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Founders must show investors that sustainability is more than lip service

By Walter Thompson
Todd Klein Contributor
Todd Klein is a partner at Revolution Growth, a VC fund that invests in growth-stage companies. During his 20-year career, Todd has been involved in financing and building over 150 venture and growth-stage companies in the media, consumer, technology, education and healthcare sectors.

Ending years of debates over environmental sustainability, the United States officially declared a climate crisis earlier this year, deeming climate considerations an “essential element” of foreign policy and national security. After recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, President Joseph R. Biden announced an aggressive new goal for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and pushed world leaders to collectively “step up” their fight against climate change.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking to do business with brands that align with their growing environmental values, rather than ignoring the climate consequences of their consumption. Even without regulation as a stick, consumer demand is now serving as a carrot to increase sustainability’s impact on public companies’ agendas.

Startups have already followed suit. Investors today view sustainability as an important pillar of any business model and are looking for entrepreneurs who “get it” from the beginning to build and scale next-generation companies. Startups interested in thriving cannot treat sustainability as an afterthought and should be prepared to enter the public eye with a plan for sustainable growth.

Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media.

So what exactly do founders need to put in place to demonstrate that they’re on the right track when it comes to sustainability? Here are five attributes that investors are looking for.

1. A truly customer-centric feedback loop

It’s fairly easy for any company to claim that it understands customers’ wants and needs, but it’s challenging to have the tech stack in place to prove a company actually listens to customer feedback and meets those expectations.

Investors now expect startups to have both platforms and solutions — social listening channels, relationship management tools, surveying programs and review forums — that allow them to hear and act on the needs of their customers. Without the proper communications tools and actual people using them, your eco-friendly efforts will likely appear to be merely lip service.

Take the example of TemperPack, which manufactures recyclable insulated packaging solutions for shipments of cold, perishable foods and pharmaceuticals. The direct relationship between a packager like TemperPack and the end consumer is often invisible. But as we were looking into investing in the company, some of its life sciences customers told us about comments they had received from end users — people who were receiving medicine twice per day. Another supplier’s packaging required them to visit a recycler for disposal, a real-world pain point that was causing them to consider switching to a different medication.

Revolution Growth decided to add TemperPack as a portfolio company after directly seeing its customer feedback loop in action: End-user requests informed product development, proving both a market need and customer demand on the sustainability front. This firsthand example demonstrates how an investor, a packaging maker, a life sciences company and an end user are now interconnected in one relationship while underscoring how end-user feedback can connect the dots for sustainable product development.

2. Public commitment to sustainability goals

Over the past several years, we have seen millennials and Gen Z consumers demand transparency in sustainability efforts. As these generations grow in purchasing power, investors will look for startups that make their commitments to eco-friendly goals as transparent as possible to satisfy shrewd consumer needs.

For many VCs, making public commitments to sustainability goals is a sign that your startup is working toward becoming a next-generation company. Investors will look for goals that are thoughtful, with a clear understanding of where your company will have agency and influence, and that are S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). They will also expect regular reports on progress.

Although a company’s management establishes these goals, its board should play a behind-the-scenes role in driving the goals forward, keeping leadership on track and setting the playing field so executives understand that they’re being evaluated on criteria transcending positive EBIDTA.

Taking these steps will ensure goals are responsible and ambitious while also holding the company accountable to consumers and stakeholders to see the initiatives through to completion.

3. Purpose-driven culture

Even the best-laid sustainability goals will go unmet without a strong culture designed to guarantee leadership and employee alignment. Sustainability must be ingrained in a startup’s culture — from the top down and bottom up — and there’s a lot at stake if it’s not.

Another Revolution Growth portfolio company, the global fintech-revolutionizing startup Tala, demonstrates how young companies can imbue their cultures with purpose-driven values. While Tala’s mission is to provide credit to the unbanked, the company believes that the consumer’s best interests should always come first. During 2019’s holiday season, Tala contrasted with businesses fueling consumption by instead urging customers in Kenya to not take out loans, protecting them from predatory unregulated lenders amid a lack of functioning credit bureaus and loan-stacking databases. This forward-looking approach ultimately safeguarded Tala’s customers and its vibrant digital lending industry.

Beyond determining what they stand for, many of our portfolio companies face challenges securing talent. People have choices about where they want to work, and those with intrinsic motivations — such as concerns about the environment — will feel uncomfortable if their employers do not share their values. Regulatory risks and customer attrition pale in comparison to the human cost of losing star performers who seek other work cultures that better align with their values.

A clear values system should embed sustainability into the decision-making process, make obvious imperatives and empower employees to follow through.

4. Accountability

Companies aren’t only judged by their own initiatives — they’re also judged by their partners. As startups build new relationships or expand to work with new suppliers, investors will be keen to know that these outside parties align with their stated sustainability philosophies.

Before becoming publicly involved with another company, a startup should gauge each new supplier’s reputation, including insights into their employment practices. Take leading Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant Cava or healthy-inspired salad-centric chain Sweetgreen, both Revolution Growth portfolio companies; neither will source proteins from farms with inhumane policies. If companies are not aware of these factors, their customers will eventually let them know, and likely hold them accountable for the oversight.

Think of it this way: If a diagram of your partnerships and supplier relationships was printed on the front page of The New York Times, would you be comfortable with what it shows the world? Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media. It’s no longer possible to fly under the radar with relationships that are antithetical to a company’s sustainability goals. So take a hard look at your supplier and partner ecosystem, and make clear that you are bringing your green vision to life through every extension of your business.

