Benchmark: Clean tech and social networking the focus for 2007

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Following the news that Benchmark Capital Europe has raised €430 million for its new (third) European venture capital fund, I spoke to Barry Maloney (pictured), partner with Benchmark.

The fund has found itself significantly oversubscribed, making it one of the largest venture capital firms in Europe. Past investments include Bebo, BetFair PageFlakes, RawFlow, RebTel, Zopa and Setanta. Maloney is on the board of Bebo.

Prior to Benchmark he spent five years as CEO of Esat Digifone, Ireland’s second largest GSM mobile operator, subsequently acquired by British Telecom at a market value of IR£2 billion and now part of the O2 Group.

Maloney said the overall approach of the new fund will not be “all that different from the second fund. It’ll focus on media and definitely the Internet.” Around 70% of investments are at early stage ‘series A’ round, but he says there are still opportunities in Europe to “do later stage deals”.

One area Benchmark will be looking at is “clean tech” deals – in other words companies which are able to create intellectual property in relation to the new wave of interest in saving the environment: “In the last 5 months we’ve seen emerging technologies around the energy generation, energy saving and building efficiency arenas,” he says. “We’ll do a few of those deals in the next few months.” These could include hardware plays – such a lower power devices – and I would speculate that there may be web services plays in this as well which save companies energy.

As for this year’s poster child – social networking – Maloney says “our view is that it’s still early days for social networking and it’s still exciting.” He mentioned YourIgloo, which takes on real estate agents. Taking on “innefficient models” like the real estate business via the web will be a focus for Benchmark in the new year. Perhaps he should look at Nestoria.com… or Ononemap.com.

As for mobile, he says “We’ve looked at mobile search and at a few MVNO startups and we’re still interested” but they’ve not seen anything worthwhile just yet.

The quality of UK and Irish entrepreneurs, he says “it’s improving – but still not where we’d like it to be.” However, “4-5 years ago we would have been struggling to find anyone good, now its easier.”

Making entrepreneurialism more mainstream and “presenting it as an honest way of making a living is hard in the UK where lots of people can have comfortable careers in large companies. The more governments can do to encourage entrepreneurs the better. In smaller countries like Ireland or Finland, people have a tendency to try things more.”

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