Electric car industry hitting the tipping point. For investors.

August 5, 2010: 11:44 AM ET

Venture capital firms are staking late stage electric car startups with huge cash to help them scale up and IPO

By Shelley DuBois, reporter

The age of the electric car is upon us, or so the numbers would suggest.

Companies in cleantech, especially those making cars, received over $400 million in funding in the second quarter of 2010, according to an Ernst & Young analysis based off of Dow Jones VentureSource data.

A company called Better Place received the majority of this funding-- $350 million of it—which is 23% of total financing doled out in the sector for the quarter.

Better Place is working on building an infrastructure to fuel electric cars. The infrastructure is based on stations, where drivers can switch out lithium-ion batteries in their cars, much like the way drivers pull into gas stations now.

This late stage burst of funding for Better Place could mean that investors are ready to see it push to close the gap between a startup and a company that can complete an IPO.

Other cleantech car companies received a significant amount of money, though not on the scale of Better Place. Fisker Automotive, Inc., which makes plug-in hybrid cars, got $35 million. Eco Motors, a car maker that manufactures low-emission diesel engines, received $23.5 million.

Cleantech VC investment as a whole has exploded this quarter

Ernst and Young's statement said: "High level funding directed to automotive deals reflects a cross-industry belief . . . the EV industry transformation is underway and the tipping point is not far off if significant collaboration takes place throughout the US and worldwide."

More funding for electric vehicles is part of a greater trend of cleantech getting more venture capital funding this quarter. In 2010, cleantech companies in the United States pulled in $1.5 billion, a 4.6% increase from the second quarter of 2009. The Silicon Valley Business Journal reported on this and other aspects of the study yesterday.

Electric car company Tesla (TSLA) recently completed an IPO. Toyota has invested $50 million dollars in Tesla so that the two companies could develop an electric car together.

But Tesla still has to find its footing. The company recently bought the NUMMI car factory in California for $42 million, and plans to work with Toyota on redeveloping the plant's capabilities for electric cars. Tesla claims the purchase explains its losses this quarter, which amounted to $38.5 million, compared to $29.5 million in the previous quarter.

Venture capitalists are clearly shelling out for late stage electric car startup companies in the hopes that they'll start producing large quantities of game-changing vehicles and technology. They're getting in at the phase when business plans have been thought out and the what's needed most are huge amounts of capital to ramp up into becoming economically viable manufacturers. But as Tesla's numbers show, even once a private electric car company goes public, it doesn't mean that all its problems go away.

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Paul Smalera
Paul Smalera

Paul Smalera is a senior editor for Fortune.com, guiding the website's coverage of tech, finance, investing and the economy. He has written about a wide variety of topics -- from the inner workings of the Google search engine, to the biodiversity protecting Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to the economics behind online dating websites and the impact of the Fed's policies on the national and global economy. A true generalist, Smalera believes every story is a business story if you follow the money.

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