As Sun Microsystems’s co-founder and first CEO, and as an admired venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla has played a fundamental role in shaping the methods and ethics of the global technology industry. In recent years his pioneering role in the computer industry has been overshadowed by his outspoken leadership in green technology.
On April 28, 2011 Khosla also became a leader in large-scale philanthropy when he and wife Neeru signed the billionaire Giving Pledge championed by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Under the pledge half of Khosla’s estimated $1.1 billion fortune will be left to charity.
Vinod Khosla was born on January 28, 1955 in India while his father, a soldier, was stationed in New Delhi. His lifelong focus on technology was inspired by an article he read at the age of 14 about the founding of Intel. He earned a BS in electrical engineering from the Delhi campus of the India Institute of Technology (IIT), then came to the U.S. for a masters in biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, followed by an MBA from Stanford in 1980.
Upon graduation Khosla founded his first venture, an electronic design automation firm called Daisy Systems. In 1982 Khosla joined with two fellow Stanford classmates and a UC Berkeley computer science grad student to co-found Sun Microsystems. The company’s name was derived from the acronym for “Stanford University Network”. As the company’s first Chairman and CEO Khosla pioneered open systems and processors based on reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) architecture for microprocessors.
In 1984 he left Sun to become a venture capitalist. He didn’t begin making his mark until joining the firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as a general partner in 1986. There Khosla made several successful early stage investments. Despite his key role with some huge flops like Asera and Dynabook, his successful Kleiner Perkins bets established him as one of the most influential figures in Silicon Valley. What elevated Khosla above many other venture capitalist was his belief that social conscience should influence venture capital bets. He played a key role in the SKS Microfinance, an Indian microfinance NGO that makes small loans to poor women in rural India.
A growing interest in nurturing technologies that can play a role in averting a global environmental catastrophe prompted Khosla to form Khosla Ventures in 2004. Ironically, one of Khosla’s most controversial statements — made before his recent green-tech focus — seemed to express scorn for clean technologies.
“If it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Most of what we talk about today—hybrid, biodiesel, ethanol, solar photovoltaics, geothermal—I believe are irrelevant to the scale of the problem.”
His early focus on green technology prompted him to invest heavily in ethanol companies like Altra, Mascoma and Cilion as offering the most promising substitute for gasoline. His view seems to have been inspired in part by Brazil’s success in using ethanol produced from crops to end its dependence on foreign oil. Khosla also contributed heavily to the campaign to pass California’s Proposition 87, The Clean Energy Initiative, which failed in November of 2006.
More recently, however, Khosla seems to have recognized that ethanol may be superseded by genetically engineered bio-fuels that produce fuel efficiently without competing with food crops like corn and sugar cane. Another one of Khosla’s green bets is Calera, a company seeking ways to trap carbon dioxide in cement. He has also invested in solar power though at least one such bet has soured. In early 2011 Khosla led a $42 million Series A round investment in WeatherBill, a firm that automates weather risk assessment in order to sell crop insurance efficiently by mapping global weather patterns.
In 2010 Forbes named Khosla one of the world’s 10 greenest billionaires. Khosla serves on the boards of Agami, eASIC, Indian School of Business, Infinera, Kovio, Metricstream, Spatial Photonics, Xsigo and Zettacore. In 2006 Neeru Khosla co-founded the CK-12 Foundation that aims to develop open source textbooks and lower the cost of education in America and the rest of the world. Khosla and his wife have given $500,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation.