Venture Capitalist Quietly Funds Environmental Causes

David Gelbaum is known as an intensely private man who earned his multibillion-dollar fortune as a hedge fund manager. But even his friends may be surprised to learn that he has invested $500 million in clean-tech companies since 2002, amassing a portfolio of some forty businesses involved in nearly every aspect of the emerging green economy, the New York Times reports.

While it is too soon to tell whether his bets on the green economy will pay off, his environmental philanthropy has helped him gain influence beyond university laboratories and corporate boardrooms. In recent years, Gelbaum has given $200 million to the Sierra Club and $250 million to the Wildlands Conservancy, a land trust he co-founded that has acquired and preserved twelve hundred square miles of land in California, including more than a half million acres of the Mojave Desert.

Indeed, the organization has emerged as a force in the promotion of "distributed generation" — putting renewable energy installations on rooftops, near cities, or on degraded farmland — its efforts dovetailing with Gelbaum's own belief that solar farms should not be built on pristine lands as well as his bets on the emergence of a decentralized energy system tied together by a "smart" grid.

Gelbaum's support for environmental causes and organizations, including the Sierra Club, goes back to the late 1970s, after he had graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with a degree in mathematics and had begun to work for Princetion/Newport Partners, one of the first investment firms to use mathematical formulas to price stocks and derivatives. "I was interested in the environment because as a child my happiest memories were of camping and hiking," he told the Times. After starting a conversation about a state parks bond measure with Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope in 1992, Gelbaum began to support the organization, eventually becoming its largest individual donor.

Yet despite his wealth and influence, Gelbaum has endeavored to maintain a low profile. "Philanthropy is a job," he said. "And I was just doing my job."

Todd Woody. "You'd Never Know He's a Sun King." New York Times 05/07/2010.