Critics like to fault the Davos conference for being a lot of hot-air conversations that might just as well take place somewhere else. This is fair, but incomplete.
It began snowing Tuesday evening as I rolled into Davos, Switzerland, from Zurich, and it doesn’t appear to have stopped. For even a mediocre skier such as myself the sight of gently falling snow and the sound of snowplows on the streets in the wee hours of the morning means one thing: Time to hit the slopes. But not here. At the World Economic Forum, it means it’s time to talk.
The talking kicked off Tuesday night with receptions and private dinners. At the Congress Centre, the main convention site of the conference, I stood cheek by jowl with Jim Prokopanko, CEO of Mosaic Co. (MOS), the commodity producer I confess I hadn’t heard of until Cargill announced the multi-billion-dollar spinoff of its stake. My mission between now the the weekend is to track him down and learn more.
At a dinner for “Technology Pioneers,” a distinction granted by the WEF, the upstarts and the already accomplished were in attendance. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Chairman and Kleiner Perkins partner Ray Lane came early and stayed late, as did Bill Gross of Idealabs. Gross and his wife Marcia Goodstein are Davos regulars. I interrupted Gross drawing on a napkin to illustrate some point to his dinner companions. The man is a machine. (Speaking of impressive, Lane, his wife Stephanie and I, were on the same Swiss Air flight to Zurich with Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who is speaking here on leadership. He looks just like he does on TV.)
I sat for a time at dinner with entrepreneur Alex Laskey, president and founder of Opower, a software company in Arlington, Va., that allows utilities to provide usage data to their customers. The pitch sounds similar to the much discussed Silver Spring Networks, which, like Opower, is funded in part by Kleiner Perkins. Laskey explained to me that Opower’s software works whether or not a utility has deployed controversial smart meters. Opower collects publicly available data like a home’s size and age to help consumers analyze their electric bills. The upshot, he says, isn’t to convince a few consumers to save a lot but rather many consumers to save a little. So far the software is available in almost 3 million households and has resulted in a 2-3% reduction in consumption, says Laskey.
Laskey is a Davos first-timer and doesn’t know (or much care) how he was selected as a “Tech Pioneer.” His company’s type of software is hot in the U.S. as well as at Davos, which despite the plethora of private jets and helicopters that carry plutocrats here, is promoting a “greener Davos” this year. Others have reported that Opower has annualized revenues of about $30 million, numbers Laskey doesn’t refute. The 160-person (and hiring!) company is cash-flow positive, its president says. It has raised more than $65 million from investors that, in addition to Kleiner, include NEA and Accel.
World Economic Forum critics like to fault the Davos conference for being a lot of hot-air conversations that might just as well take place somewhere else. (I’m talking to you, Dan Primack.) This is fair, but incomplete.
On the shuttle ride back from dinner last night, I huddled in the warm van with Kai-Fu Lee, the famous ex-Google (GOOG) China head who now runs the Beijing-based incubator Innovation Works. I got an update on his firm, which aims to give Chinese entrepreneurs a one-year crash course in company formation. So far, Innovation Works has invested in 20 companies, five of which have received second investments and two of which snagged outside funding, the medium-term goal. Lee is a font of knowledge about the Chinese political leadership, all of whom he knows, as well as the leadership of Google, whom he knows even better. He credits incoming Google CEO Larry Page with having bought Android and Google Earth, showing that Page, in Lee’s opinion, has the vision to see where things are going rather than merely where they are.
I have joked before about the meager conditions in which WEF has put me, up in a hotel on the outskirts of Davos called the Club. Let’s just say I’ll stay in a nicer hotel this July when Stephanie Mehta and I co-chair Fortune Brainstorm Tech in Aspen, Colo. Having said that, the people watching at the Club is top notch. Nouriel Roubini is here for a few hours of sleep in between drinks appointments and CNBC appearances. I rode the elevator up last night with a distinguished looking banker from Allen & Co. Academics like Michael Useem and Ken Rogoff (with whom I’m about to have breakfast) are in the house, as are important investors like Reid Hoffman and bloggers like Henry Blodget.