Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu will join the board of a company that got millions of dollars from the Department of Energy during Chu’s tenure and is backed by some of the nation’s most politically connected investors.
Lithium ion battery manufacturer Amprius announced Chu’s move on Monday. His "ideas and experience will help Amprius accelerate the development of even higher-energy batteries," the company said in a statement.
Chu has already helped the company accelerate that development through more than $4 million in DOE grant money paid to the company since 2011.
The company was awarded a $4,998,336 grant that year to "develop next generation, high-energy lithium ion cells leveraging silicon anodes, doubling the capacity of state of the art vehicle batteries."
More than $4 million of that grant has paid been paid out, according to data on USAspending.gov.
The grant came by way of the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s conservation research and development program.
The budget for the program ballooned after the passage of President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, from less than $55 million in 2008 to more than $1.9 billion in 2010.
Some of the funds have supported companies that have since faced financial difficulties. EnerDel, for instance, received $118 million to develop lithium ion batteries before its parent company, Ener1, filed for Chapter 11.
Investors seem confident that Amprius is healthier than more troubled DOE grantees such as Ener1.
The Chu announcement came just weeks after the company announced a $30 million round of financing that included some of Silicon Valley’s biggest—and most politically connected—venture capitalists.
Among them is Google chairman Eric Schmidt, a former adviser of, and major donor to, Obama’s presidential campaign.
Amprius has also received financing from Kleiner Perkins Cauflield Byers and VantagePoint Capital Partners (formerly VantagePoint Venture Partners), two high profile venture capital firms.
Both of those firms wield considerable political clout, not least for the prominent political figures associated with them.
Former vice president and failed Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore is a partner at Kleiner Perkins. His colleagues at the firm include John Doerr, also a major Obama supporter.
Doerr helped craft the green energy portions of the stimulus package in meetings with Obama’s transition team in late 2008 and early 2009. He subsequently served on the president’s economic recovery board, which advised the administration on how to disburse stimulus funds.
"Doerr has launched an audacious campaign to invest millions in handpicked political candidates and influential political action committees, to push for subsidies and pro-greentech policies and require the government to purchase the kinds of fuels and technologies his startups will be marketing," Conde Nast Portfolio reported in 2007.
Other Kleiner Perkins partners have collectively donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic committees and candidates, including Obama.
VantagePoint boasts a member of the 20th century’s most prominent political clan as a top executive. Robert Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and son of Bobby Kennedy, enjoys a top spot at the firm.
Venture capitalist Sanjay Wagle was a principal at VantagePoint when the stimulus bill passed. He had headed a group called Clean Tech for Obama during the 2008 campaign. It was the first outside group to meet with Obama’s transition team after the election.
Wagle left for DOE in April 2009. While there, he advised the department on the disbursement of stimulus-funded green energy grants, including those for advanced battery projects. He has since returned to the green energy industry as president and COO of biomass jet fuel company AliphaJet.