5. Financial realism

Financial realism acknowledges that a company can want to do good, but unless they have the economics, they won’t survive to make an impact. For most startups, beginning with financial realism as a mindset and incrementalism as an approach will be key to success, enabling all businesses to contribute to a more resilient planet. For startups that prioritize environmentally friendly business practices alongside a product or service, this strategy can prevent goodness from becoming the enemy of greatness. Founders in this position can commit to a stage-by-stage sustainability plan, rather than expecting an overnight transformation. Investors understand the delicate balance between striving to meet green goals and keeping the lights on.

Entrepreneurs looking to build a business that not only adopts eco-friendly practices but also has sustainability at its heart may have to consider starting in a niche industry or market that is less price-sensitive and ready for a solution today. Once that solution is firmly established, the business can build upon what they’ve created, rather than going big with something that doesn’t scale — and failing fast. Without an initial set of customers that value and love what you’re doing, you won’t get to the bigger play.

As the public and private sectors continue to address the climate crisis, sustainability will increasingly become a mandate rather than an option, and funding will increasingly flow to startups that have addressed potential environmental concerns. Unfortunately, pressure for companies to meet sustainability demands has led to “greenwashing” — the deceptive use of green marketing to persuade consumers that a company’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing has forced investors to look beyond mere words for action. As we move toward a more sustainable future, startups pursuing VC funding will need to prove to investors that sustainability is a priority across their entire organizations, aligning their outreach, public commitments and cultures with accountability and concrete examples of sustainable activities. Even if those examples are just steps toward larger goals, they will show investors and customers that startups are ready today to contribute to a greener and better tomorrow.

A new climate calculator for livestock aims to help ranchers reduce emissions

By David Riggs

When it comes to sustainable livestock production and agriculture, measurement is the first — and sometimes most elusive — step in the process of turning our food system from a carbon emitter into a carbon sink.

So DSM, a science-based company that focuses on agriculture and other parts of our food systems, and Blonk, a data analytics for sustainability consultancy, developed Sustell, a combination software and practical service for ranchers to understand and improve the sustainability of their operations.

While sustainable and regenerative agriculture doesn’t have a universally agreed-upon definition, it usually involves changing land management practices to sequester more carbon in the soil, using more environmentally friendly animal feeds and reducing fossil fuel usage of tractors and other farm equipment among many other changes. The goal is to reduce the 7.1 gigatonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere, about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, created by the livestock industry.  

“There’s this tremendous need for accurate footprinting of animal production down to the individual farm level,” said David Nickell, vice president of sustainability and business solutions at DSM. “And each farm, of course, is very different. And you have to have a system which is able to use actual farm data, and to get an accurate picture of that particular farm.” 

The system analyzes the environmental impact of a farm’s activity on 19 different categories, including climate change, resource use, water scarcity, runoff and ozone depletion. Farmers provide data on their daily operations, including feed composition and use, manure management practices, animal mortality, the electricity system and the other infrastructure, transportation logistics and mitigation technologies employed, like scrubbers or excess heat circulation systems, and sometimes packaging to the software.

Blonk’s environmental footprint technology then produces a life cycle assessment of the farm, an analysis of the environmental impact of rearing an animal from inception to when it exits the farm gate. DSM and Blonk have created Sustell modules for most land farm animals, including chickens, pigs and dairy and egg production, and plans to extend it to cover beef and aquaculture. 

“What is really key is that we were able to build on this momentum of methodologies and standards that have been developed,” said Hans Blonk, CEO of Blonk Consultants and Blonk Sustainability Tools. 

Blonk was able to combine agriculture environmental standards from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, European Commission and many others in one place to create the vast library of background data needed for the software to produce useful and actionable insights.   

“Customers at the moment really want to understand what they’re doing,” Nickell said. “They want to understand their baseline [footprint] and rank them. Understand what’s good, and what’s not so good. Customers want to understand how they rate compared to peer benchmarking, whether it’s a country or an industry benchmark.”

Once the Sustell software gives farmers clarity on the emissions on their farms, they can then identify where improvements need to be made and DSM helps implement ways of reducing those emissions, creating an end-to-end service for customers and hopefully a positive impact on the planet. 

“Practical interventions make change happen,” Nickell said. “We’ve invested in technologies which reduce the footprint of animal products production. The service is measurement and marry that up with bringing solutions, which make a difference. That’s the complete solution to making this much-needed change happen.”

But in order for Sustell to create that change, it needs to be adopted widely and the learnings need to be shared between competitors. Right now, DSM and, in some ways, the capitalist system, isn’t set up for that. 

According to Nickell, DSM is first focusing Sustell on big integrated livestock companies. This is a common challenge with new innovative environmental technologies that can be adopted by big farming conglomerates or co-ops with money and resources to spend, while smaller family farms get left behind. But Nickell hopes that Sustell can scale to work with smaller farms, as well. 

The second issue is around data sharing. While Nickell was very clear that Sustell will be following all applicable data privacy and ownership rules — and that’s usually a good thing — in order to really create meaningful environmental change, transparency is actually key. Competitors need to share the best ways for reducing emissions so everyone can adopt them and save the planet, but many companies are very data protective. 

“I think maybe that [data sharing] develops in time,” Nickell said. “I don’t think we’re there yet. Maybe it will get to that level as more and more customers are transparent on their footprint and their reporting.”

Endua creates hydrogen-powered clean energy storage, using tech from Australia’s national science agency

By Catherine Shu

Hydrogen-based generators are an environmentally-friendly alternative to ones powered by diesel fuel. But many rely on solar, hydro or wind power, which aren’t available all the time. Brisbane-based Endua is making hydrogen-based power generators more accessible by using electrolysis to create more hydrogen and storing it for long-term use. The startup’s technology was developed at CSIRO, Australian’s national science agency, and is being commercialized by Main Sequence, the venture fund founded by CSIRO and Ampol, one of the country’s largest fuel companies.

