit start-up that is developing a technology called the opoc motor. Short for opposed piston-opposed cylinder, its developers claim it can run on either regular unleaded gasoline or diesel and not only boosts fuel economy but also reduces the number of parts needed compared to a conventional gas or diesel powertrain.
The Microsoft founder is putting up $23.5 million in two-year-old EcoMotors. He is joined as a new investor by Khosla Ventures, a major investment firm from Menlo Park, California. The Silicon Valley venture capital firm’s founder, Vinod Khosla, was one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems.
The new engine “can be an important step in providing affordable, low-emissions transportation for the developing world,” said Gates, explaining his involvement in the EcoMotors project. He has steered a significant share of his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation cash to third-world projects, such as the elimination of malaria. But his personal involvement in the auto industry – beyond Microsoft’s push into auto technology – is new.
EcoMotors’ appeal is twofold. There’s the new technology, and a set of old names. The venture is run by one-time General Motors wunderkind Don Runkle, who left the maker to work at its parts spin-off, Delphi Corp., before venturing out on his own. He serves as CEO, while John Coletti, best known for his work on Ford Motor Co.’s performance vehicles, is president and chief operating officer. The basic design of the opoc engine, meanwhile, was developed by Peter Hofbauer, former head of powertrain development at Volkswagen AG. Hofbauer is EcoMotors chairman.