Tech behemoths pledge $1bn to innovative energy startups
Organisations across the world are taking responsibility for the development of a sustainable future. In 2016, a board of renowned business leaders announced the creation of Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) to do just that. The non profit, chaired by Bill Gates, aims to invest up to $1 billion in innovative energy startups. Investors include Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son and Virgin boss Richard Branson.
To be considered for funding, companies must show scientifically sound technology that could reduce the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least 500 million metric tonnes. For context, current yearly emissions sit at around 40 billion metric tonnes. So far, BEV has parted with $100m of its total pledge. Which companies have attracted BEV’s interest, and how are they planning to cut global emissions?
Founded in 2007, CarbonCure is ‘leading a concrete movement’ by quite literally trapping CO2 inside concrete. Captured CO2 is injected into the concrete as it is mixed, improving the strength of the material and reducing the amount that needs to be used. This is particularly advantageous as concrete is responsible for seven per cent of global manmade greenhouse emissions, making it the second largest industrial source of CO2. In Atlanta, CarbonCure concrete is being used to construct the biggest ever structure made with carbon trapped concrete. The 360,000 square foot office block will open in 2019.
2) Commonwealth Fusion Systems
Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is an MIT spin off that combines the agility of a startup with world class academia. Founded in 2017, the company is developing commercial fusion energy based on the tokamak fusion reactor concept. Unlike nuclear fission, fusion is a natural process that creates fewer radioactive particles. The fusion reactor’s ultimate goal is to produce three times the energy that it needs to function. Aided by mature superconductor technology, CFS is working on smaller, cheaper, and faster tokamak reactors enabled by high speed magnets.
3) DMC Biotechnologies
DMC Biotechnologies was created in 2014 to explore the manufacturing power of biology. Through an advanced bioprocessing technology called Dynamic Metabolic Control (DMC), the company leverages microbial fermentation as a faster and lower cost alternative to existing manufacturing techniques. The deployment of biobased products could improve the nutritional content of food,as well as improving the strength and durability of existing materials. By enabling the use of new materials, it could also reduce dependence on fossil fuels. At the beginning of the year, DMC Biotechnologies closed a $1.75m equity funding round led by Capricorn Ventures.
4) Fervo Energy
Last year, Fervo Energy was founded to make geothermal energy generation more efficient. The company, which was set up by Stanford researchers and oil and gas engineers, applies fracking techniques to accelerate geothermal development. This includes horizontal drilling, which is now much cheaper due to advances in the natural gas industry. Drilling must be used because geothermal energy is trapped beneath the earth’s crust. Unlike wind and solar, geothermal energy generation is always available. Increasing the amount of energy generated whilst lowering time and costs will help to pave the way for clean energy alternatives.
5) Form Energy
Cofounded by former Tesla executive Mateo Jaramillo, Form Energy aims to build a bidirectional power plant to produce renewable energy and deliver it to exactly where it is required. This new class of energy resource has been dubbed ‘deterministic renewables’. A major benefit is helping to address the challenge of seasonal swings that come with clean energy options like wind and solar. Despite admitting that the bidirectional power plant is a ‘decade long project’, the startup has received a total of $9m series A funding, including a non-disclosed amount from BEV. Form Energy was one of BEV’s initial investments.
6) Pivot Bio
Synthetic biology company Pivot Bio is based in Berkley, California. ‘Proven’, their flagship product, is a microbial spray that attaches to the roots of crops as they grow to improve nitrogen consumption. This is geared towards reducing the amount of fertiliser needed, with a particular focus is on corn, wheat, and rice, as they consume half of the world’s nitrogen combined. The company aims to bring its first microbial product to market in 2019. Pivot Bio has received $70m in series B funding, led by BEV.
QuantumScape is the second Stanford University associated company that BEV has invested in. Created in 2010, the company is developing a commercially viable lithium metal battery that can be recharged. In other words, it is trying to achieve what numerous others have so far failed to do. Since 2012, QuantumScape has worked alongside automotive giants Volkswagen to build a powerful, rechargeable solid state battery. If successful, this will have major implications for electric vehicles and also energy storage.
8) Quidnet Energy
Incorporated in 2013, Quidnet Energy wants to enable the decarbonisation of the electric grid through pumped hydro. The startup is implementing hydro power to solve renewable challenges, using pressurized water to spin a turbine that creates energy. At present, clean energy swings can cause outages and blackouts, but water provides a cost effective solution that is already recognised as the best form of energy storage at 100GW worldwide. Quidnet was formed to offer hydro’s energy capabilities at a much greater scale.
9) Zero Mass Water
Zero Mass Water is the company behind SOURCE, a sustainable solution that turns solar energy and air into clean drinking water via a Hydropanel. On a sunny day, SOURCE technology can provide the equivalent of a pack of 20 bottles of water – and, as a plus, it comes without the plastic. Zero Mass Water believes that everyone has a right to perfected water, and wants to make the resource unlimited. SOURCE is not entirely dependent on the sun, and is optimised for a range of weather conditions. At the end of last year, the company deployed its water systems to Syrian refugees and Jordanian families in Jordan.
The commitment of influential business leaders to the reduction of greenhouse gas is a positive and encouraging sign, showing that corporates have recognised that they have an important role to play. Financial backing aside, the publicity and support afforded by high profile supporters is hugely beneficial for rising startups. At the moment, however, it looks like charity begins at home. All of the companies that have received funding are North American, and are headed up by white men. As well as championing sustainability, hopefully BEV can encourage diversity too.
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