Main Sequence’s venture science model means that it first identifies a global challenge, then brings together the technology, team and investors to launch a startup that can address that problem. Through the program, Paul Sernia, the founder of electric vehicle charger maker Tritium, was brought on to serve as Endua’s chief executive officer, working with Main Sequence partner Martin Duursma to commercialize the hydrogen-based power generation and storage technology developed at CSIRO. Ampol will serve as Endua’s industry partner.

Endua is backed by $5 million AUD (about $3.9 million USD) from Main Sequence, CSIRO and Ampol. The company plans to launch in Australia first before expanding into other countries.

Sernia told TechCrunch that Endua was created to “solve one of the biggest problems facing the transition to renewable energy—how to store renewable energy in large quantities, for long periods of time.”

Endua’s modular power banks can run up to 150 kilowatts per pack and be extended for different use cases, serving as an alternative to power generators that run on diesel fuel. Batteries serve as backup, but Endua’s goal is to deliver renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, enabling off-grid infrastructure and communities to have self-sustaining power sources.

“Hydrogen electrolysis technology has been around for quite some time but it still has a long way to go to meet the expectations of commercial markets and be cost-effective when compared to existing energy sources,” Sernia said. “The technology we’ve developed with CSIRO enables us to make the cost more affordable compared to fossil fuel sources, more reliable and easily maintained in remote communities.”

The startup plans to focus on industrial clients before reaching smaller businesses and residences. “One of the biggest opportunities, that few have really tackled, is that of diesel generator users like regional communities, mines or remote infrastructure,” Sernia said. “In farming, Endua’s solution could be used to power equipment such as a bore or irrigation pumps.” The power banks can plug into existing renewable energy systems, including solar and wind, to make the switch economical for users, he added. Water is part of the electrolysis process, but only a small amount is needed.

“Batteries are a great way to deliver dispatchable power in small increments and are a complementary part of the overall transition plan, but we’re focusing on delivering renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, for large periods of time, so communities and remote infrastructure can access reliable, renewable energy at any time of day,” Sernia told TechCrunch.

Ampol is working with Endua as part of its Future Energy and Decarbonisation Strategy. It will test and commercialize Endua’s tech to reach its 80,000 B2B customers, focusing first on the off-grid diesel generator market, which the company said generates 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

In press statement, Ampol managing director and CEO Matthew Halliday said, “We are excited to be involved with Endua, which is part of our commitment to extending our customer value proposition by finding and developing new energy solutions that will assist with their energy transition.”

Tesla has installed 200,000 Powerwalls around the world so far

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla has installed its 200,000th Powerwall, the company’s home battery storage product, the company said in a tweet on Wednesday. Tesla’s CFO Zachary Kirkhorn told investors during a first-quarter earnings call in April that Tesla is continuing to work through a “multi-quarter backlog on Powerwall,” suggesting that the volume of installations will continue to soar in coming months.

During that earnings call, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company will no longer sell its Solar Roof panel product without a Powerwall. He said widespread installation of solar panels plus home battery packs (Tesla built, of course) would turn every home into a distributed power plant.

“…Every solar Powerwall installation that the house or apartment or whatever the case may be, will be its own utility,” he said. “And so even if all the lights go out in the neighborhood, you will still have power. So that gives people energy security. And we can also, in working with the utilities, use the Powerwalls to stabilize the overall grid.”

He noted the unprecedented winter storm in Texas in February, which, combined with record-breaking demand for electricity, left millions without power in freezing temperatures. He suggested that under that scenario, utilities could work with customers who have Powerwalls to release stored electricity back on the grid to meet that demand.

“So if the grid needs more power, we can actually then with the consent, obviously, of the homeowner and the partnership with the utility, we can then actually release power on to the grid to take care of peak power demand,” he said.

Tesla hit the 100,000 milestone for Powerwall installations in April 2020, five years after it debuted the first-generation Powerwall. That means that sales numbers that took the company five years to achieve were doubled in a single year.

EV fast charger developer Tritium to go public via SPAC merger at $1.2B valuation

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Another day, another mobility SPAC deal. This time, it’s Tritium, a Brisbane-based developer and producer of direct current fast EV chargers that is taking the SPAC path to the public market in a deal valuing the company at $1.2 billion.

Tritium said Wednesday it will be heading to the Nasdaq via a merger with special purpose acquisition company Decarbonization Plus Acquisition Corp. II, or DCRN, though it declined to provide a timeline for when the transaction is expected to close. The transaction is expected to generate gross proceeds of up to $403 million. Tritium will be listed under the ticker “DCFC.”

This particular SPAC deal is unusual in that it does not include private investment in public equity, or PIPE — a fundraising round that typically occurs at the time of the merger and injects more capital into the company.

“We didn’t need a PIPE because DCRN is a more than $400 million SPAC and our shareholder group agreed to a minimum cash closing of just $200 million, which significantly reduces redemption risk,” Tritium CEO Jane Hunter told TechCrunch. “Also, our revenue has grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 56% since 2016 as we expand our presence in major markets where we have a significant market share, such as the U.S. and Europe. This revenue growth helps to reduce our reliance upon new funds to implement our growth strategy.”

