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Business Voice for the Environment
The Wall Street Journal
December 27, 2000

Technology Executives Devote Energy to Environmental Causes

By Jim Carlton

BERKELEY, CA — Bob Epstein's campaign to get technology executives like himself to save the environment starts at his home here, where he has just replaced all the lights with more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs.

In so doing, Mr. Epstein, who co-founded database giant Sybase Inc. and two other start-ups and has a personal net worth in the multimillions, figures he is saving an estimated 5% in household energy consumption. That frugality makes him something of an anomaly in California, where many residents continue to burn their Christmas lights at full blast, despite dwindling power reserves.

Mr. Epstein is among a growing number of high-tech titans using their green to go green. "I want to do my part, and then some," says Mr. Epstein, who preaches energy conservation not only for himself but for everybody as a way to lessen the pressure on natural resources. Seeking causes such as the environment to escape what Mr. Epstein calls the "tedium" of just making money, these techies are applying some of the same energy and intensity they used in creating businesses to attack problems ranging from global warming to deforestation. Along the way, they also are gaining substantial tax and public-relations benefits as well as networking opportunities.

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, for instance, has set up a foundation to preserve forests that last year helped buy 600 acres of virgin woods in Washington state, his home. Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, have committed more than $30 million to the Conservation International environmental group, which is based in Washington, D.C., and studies ways to preserve biodiversity in the Amazon and elsewhere. After selling his Aldus Corp. to Adobe Systems Inc., company founder Paul Brainerd has set up the Brainerd Foundation, which supports Western environmental causes including efforts to halt logging in Alaska's rain forests and to protect wild lands in the Rockies.

And like any good technology trend, the eco-movement has swept into the Silicon Valley party scene. In September, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late U.S. senator from New York, held court over what Mr. Epstein calls the first "EcoSalon" in Silicon Valley, a soiree at the Atherton, Calif., mansion of Silicon Valley attorney Alan Austin and his wife, Marianne. Mr. Kennedy is a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the biggest conservation groups in the U.S. He asked about 100 attendees for their time and money.

After pointing out that the tech business is among the cleanest of industries, Mr. Kennedy told the gathering of chief executives and financiers: "I have thought for years we should be coming to Silicon Valley and knocking on your doors." (While software manufacturers have long been considered to have more environmentally sound practices than older industries, chip producers have only recently gained credit for adopting cleaner manufacturing techniques.)

Mr. Epstein, who recently joined the board of the New York-based NRDC, put on the EcoSalon through a group he helped launch in June called Environmental Entrepreneurs, or E2. With about 100 members donating at least $1,000 each, E2's goal is to raise more than $1 million for the NRDC's environmental programs. Chapters of E2 have been formed in Silicon Valley and New York, with a third planned for next year in Los Angeles.

Sipping chardonnay and merlot and munching finger foods, tycoons in turtlenecks and loafers huddled under chandeliers in the Austin reception room and chatted about their common love of nature. "I hike in the Desolation Wilderness [near Lake Tahoe] every summer and grew up in Tennessee going to the lake, so this is a cause that I can support," said Gary Reback, chief executive of the Scotts Valley, Calif., Web telephony firm Voxeo Corp.

"A lot of us are looking at ways we can benefit mankind, and do something other than just spend money," adds Charles Berger, chairman of AdForce Inc., a Cupertino, Calif., Internet advertising firm.

Few of the executives have devoted as much energy to the environment as Mr. Epstein, a wiry 48-year-old who in 1980 co-founded his first start-up, a pioneering database-maker called Britton Lee while finishing his doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1984, Mr. Epstein and a colleague, Mark Hoffman, started Sybase out of Mr. Epstein's previous home in Berkeley. My main insight "was that once networks start to happen, you have to have software to manage those networks," Mr. Epstein recalls.

Mr. Epstein rode Sybase's meteoric rise to about $1 billion in annual sales over the next 15 years, stepping down in 1999 to devote more time to another of his start-ups: Colorado MicroDisplay Inc., a Boulder, Colo., concern he co-founded in 1996 to make chips for computer monitors.

Over the last 10 years, Mr. Epstein says he has become increasingly concerned about global warming and other environmental threats caused by world-wide industrialization. With two teenage sons, he says, I realize "life will be worse for my children if I don't do something."

Still, Mr. Epstein hasn't lost sight of the profit motive and believes it is important for environmental groups to think in business terms. He has invested in and advises two high-tech start-ups — LocusPocus Inc. and Telleo Inc. — that develop products aimed at environmental activism. LocusPocus, based in Berkeley, sells a program called "Get Active," which helps environmentalists conduct mass-mailing campaigns. Telleo, San Jose, Calif., makes a software program that helps nonprofit groups as well as small businesses more efficiently use the Internet.

Mr. Epstein became involved with both those companies through contacts he made setting up the E2 group in Silicon Valley. He hopes to persuade other executives to embrace the environment, while possibly making money at it, too. "All environmental policies," Mr. Epstein says, "are economic at their core."

Mr. Epstein used his business skills to pick an environmental organization to support. He considered joining the Sierra Club, for instance, but found it too driven by personalities. The team-based approach of the NRDC was more to his liking and more like Sybase, he adds. He joined the New York-based group's board of trustees last December, immersing himself in NRDC campaigns such as a drive for greater energy efficiency.

Earlier this fall, for example, he spent the morning assessing the NRDC's participation in scientific projects at the U.S. Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to reduce the amount of energy used in household appliances such as ceiling fans and lighting fixtures. He pulls up to the lab here in his new, silver Toyota Prius, a hybrid-fuel vehicle that runs on both electricity and gasoline. His was one of the first delivered in the San Francisco Bay area.

Two bearded scientists in jeans lead Mr. Epstein, wearing tennis shoes and khakis, on a swift tour of the lab. "You'll love this, Bob," Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist for the NRDC, says with a smile as he and Erik Page, his counterpart at the Berkeley lab, show off a prototype they've developed for light bulbs that instead of screwing in can be plugged in and freely adjusted and directed. That enables the bulbs to shine more light toward one location, such as a reading chair, and reduces the need to have several lights on in a room. Mr. Epstein nods approvingly.

Though he is in the company of greenies, he rarely strays far from his entrepreneurial roots. Admiring a machine the scientists have developed to measure how much light in fixtures is directed up or down, so the fixtures can be designed accordingly to minimize energy use, he pointedly asks: "So what do you get from this intellectual asset?" Messrs. Horowitz and Page look puzzled, before replying that any profit from a commercial use of the machine or anything else they might develop would go to the lab, not to them.

"We do this for the good of humanity," Mr. Page says with a smile.


This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal .


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