Alphabet (you know… Google) has taken the wraps off the latest “moonshot” from its X labs: A robotic buggy that cruises over crops, inspecting each plant individually and, perhaps, generating the kind of “big data” that agriculture needs to keep up with the demands of a hungry world.
Mineral is the name of the project, and there’s no hidden meaning there. The team just thinks minerals are really important to agriculture.
Announced with little fanfare in a blog post and site, Mineral is still very much in the experimental phase. It was born when the team saw that efforts to digitize agriculture had not found as much success as expected at a time when sustainable food production is growing in importance every year.
“These new streams of data are either overwhelming or don’t measure up to the complexity of agriculture, so they defer back to things like tradition, instinct or habit,” writes Mineral head Elliott Grant. What’s needed is something both more comprehensive and more accessible.
Much as Google originally began with the idea of indexing the entire web and organizing that information, Grant and the team imagined what might be possible if every plant in a field were to be measured and adjusted for individually.
Image Credits: Mineral
The way to do this, they decided, was the “Plant buggy,” a machine that can intelligently and indefatigably navigate fields and do those tedious and repetitive inspections without pause. With reliable data at a plant-to-plant scale, growers can initiate solutions at that scale as well — a dollop of fertilizer here, a spritz of a very specific insecticide there.
As with previous X projects at the outset, there’s a lot of talk about what could happen in the future, and how they got where they are, but rather little when it comes to “our robo-buggy lowered waste on a hundred acres of soy by 10 percent” and such like concrete information. No doubt we’ll hear more as the project digs in.
The road to sustainable vehicles likely ends at electric cars, yet the route to this goal isn’t clear. There are multiple ways to get there, and Porsche is looking at synthetic fuels as a potential path. These so-called eFuels are produced from CO2 and hydrogen. If produced using renewable energy, they can help vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) become more sustainable before the end of their life.
Earlier this week, Porsche AG’s Detlev von Platen spoke to this alternative fuel at TechCrunch Sessions: Mobility.
Looking at Porsche’s current lineup, it’s easy to see where the automaker is heading: Electric sports cars. Right now, in 2020, the automaker has one electric sports sedan and an electric version of its small SUV coming soon. The automaker has a handful of plug-in hybrids available, too. The automaker says half of its vehicles will be electric by 2025.
“We are seeing a lot of new regulations coming up everywhere in the world,” Detlev von Platen, member of the Executive Board, Sales and Marketing, said at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020. “California is one example. Europe and China will become even more complicated in the future, and we see the transformation coming up very quickly. And to a certain point of time, developing and producing combustion engines and cars around this technology will become even more expensive than a battery vehicle. Things are moving very fast.”
Governments worldwide are using aggressive regulations to push automakers toward an electric future, though that goal doesn’t address the millions of gasoline-powered vehicles already on the road.
Von Platen explains that it’s Porsche’s goal to reach the commitments laid out by the Paris Climate Accord ahead of schedule. To do so means reducing the environmental impact of the entire car industry, and Porsche sees eFuels as a way to reduce the environmental impact of current and future internal combustion vehicles. If produced using renewable energy, it would result in ICE-powered vehicles being powered by a renewable source fuel.
Porsche is in a unique position: 70% of the vehicles it ever produced are still on the road. Their owners are generally enthusiastic and unlikely to trade-in their classic air-cooled Porsche coupes for an electric vehicle. The company sees eFuel as a way to reduce the environmental impact of those vehicles while keeping them on the road.
This new type of synthetic fuel is produced out of hydrogen and CO2. Porsche says that this fuel shares properties with kerosene, diesel and gasoline produced from crude oil in its most basic term.
“This technology is particularly important because the combustion engine will continue to dominate the automotive world for many years to come,” said Michael Steiner, member of the Executive Board, Research and Development, in a statement released in September. “If you want to operate the existing fleet in a sustainable manner, eFuels are a fundamental component.”
Synthetic fuels were tried in the past and gained little long-term traction. Porsche wants to influence this new breed of synthetic fuel specifications to ensure the eFuel works within Porsche’s performance engines. “When E10 came onto the market, the blend had some disadvantages. It must be different this time: it must have advantages,” Steiner said.
“We started a pilot program to talk about the industrialization of this fuel technology to make it cheaper, as it is still quite expensive compared to fossil fuels,” von Platen said. “If this works in the future, we can have something that will increase the speed of creating sustainability besides battery technology.”
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The Sustainable Ocean Alliance and its Ocean Solutions Accelerator take on the problems facing our planet’s waters, and the latest cohort of companies in the latter show a fresh slate of issues to address and resources to utilize. From reef rehabilitation to a “Fitbit for fishing boats,” they’re trying to fix things up in the oceans or at least mitigate the damage we’re doing down there.