Founded in 2001, Tritium manufactures charger hardware and software for direct current fast chargers. Its products can recharge an EV battery, adding 20 miles in a minute or 100 miles in five minutes, DPAC II chairman Robert Tichio said during an investors call Wednesday. DC chargers are more costly than alternating current (AC) chargers but they send power to the vehicle much more quickly. Generally, AC chargers are installed at home, where a driver can plug in their vehicle overnight, while DC chargers are more frequently found at public charging stations.

“Drivers will want the experience of public charging to be as close as possible to their current experience at the gas pump – just a few minutes to get enough range to get on with your day,” Hunter said.

Tritium’s largest market is Europe, which composes around 70% of the company’s revenue, followed by North America at 20% and Asia at 10%, Hunter told investors Wednesday. The company will use the capital from the transaction to expand its manufacturing capacity and grow sales.

Demand for public EV charging stations is expected to mushroom over the next two decades alongside the growing market share of EVs. According to analysts Grandview Research, the EV charging infrastructure market was valued at $2 billion in 2020. It is expected to grow by nearly 39% through 2028. President Joe Biden said building out a national EV charging network was a key priority under his proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

Dabbel gets $4.4M to cut CO2 by automating HVAC control for commercial buildings

By Natasha Lomas

Düsseldorf-based proptech startup Dabbel is using AI to drive energy efficiency savings in commercial buildings.

It’s developed cloud-based self-learning building management software that plugs into the existing building management systems (BMS) — taking over control of heating and cooling systems in a way that’s more dynamic than legacy systems based on fixed set-point resets.

Dabbel says its AI considers factors such as building orientation and thermal insulation, and reviews calibration decisions every five minutes — meaning it can respond dynamically to changes in outdoor and indoor conditions.

The 2018-founded startup claims this approach of layering AI-powered predictive modelling atop legacy BMS to power next-gen building automation is able to generate substantial energy savings — touting reductions in energy consumption of up to 40%.

“Every five minutes Dabbel reviews its decisions based on all available data,” explains CEO and co-founder, Abel Samaniego. “With each iteration, Dabbel improves or adapts and changes its decisions based on the current circumstances inside and outside the building. It does this by using cognitive artificial intelligence to drive a Model-Based Predictive Control (MPC) System… which can dynamically adjust all HVAC setpoints based on current/future conditions.”

In essence, the self-learning system predicts ahead of time the tweaks that are needed to adapt for future conditions — saving energy vs a pre-set BMS that would keep firing the boilers for longer.

The added carrot for commercial building owners (or tenants) is that Dabbel squeezes these energy savings without the need to rip and replace legacy systems — nor, indeed, to install lots of IoT devices or sensor hardware to create a ‘smart’ interior environment; the AI integrates with (and automatically calibrates) the existing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

All that’s needed is Dabbel’s SaaS — and less than a week for the system to be implemented (it also says installation can be done remotely).

“There are no limitations in terms of Heating and Cooling systems,” confirms Samaniego, who has a background in industrial engineering and several years’ experience automating high tech plants in Germany. “We need a building with a Building Management System in place and ideally a BACnet communication protocol.”

Average reductions achieved so far across the circa 250,000m² of space where its AI is in charge of building management systems are a little more modest but a still impressive 27%. (He says the maximum savings seen at some “peak times” is 42%.)

The touted savings aren’t limited to a single location or type of building/client, according to Dabbel, which says they’ve been “validated across different use cases and geographies spanning Europe, the U.S., China, and Australia”.

Early clients are facility managers of large commercial buildings — Commerzbank clearly sees potential, having incubated the startup via its early-stage investment arm — and several schools.

A further 1,000,000m² is in the contract or offer phase — slated to be installed “in the next six months”.

Dabbel envisages its tech being useful to other types of education institutions and even other use-cases. (It’s also toying with adding a predictive maintenance functionality to expand its software’s utility by offering the ability to alert building owners to potential malfunctions ahead of time.)

And as policymakers around the global turn their attention to how to achieve the very major reductions in carbon emissions that are needed to meet ambitious climate goals the energy efficiency of buildings certainly can’t be overlooked.

“The time for passive responses to addressing the critical issue of carbon emission reduction is over,” said Samaniego in a statement. “That is why we decided to take matters into our own hands and develop a solution that actively replaces a flawed human-based decision-making process with an autonomous one that acts with surgical precision and thanks to artificial intelligence, will only improve with each iteration.”

If the idea of hooking your building’s heating/cooling up to a cloud-based AI sounds a tad risky for Internet security reasons, Dabbel points out it’s connecting to the BMS network — not the (separate) IT network of the company/building.

It also notes that it uses one-way communication via a VPN tunnel — “creating an end-to-end encrypted connection under high market standards”, as Samaniego puts it.

The startup has just closed a €3.6 million (~$4.4M) pre-Series A funding round led by Target Global, alongside main incubator (Commerzbank’s early-stage investment arm), SeedX, plus some strategic angel investors.

Commenting in a statement, Dr. Ricardo Schaefer, partner at Target Global, added: “We are enthusiastic to work with the team at Dabbel as they offer their clients a tangible and frictionless way to significantly reduce their carbon footprint, helping to close the gap between passive measurement and active remediation.”

 

Crypto and blockchain must accept they have a problem, then lead in sustainability

By Annie Siebert
Monica Long Contributor
Monica Long is the GM of RippleX.

As the price of bitcoin hits record highs and cryptocurrencies become increasingly mainstream, the industry’s expanding carbon footprint becomes harder to ignore.

Just last week, Elon Musk announced that Tesla is suspending vehicle purchases using bitcoin due to the environmental impact of fossil fuels used in bitcoin mining. We applaud this decision, and it brings to light the severity of the situation — the industry needs to address crypto sustainability now or risk hindering crypto innovation and progress.

