Obituaries | Feb. 24, 2021 at 10:13 p.m. EST
James Isaac Valentine, Jr., Self-made Investment Visionary, Decorated Vietnam Veteran, TAE Technologies Pioneer, and Adventurer
James Isaac Valentine, Jr., self-made investment visionary, founder of Valentine & Company, and chairman of the board of noted fusion energy startup TAE Technologies from 2005 to 2010, passed away on Thursday, February 18th, surrounded by family at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, of metastatic prostate cancer. He was 74.
TAE Technologies was founded at the encouragement of Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg, with the idea that fusion energy might be scientifically and commercially viable. Fusion, which harnesses processes similar to those in the core of the Sun, has stumped physicists for decades; the running joke is that fusion is 30 years away and always will be.
Jim Valentine helped drum up early interest in TAE. He hooked a large potential investor, but it was acquired and the parent company backed out at the eleventh hour. TAE teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Jim decided to invest his own money to save the fledgling company. He brought other investors on board, and by the time he stepped down as chairman in 2010, he had helped raise more than $200 million. Today TAE is closing in on a billion dollars raised.
Born the first of eight children on September 15, 1946 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Jim’s beginnings were humble. His youngest brother called the dining room table “Jim’s desk,” and marveled at his older brother’s work ethic. Jim’s willingness to study hard led to an ROTC scholarship at the University of Florida. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in political science and government, the first in his family to go to college.
He deferred Army service to attend Harvard Law School. During the summers, he trained to be an infantry officer. After graduating and being admitted to the bar in 1971, he began active duty military service. He completed JAG officer training, was assigned to a unit in Germany, and then served in combat in Vietnam. He rose to the rank of captain and earned the Parachutist’s Badge and the Distinguished Service Medal.
After an honorable discharge in 1976, Jim worked in corporate law but quickly decided it wasn’t for him, describing it to Business Week as “boring” in a 1994 profile. He made the switch to investment banking, joining San Francisco-based Montgomery Securities in 1980. Six years later he left to start the investment and advisory firm Valentine & Company, which he ran until this year.
In 1987, U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, who went to law school with Jim, decided to introduce him to a young, savvy, former-pro-tennis player and coach, Kathleen A. Kemper. He arranged a blind date in the Senate Dining Room, telling Coach it was a business meeting to pre-empt her objections. The pair dated for three years and were married in 1990 at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. Jim’s son, Travis, was the ring bearer at the wedding. Jim and Kathy’s elder daughter Kelsey was born that year. Christina followed in 1993.
Coach Kemper went on to coach Kings, Queens, U.S. Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Senators, and other D.C. royalty. One morning, Jim mentioned to her that she should invite a few of her students, and he’d invite a few of his friends, to a 7 a.m. off-the-record exchange-of-ideas over breakfast with Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.
These breakfast salons became a D.C. institution: one of the few remaining places where Republicans and Democrats come together and engage in productive discussion. The breakfasts continue to this day, under the auspices of Kemper’s foundation, the Institute for Education; Jim has been a lifelong supporter. He was also a generous patron to other causes, supporting his law school alma mater, The Washington Opera, CS@SC computer science camps for underrepresented students at the University of Southern California, and dedicating a basketball court at the Washington International School.
In 2013, Jim founded another venture capital firm, this time with his family. Family Futures focuses on techbio, tech, and energy. Jim used the company to share his love of investing with those he loved most. He was also an avid sportsman. He swam, hiked, played tennis, shot skeet and trap, and golfed until the end of his life; he went paragliding at age 74. Jim’s sense of adventure inspired family trips around the world, to every continent, including Antarctica. He maintained homes in Wesley Heights, Washington, D.C. and Rancho Santa Fe, California.
Jim is remembered for his brilliance, larger-than-life personality, and razor sharp wit. He is survived by his wife, Coach Kathy Kemper, his daughters Kelsey Kemper Valentine and Christina Kemper Valentine, and his son Travis Elliott Valentine.