The accelerator’s four week, all-virtual (like all of them these days) program focuses on the unique challenges faced by social good companies in this space.
“Startups in the sector are still struggling to find adequate funding during the early phases of operations,” the accelerator’s co-founder Craig Dudenhoffer told TechCrunch in an email. “Many of the solutions (especially hardware) are costly to produce and take a heavy upfront cash investment. We found that out of the hundreds of applicants, only a fraction had received substantial investments. We believe more investors need to educate themselves on opportunities in the ocean sector.”
The SOA team selected nine companies for this wave, only three of which are U.S.-based. “This year, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw our largest and most diverse applicant pool to date,” said Dudenhoffer in the release announcing the companies. “I was particularly encouraged by this year’s applicant pool to see the varying types of solutions, as well as an increase in the number of entrepreneurs that are actively building technologies to address the critical challenges that face the ocean.”
SOA founder Daniela Fernandez recently noted that their area of operation is especially international, so keeping things virtual actually opens up a lot of possibilities, especially for smaller companies that can’t afford to temporarily relocate. “It gives you so many options and makes it far more inclusive,” she told me. “Everybody just has more flexibility and tranquility. So I believe we were headed in that direction anyway.”
Image Credits: ARC Marine
Here are the nine lucky companies:
AquaAI (Norway): Developed a fishlike autonomous underwater vehicle for unobtrusive observation and inspection.
AKUA (U.S.): Makes super-healthy kelp-based foods, starting with jerky and soon burgers.
ARC Marine (U.K.): Helps protect and rehabilitate reefs with sustainable “Reef Cube” habitat and nursery.
Desolenator (The Netherlands): Solar-powered desalination for communities facing fresh water shortages.
FlyWire (U.S.): Digital catch monitoring for compliance with regulations and connected commerce.
microTERRA (Mexico): Sustainable, aquafarm-grown protein for animal feed.
Oceanworks (U.S.): Marketplace for recycled ocean-sourced plastic.
PlanetCare (Slovenia): Filter for catching microfibers in washing machine drains before they enter the water system.
Trademodo (Canada): New, comprehensive platform for ethical seafood businesses and supply chains.
The companies will get the tender loving care lavished on all the new accelerator’s participants, but possibly also a bit of harsh reality as they learn the difficulties of being an ethics-focused company with long-term goals in a capitalist system that demands almost immediate returns. One of the most important steps in building one of these companies seems to be getting over this demoralizing hump and seeing the possibilities in spite of the difficulties.
A demo day is scheduled for November 5, which is good timing because probably nothing else will be happening around then.
One good trend in 2020 has been large technology companies almost falling over one another to make ever-bolder commitments regarding their ecological impact. A cynic might argue that just doing without most of the things they make could have a much greater impact, but Microsoft is the latest to make a commitment that not only focuses on minimizing its impact, but actually on reversing it. The Windows-maker has committed to achieving a net positive water footprint by 2030, by which it means it wants to be contributing more energy back into the environment in the places it operates than it is drawing out, as measured across all “basins” that span its footprint.
Microsoft hopes to achieve this goal through two main types of initiatives: First, it’ll be reducing the “intensity” of its water use across its operations, as measured by the amount of water used per megawatt of energy consumed by the company. Second, it will also be looking to actually replenish water in the areas of the world where Microsoft operations are located in “water-stressed” regions, through efforts like investment in area wetland restoration, or the removal and replacement of certain surfaces, including asphalt, which are not water-permeable and therefore prevent water from natural sources like rainfall from being absorbed back into a region’s overall available basin.
The company says that how much water it will return will vary, and depend on how much Microsoft consumes in each region, as well as how much the local basin is under duress in terms of overall consumption. Microsoft isn’t going to rely solely on external sources for this info, however: It plans to put its artificial intelligence technology to work to provide better information around what areas are under stress in terms of water usage, and where optimization projects would have the greatest impact. It’s already working toward these goals with a number of industry groups, including The Freshwater Trust.
Microsoft has made a number of commitments toward improving its global ecological impact, including a commitment from earlier this year to become “carbon negative” by 2030. Meanwhile, Apple said in July that its products, including the supply chains that produce them, will be net carbon neutral by 2030, while Google made a commitment just last week to use only energy from carbon-free sources by that same year.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are spreading throughout the world. While Tesla has drawn the most attention in the United States with its luxurious and cutting-edge cars, EVs are becoming a mainstay in markets far away from the environs of California.
Two-wheeled electric scooters are a fast-growing segment of India’s mobility market.
There’s just one problem, and it’s the same one faced by every country which has attempted to convert from gasoline to electric: how do you build out the charging station network to make these vehicles usable outside a small range from their garage?