The market cap of bitcoin today is a whopping $1 trillion. As companies like PayPal, Visa and Square collectively invest billions in crypto, market participants need to lead in dramatically reducing the industry’s collective environmental impact.

As the price of bitcoin hits record highs and cryptocurrencies become increasingly mainstream, the industry’s expanding carbon footprint becomes harder to ignore.

The increasing demand for crypto means intensifying competition and higher energy use among mining operators. For example, during the second half of February, we saw the electricity consumption of BTC increase by more than 163% — from 265 TWh to 433 TWh — as the price skyrocketed.

Sustainability has become a topic of concern on the agendas of global and local leaders. The Biden administration rejoining the Paris climate accord was the first indication of this, and recently we’ve seen several federal and state agencies make statements that show how much of a priority it will be to address the global climate crisis.

A proposed New York bill aims to prohibit crypto mining centers from operating until the state can assess their full environmental impact. Earlier this year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission put out a call for public comment on climate disclosures as shareholders increasingly want information on what companies are doing in this regard, while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the amount of energy consumed in processing bitcoin is “staggering.” The United Kingdom announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68% by 2030, and the prime minister launched an ambitious plan last year for a green industrial revolution.

Crypto is here to stay — this point is no longer up for debate. It is creating real-world benefits for businesses and consumers alike — benefits like faster, more reliable and cheaper transactions with greater transparency than ever before. But as the industry matures, sustainability must be at the center. It’s easier to build a more sustainable ecosystem now than to “reverse engineer” it at a later growth stage. Those in the cryptocurrency markets should consider the auto industry a canary: Carmakers are now retrofitting lower-carbon and carbon-neutral solutions at great cost and inconvenience.

Market participants need to actively work together to realize a low-emissions future powered by clean, renewable energy. Last month, the Crypto Climate Accord (CCA) launched with over 40 supporters — including Ripple, World Economic Forum, Energy Web Foundation, Rocky Mountain Institute and ConsenSys — and the goal to enable all of the world’s blockchains to be powered by 100% renewables by 2025.

Some industry participants are exploring renewable energy solutions, but the larger industry still has a long way to go. While 76% of hashers claim they are using renewable energy to power their activities, only 39% of hashing’s total energy consumption comes from renewables.

To make a meaningful impact, the industry needs to come up with a standard that’s open and transparent to measure the use of renewables and make renewable energy accessible and cheap for miners. The CCA is already working on such a standard. In addition, companies can pay for high-quality carbon offsets for remaining emissions — and perhaps even historical ones.

While the industry works to become more sustainable long term, there are green choices that can be made now, and some industry players are jumping on board. Fintechs like Stripe have created carbon renewal programs to encourage its customers and partners to be more sustainable.

Companies can partner with organizations, like Energy Web Foundation and the Renewable Energy Business Alliance, to decarbonize any blockchain. There are resources for those who want to access renewable energy sources and high-quality carbon offsets. Other options include using inherently low-carbon technologies, like the XRP Ledger, that don’t rely on proof-of-work (which involves mining) to help significantly reduce emissions for blockchains and cryptofinance.

The XRP Ledger is carbon-neutral and uses a validation and security algorithm called Federated Consensus that is approximately 120,000 times more energy-efficient than proof-of-work. Ethereum, the second-largest blockchain, is transitioning off proof-of-work to a much less energy-intensive validation mechanism called proof-of-stake. Proof-of-work systems are inefficient by design and, as such, will always require more energy to maintain forward progress.

The devastating impact of climate change is moving at an alarming speed. Making aspirational commitments to sustainability — or worse, denying the problem — isn’t enough. As with the Paris agreement, the industry needs real targets, collective action, innovation and shared accountability.

The good news? Solutions can be practical, market-driven and create value and growth for all. Together with climate advocates, clean tech industry leaders and global finance decision-makers, crypto can unite to position blockchain as the most sustainable path forward in creating a green, digital financial future.

Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks team up in hydrogen fuel cell joint venture

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Competitors Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks are teaming up to produce hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul trucks, which the companies say will lower development costs and boost production volumes. The joint venture, which is called cellcentric, aims to bring large-scale “gigafactory” production levels of hydrogen fuel cells to Europe by 2025.

While the two companies are teaming up to produce the fuel cells via the cellcentric venture, all other aspects of truck production will remain separate. The location of the forthcoming gigafactory will be announced next year. The companies also did not specify the production capacity of the forthcoming factory.

Even as Volvo AB and Daimler Trucks used ambition-signaling terms like “gigafactory” — a term popularized by Tesla due to the giga capacity of its factories — executives added a few cautionary caveats on their goal. Europe’s hydrogen economy will depend in part on whether the European Union can produce a policy framework that further drives down costs and invests in refueling stations and other infrastructure, executives noted in a media briefing. In other words, manufacturers like Daimler and Volvo that are looking to invest in hydrogen face a ‘chicken and the egg’ problem: boosting fuel cell production only makes sense if it occurs in tandem with the buildout of a hydrogen network, including refueling stations, pipelines to transport hydrogen, and renewable energy resources to produce it.

“In the long run, I mean, this must be a business-driven activity as everything else,” Volvo CTO Lars Stenqvist told TechCrunch. “But in the in the first wave, there must be support from our politicians.”

Together with other European truck manufacturers, the two companies are calling for a build out of hydrogen refueling stations around Europe of around 300 by 2025 and around 1,000 by 2030.

The Swedish and German automakers suggested policies such as a tax on carbon, incentives for CO2-neutral technologies or an emissions trading system could all help ensure cost-competitiveness against fossil fuels. Heavy-duty trucking will only compose a fraction of hydrogen demand, around 10%, Stenqvist pointed out, with the rest being used by industries such as steel manufacturing and the chemical industry. That means the push for hydrogen-supportive policies will likely be heard from other sectors, as well.

One of the biggest challenges for the new venture will be working to decrease inefficiencies associated with converting hydrogen to electricity. “That’s the core of engineering in trucking, to improve the energy efficiency of the vehicle,” Stenqvist said. “That has always been in the DNA of engineers in our industry … energy efficiency will be even more important in an electrified world.” He estimated that the cost of hydrogen would need to be in the range of $3-4 per kilogram to make it a cost-effective alternative to diesel.

Volvo is also making investments in battery electric technologies and Stenqvist said he sees potential use cases for internal combustion engines (ICE) run on renewable biofuels. He is in agreement with Bosch executives who said earlier this month that they see a place for ICE in the future. “I’m also convinced that there is a place for the combustion engines for a long period of time, I don’t see any end, I don’t see any retirement date for the combustion engines,” he said.

“From a political side, I think it would be completely wrong to ban a technology. Politicians should not ban – should not approve technologies – they should point out the direction, they should talk about what they want to achieve. And then it’s up to us as engineers to come up with the technical solutions.”

Geothermal technology has enormous potential to power the planet and Fervo wants to tap it

By Jonathan Shieber

Tapping the geothermal energy stored beneath the Earth’s surface as a way to generate renewable power is one of the new visions for the future that’s captured the attention of environmentalists and oil and gas engineers alike.

That’s because it’s not only a way to generate power that doesn’t rely on greenhouse gas emitting hydrocarbons, but because it uses the same skillsets and expertise that the oil and gas industry has been honing and refining for years.

At least that’s what drew the former completion engineer (it’s not what it sounds like) Tim Latimer to the industry and to launch Fervo Energy, the Houston-based geothermal tech developer that’s picked up funding from none other than Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures (that fund… is so busy) and former eBay executive, Jeff Skoll’s Capricorn Investment Group.

With the new $28 million cash in hand Fervo’s planning on ramping up its projects which Latimer said would “bring on hundreds of megawatts of power in the next few years.”

Latimer got his first exposure to the environmental impact of power generation as a kid growing up in a small town outside of Waco, Texas near the Sandy Creek coal power plant, one of the last coal-powered plants to be built in the U.S.

Like many Texas kids, Latimer came from an oil family and got his first jobs in the oil and gas industry before realizing that the world was going to be switching to renewables and the oil industry — along with the friends and family he knew — could be left high and dry.

It’s one reason why he started working on Fervo, the entrepreneur said.

“What’s most important, from my perspective, since I started my career in the oil and gas industry is providing folks that are part of the energy transition on the fossil fuel side to work in the clean energy future,” Latimer said. “I’ve been able to go in and hire contractors and support folks that have been out of work or challenged because of the oil price crash… And I put them to work on our rigs.”

Fervo Energy chief executive, Tim Latimer, pictured in a hardhat at one of the company’s development sites. Image Credits: Fervo Energy

When the Biden administration talks about finding jobs for employees in the hydrocarbon industry as part of the energy transition, this is exactly what they’re talking about.

And geothermal power is no longer as constrained by geography, so there’s a lot of abundant resources to tap and the potential for high paying jobs in areas that are already dependent on geological services work, Latimer said (late last year, Vox published a good overview of the history and opportunity presented by the technology).

“A large percentage of the world’s population actually lives next to good geothermal resources,” Latimer said. “25 countries today that have geothermal installed and producing and another 25 where geothermal is going to grow.” 

Geothermal power production actually has a long history in the Western U.S. and in parts of Africa where naturally occurring geysers and steam jets pouring from the earth have been obvious indicators of good geothermal resources, Latimer said.

Fervo’s technology unlocks a new class of geothermal resource that is ready for large-scale deployment. Fervo’s geothermal systems use novel techniques, including horizontal drilling, distributed fiber optic sensing, and advanced computational modelling, to deliver more repeatable and cost effective geothermal electricity,” Latimer wrote in an email. “Fervo’s technology combines with the latest advancements in Organic Rankine Cycle generation systems to deliver flexible, 24/7 carbon-free electricity.”

Initially developed with a grant from the TomKat Center at Stanford University and a fellowship funded by Activate.org at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Cyclotron Road division, Fervo has gone on to score funding from the DOE’s Geothermal Technology Office and ARPA-E to continue work with partners like Schlumberger, Rice University and the Berkeley Lab.

The combination of new and old technology is opening vast geographies to the company to potentially develop new projects.

Other companies are also looking to tap geothermal power to drive a renewable power generation development business. Those are startups like Eavor, which has the backing of energy majors like bp Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, Temasek, BDC Capital, Eversource and Vickers Venture Partners; and other players including GreenFire Energy, and Sage Geosystems.

Demand for geothermal projects is skyrocketing, opening up big markets for startups that can nail the cost issue for geothermal development. As Latimer noted, from 2016 to 2019 there was only one major geothermal contract, but in 2020 there were ten new major power purchase agreements signed by the industry. 

For all of these projects, cost remains a factor. Contracts that are being signed for geothermal that are in the $65 to $75 per megawatt range, according to Latimer. By comparison, solar plants are now coming in somewhere between $35 and $55 per megawatt, as The Verge reported last year

But Latimer said the stability and predictability of geothermal power made the cost differential palatable for utilities and businesses that need the assurance of uninterruptible power supplies. As a current Houston resident, the issue is something that Latimer has an intimate experience with from this year’s winter freeze, which left him without power for five days.