That’s what makes Statiq so interesting. The company, based in the New Delhi suburb of Gurugram, is bootstrapping an EV charging network using a multi-revenue model that it hopes will allow it to avoid the financial challenges that other charging networks have faced. It’s in the current Y Combinator batch and will be presenting at Demo Day later this month.
Akshit Bansal and Raghav Arora, the company’s co-founders, worked together previously as consultants and built a company for buying photos online, eventually reaching 50,000 monthly actives. They decided to make a pivot — a hard pivot really — into EVs and specifically charging equipment.
Statiq founders Raghav Arora and Akshit Bansal. Photos via Statiq
“We felt the need to do something about the climate because we were living in Delhi and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India is home to a lot of the polluted cities in the world. So we wanted to do something about it,” Bansal said. As they researched the causes of pollution, they learned that automobile exhaust represented a large part of the problem locally. They looked at alternatives, but EV charging stations remain basically non-existent across the country.
Thus, they founded Statiq in October 2019 and officially launched this past May. They have installed more than 150 charging stations in Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai and the surrounding environs.
Let’s get to the economics though, since that to me is the most fascinating part of their story. Statiq as I noted has a multi-revenue model. First, end users buy a subscription from Statiq to use the network, and then users pay a fee per charging session. That session fee is split between Statiq and the property owner, giving landlords who install the stations an incremental revenue boost.
A Statiq charging station. Photo via Statiq
When it comes to installation, Statiq has a couple of tricks up its sleeves. First, the company’s charging equipment — according to Bansal — costs roughly a third of the equivalent cost of U.S. equipment. That makes the base technology cheaper to acquire. From there, the company negotiates installations with landlords where the landlords will pay the fixed costs of installation in exchange for that continuing session charge fee.
On top of all that, the charging stations have advertising on them, offering another income stream particularly in high-visibility locations like shopping malls which are critical for a successful EV charging network.
In short, Statiq hasn’t had to outlay capital in order to put in place their charging equipment — and they were able to bootstrap before applying to YC earlier this year. Bansal said the company had dozens of charging stations and thousands of paid sessions on its platform before joining their YC batch, and “we are now growing 20% week-over-week.”
What’s next? It’s all about deliberate scaling. The EV market is turning on in India, and Statiq wants to be where those cars are. Bansal and his co-founder are hoping to ride the wave, continuing to build out critical infrastructure along the way. India’s government will likely continue to help: its approved billions of dollars in incentives for EVs and for charging stations, tipping the economics even further in the direction of a clean car future.
Tesla’s energy storage business picked up steam in the second quarter and even played a minor role in the company’s fourth consecutive quarter of profitability, according to earnings reported Wednesday.
Commercial and residential energy storage sales as well as solar are still mere slices of Tesla’s overall business, which is largely dominated by automotive. However, second-quarter results show some promise for energy storage, particularly Megapack, the utility-scale energy storage product that launched in 2019 and is modeled after the giant battery system it deployed in South Australia.
While Tesla does provide separate deployment stats for solar and energy storage, it combines the two when reporting revenue, making it impossible to fully measure the success of Megapack. However, Tesla made a point in its earnings statement to flag Megapack as a winner in the second quarter and noted that it turned a profit for the first time.
“There’s a lot of demand for the product and we’re growing the production rates as fast as we can,” Drew Baglino, senior vice president of powertrain and energy engineering, said during Wednesday’s earnings call.
For the past four years or so Tesla has been asking investors to view it as an energy company instead of just an automaker. Some analysts think that the real value in Tesla’s business will be when it actually achieves some level of parity between the two sides of the shop — a goal that Musk is also shooting for.
But energy storage and solar has remained in Tesla’s automotive shadow, despite assurances that these business products will eventually be equals. For now, energy storage remains a small, but growing, fraction of Tesla’s revenue.
CEO Elon Musk predicted its energy business would be roughly the same size at its automotive unit over the long term. He did not provide a timeline.
One product that Tesla is hoping will accelerate the growth of its energy storage business is Autobidder, the company’s machine-learning platform for automated energy trading.
Autobidder provides grid stabilization and ensures that things are “super smooth,” Musk said, adding that it is necessary in order to solve the sustainable energy problem
Overall, energy storage deployed was up 61% on a quarterly basis (from 260 megawatt hours to 419 megawatt hours) signs that the business is beginning to recover to levels before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Energy storage deployments in the second quarter were still only 1% higher than the same period last year, illustrating that Tesla still has a ways to go before it hits numbers reached in the third and fourth quarters of 2019.
Meanwhile, Tesla’s solar deployments shrank.
Tesla installed 27 MW of solar in the second quarter, down 23% from the previous quarter and off 7% from the same period last year. Some of that slippage is likely due to the economic slowdown and shelter in place orders that swept the U.S. in response to COVID-19.