Indeed, geothermal’s ability to provide always-on clean power makes it an incredibly attractive option. In a recent Department of Energy study, geothermal could meet as much as 16% of the U.S. electricity demand, and other estimates put geothermal’s contribution at nearly 20% of a fully decarbonized grid.

“We’ve long been believers in geothermal energy but have waited until we’ve seen the right technology and team to drive innovation in the sector,” said Ion Yadigaroglu of Capricorn Investment Group, in a statement. “Fervo’s technology capabilities and the partnerships they’ve created with leading research organizations make them the clear leader in the new wave of geothermal.”

Fervo Energy drilling site. Image Credits: Fervo Energy

Boasting a pedigree in business intelligence, Sweep launches a new carbon accounting and offset tool

By Jonathan Shieber

If businesses are going to meet their increasingly aggressive targets for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their operations, they’re going to have to have an accurate picture of just what those emissions look like. To get that picture, companies are increasingly turning to businesses like Sweep, which announced its commercial launch today.

The Parisian company boasts a founding team with an impeccable pedigree in enterprise software. Co-founders Rachel Delacour and Nicolas Raspal were the co-founders of BIME Analytics, which was acquired by Zendesk. And together with Zendesk colleagues Raphael Güller and Yannick Chaze, and the founder of the Net Zero Initiative, Renaud Bettin, they’ve created a software toolkit that gives companies a visually elegant view into not just a company’s own carbon emissions, but those of their suppliers as well.

It’s the background of the team that first attracted investors like Pia d’Iribarne, co-founder and managing partner, New Wave, which made their first climate-focused investment into the software developer. 

We decided to invest before we even closed the fund,” d’Iribarne said of the investment in Sweep. “We officially invested in December or January.”

New Wave wasn’t the only investor wowed by the company’s prospects. The new European climate-focused investment firm 2050, and La Famiglia, a fund with strong ties to big European industrial companies, also participated alongside several undisclosed angel investors from the Bay Area. In all Sweep raked in $5 million for its product before it had even launched a beta.

Sweep offers users the ability to visualize each location of a company’s business by brand, location, product or division and see how those different granular operations contribute to a company’s overall carbon footprint. Users can also link those nodes to external suppliers and distributors to share carbon data. 

The effects of climate change are increasing, and companies across industries are motivated to do their part. But today’s carbon reduction efforts are being stalled by complex tools and resources that can’t match the urgency of the threat. By putting automation, connectivity and collaboration at the heart of the platform, Sweep is the first to offer companies an efficient mechanism to tackle their indirect Scope 3 emissions, and turn net zero from a buzzword into a reality. 

Like the other companies that have come on the market with carbon monitoring and management solutions, Sweep also offers the ability to finance offset projects directly from its platform. And, like those other companies, Sweep’s offsets are primarily in the forestry space.   

“Around the world, companies are under pressure from customers, investors and regulators to take action to reduce their emissions,” said Pia d’Iribarne in a statement. “As a result, we’re seeing unprecedented growth in the climate technology market and we expect it to continue to explode. What used to be an issue confined to a company’s sustainability team is now a front-and-center business objective that has the commitment of the CEO. We invested in Sweep because of their world-class expertise in sustainability and their success in developing state-of-the-art, end-to-end SaaS platforms. It’s the right team and the right product at the right time.”

GM partners with 7 charging networks ahead of electric vehicle push

By Kirsten Korosec

GM revealed Wednesday a four-part plan meant to handle all the steps of charging an electric vehicle, including finding a public charger and paying for the power, as the automaker seeks ways to attract customers to the 30 EVs it plans to launch by 2025.

The so-called Ultium Charge 360 plan — named after the underlying electric vehicle platform and batteries of its upcoming EVs — aims to handle the access, payment and customer service components of charging an electric vehicle at home and on the road. As part of the plan, which the company’s chief EV officer Travis Hester said will be rolling out over the next 18 months, GM has signed agreements with seven third-party charging network providers, including Blink Charging, ChargePoint, EV Connect, EVgo, FLO, Greenlots and SemaConnect. Using their GM vehicle brand mobile app, EV drivers will be able to see real-time information, including location and whether a charger is being used, from nearly 60,000 charging plugs throughout the U.S. and Canada. These functions will be rolled into the existing brand apps GM has created for owners of its Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC vehicles.

The first GM and EVgo sites are now live in Washington, California and Florida. GM said each site is capable of delivering up to 350 kilowatts and averages four chargers per site. GM and EVgo are on track to have about 500 fast-charging stalls live by the end of 2021, according to the automaker.

Hester noted the plan isn’t just about how many third-party networks it partners with. (Although it should be noted that Electrify America is not on its list of partners announced Wednesday.)

“We know how critical the charging infrastructure is to our customers and how it plays a hugely significant role in EV adoption and experienced EV owners know that this is much more complicated than just a simple network quantity issue,” Hester said in a media briefing Wednesday.

For instance, the GM app will provide information on how to find stations along a route and initiate and pay for charging, Hester said. GM will continue to update the mobile app. GM is also planning to offer charging accessories and installation services for their home charger. The company said Wednesday it will cover standard installation of Level 2 charging capability for eligible customers who purchase or lease a 2022 Bolt EUV or Bolt EV in collaboration with Qmerit.