Tesla became the leading solar installer in the United States with its acquisition of SolarCity but its position slipped as Sunrun and Vivint Solar surged in the U.S. market. Now, its looking to regain some of that ground with its Solar Roof, a new shingle-like product that has been development and testing for years. Tesla said Wednesday that installations of the Solar Roof roughly tripled in the second quarter compared to the first quarter. However, the company did not provide specific figures, making it unclear just how many Solar Roof installations it has completed.
Pale Blue Dot, a newly outed European venture capital firm focused on climate tech, announced this week the first closing of its debut fund at €53 million.
Targeting pre-seed and seed stage startups, the firm says it will consider software and technology investments with a strong positive climate impact. Current areas of focus include food/agriculture, industry, fashion/apparel, energy and transportation, with plans to back up to 40 companies out of fund one.
Founding partners Hampus Jakobsson, Heidi Lindvall and Joel Larsson are stalwarts of the Nordic tech ecosystem and beyond: Jakobsson co-founded TAT (The Astonishing Tribe), which was sold to Blackberry in 2012, and is a prominent angel investor in Europe, most recently a venture partner at BlueYard Capital . Lindvall is the former head of accelerator and investment team at Fast Track Malmö, with a background in human rights and media. Larsson was previously managing director at Fast Track Malmö, with a technical background and prior fund management experience.
I put questions to all three, delving deeper into Pale Blue Dot’s remit and the firm’s investment thesis. We also discussed the macro trends that warrant a fund specializing in climate tech and why Europe is poised to become a leader in the space.
Pale Blue Dot is a new VC fund specializing in climate tech, but in a sense — and to varying degrees — isn’t every venture capital fund a climate tech fund these days?
Heidi Lindvall: We think all funds should be “planet-positive” and working for a better world, but it will take time until it is a focus. Still, most funds look at a potential positive impact late in their assessment and will not decline the deal if the startups wouldn’t be significantly pulling the world in a good direction.
Hampus Jakobsson: Focus has both upsides and downsides.
The negative part with being niche is that we won’t do investments in amazing people or startups that we don’t think are “climate-contributing enough” or that the founders aren’t doing it in a genuine way (as the risk of them to paying attention to the impact might lead them to become a noncontributing company).
The U.S. has suffered from devastating wildfires over the last few years as global temperatures rise and weather patterns change, making the otherwise natural phenomenon especially unpredictable and severe. To help out, Stanford researchers have found a way to track and predict dry, at-risk areas using machine learning and satellite imagery.
Currently the way forests and scrublands are tested for susceptibility to wildfires is by manually collecting branches and foliage and testing their water content. It’s accurate and reliable, but obviously also quite labor intensive and difficult to scale.
Fortunately, other sources of data have recently become available. The European Space Agency’s Sentinel and Landsat satellites have amassed a trove of imagery of the Earth’s surface that, when carefully analyzed, could provide a secondary source for assessing wildfire risk — and one no one has to risk getting splinters for.
This isn’t the first attempt to make this kind of observation from orbital imagery, but previous efforts relied heavily on visual measurements that are “extremely site-specific,” meaning the analysis method differs greatly depending on the location. No splinters, but still hard to scale. The advance leveraged by the Stanford team is the Sentinel satellites’ “synthetic aperture radar,” which can pierce the forest canopy and image the surface below.
“One of our big breakthroughs was to look at a newer set of satellites that are using much longer wavelengths, which allows the observations to be sensitive to water much deeper into the forest canopy and be directly representative of the fuel moisture content,” said senior author of the paper, Stanford ecoydrologist Alexandra Konings, in a news release.
The team fed this new imagery, collected regularly since 2016, to a machine learning model along with the manual measurements made by the U.S. Forest Service. This lets the model “learn” what particular features of the imagery correlate with the ground-truth measurements.
They then tested the resulting AI agent (the term is employed loosely) by having it make predictions based on old data for which they already knew the answers. It was accurate, but most so in scrublands, one of the most common biomes of the American west and also one of the most susceptible to wildfires.
You can see the results of the project in this interactive map showing the model’s prediction of dryness at different periods all over the western part of the country. That’s not so much for firefighters as a validation of the approach — but the same model, given up to date data, can make predictions about the upcoming wildfire season that could help the authorities make more informed decisions about controlled burns, danger areas and safety warnings.
Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.
Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.
Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.
So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.
“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them? ”
Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.
“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”
All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early, and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.
The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle, and cost.
The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.
“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35 percent in soybeans, 70-100 percent in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.
The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.
“We’ve seen cases where you can lower mortality by 20-25 percent,” said Davidi. “It’s good for the farmer to improve pollination, and it’s good for the beekeeper to lose less hives.”
That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”
Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly twenty thousand. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.
“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”
The $4M seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.
BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics, and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.