There were some gaps in the announcement, notably whether there would be Plug and Charge capabilities. Plug and Charge is a technology standard that allows the driver of an EV to pull up to a station, plug in and power up their EV without having to launch an app to begin the charging process or to pay for it. Instead, the vehicle is able to communicate with the charging infrastructure and the payment is integrated into that process. Alex Keros, the lead architect for EV infrastructure at GM, said the company wasn’t making any announcements around Plug and Charge, but noted that the company knows “that enabling that seamless experience is going to be an important part of that customer experience.”

Tesla wants to make every home a distributed power plant

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Tesla CEO Elon Musk wants to turn every home into a distributed power plant that would generate, store and even deliver energy back into the electricity grid all using the company’s products.

While the company has been selling solar and energy storage products for years, a new company policy to only sell solar coupled with the energy storage products, along with Musk’s comments Monday, reveal a strategy that aims to scale these businesses by appealing to utilities.

“This is a prosperous future both for Tesla and for the utilities,” he said. “If this is not done, the utilities will fail to serve their customers. They won’t be able to do it,” Musk said during an investor call, noting the rolling blackouts in California last summer and the more recent grid failure in Texas as evidence that grid reliability has become a bigger concern.

Last week, the company changed its website to prevent customers from only buying solar or its Powerwall energy storage product and instead required purchasing a system. Musk later announced the move in a tweet, stating “solar power will feed exclusively to Powerwall” and that “Powerwall will interface only between utility meter and house main breaker panel, enabling super simple install and seamless whole house backup during utility dropouts.”

Musk’s pitch is that the grid would need more power lines, more power plants, and larger substations to fully decarbonization using renewables plus storage. Distributed residential systems — of course using Tesla products — would provide a better path, in Musk’s view. His claim has been backed up by in part by recent studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that the U.S. can reach a zero-carbon grid by more than doubling its transmission capacity, and another from Princeton University showing that the country may need to triple its transmission systems by 2050 to reach net-zero emissions.

Musk is imagining a radically different electricity grid system than the one we have today, which is centrally controlled and run by grid operators, independent organizations such as the California Independent System Operator or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. It’s a vision that is riddled with bureaucratic and logistical challenges. Utilities and regulatory policy would need to solve how to handle a large influx of so-called ‘distributed energy resources,’ such as solar panels on residential roofs, which may run contrary to utilities’ long-established business models.

It’s important to note that whether renewables-plus-storage will be alone sufficient to decarbonize the energy grid is a contentious question. Many experts believing that the land use demands, storage requirements and intermittency issues of renewables may make their role as the country’s primary electricity generator a pipe dream. But Musk has long been bullish on the renewables-plus-storage model, tweeting last July that “physics favors electric transport, batteries for stationary storage & solar/wind for energy generation.”

Tesla owners can now see how much solar or coal is powering their EVs

By Kirsten Korosec

Tesla owners can now see exactly what kind of energy is powering their electric vehicles. TezLab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, pushed out a new feature this week that shows the energy mix — breaking down the exact types and percentages of fossil fuels and renewable energy — coming from charging locations, including Superchargers and third-party networks throughout the United States.

“We’re tracking the origin of data as it relates to energy, so we know if you’re in Tucson or Brooklyn (or any location) where the energy is coming from and what the mix of that energy looks like,” Ben Schippers, the CEO and co-founder of TezLab explained in a recent interview. “As a result, we can see how much carbon is being pushed out into the atmosphere based on your charge, whether you’re charging at home, or whether you’re charging at a Supercharger.”

ElectricityMap, a project from Tomorrow, provided the energy data, which TezLab then folded into its consumer-facing app. Once downloaded, the app knows when and where a Tesla owner is plugging in. The energy mix feature builds off of an existing program on the app that gave owners more general information on how dirty or clean their charge is.

Image Credits: TezLab

Take Tesla’s Linq High Roller Supercharger in Las Vegas, a V3 Supercharger that is supposed to support a peak rate of up to 250 kilowatts and has been heralded for its use of Tesla solar panels and its Powerpack batteries to generate and store the power needed to operate the chargers.

According to TezLab’s data, 1.7% of the energy is from solar. The primary source of renewable energy is actually hydro at 65.6% — courtesy of the Hoover Dam. The remaining energy mix from the Supercharger is about 33% natural gas.

Tesla’s Supercharger in Hawthorne, California, which was one of the first to have solar panels, has an energy mix of 0.2% solar, 5.5% nuclear,13.3% natural gas, 27% coal and 49.9% wind.

The top 10 “cleanest” Superchargers — a list that includes Centralia, Leavenworth, Moses Lake and Seattle, Washington — achieved that goal thanks to hydroelectric power. Superchargers with the most solar energy are all located in the same power grid in California. Superchargers in Barstow, Oxnard, Cabazon, San Diego, Mojave, Inyokern, San Mateo, Seaside and Santa Ana, California all have 22.7% solar and 15% wind energy. The remaining mix at these locations is 0.2% battery storage, 2.9% biomass, 5.6% geothermal, 6.3% hydro, 6.6% nuclear and 40% natural gas.

TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups. HFC’s engineers, including co-founders Schippers (who is now chairman of the company’s board) and William Schenk, were attracted to Tesla largely because of its software-driven approach. The group was particularly intrigued at the opportunity created by the openness of the Tesla API. The Tesla API is technically private. But the endpoints are accessible to outsiders. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.

TezLab launched in 2018 with some initial features that let owners track their efficiency, total trip miles and use it to control certain functions of the vehicle, such as locking and unlocking the doors and heating and air conditioning. More features have been added, mostly focused on building community, including one that allows Tesla owners to rate Supercharger stations.

All of that data is aggregated and anonymous. TezLab has said it won’t sell that data. It does post on its website insights gleaned from that data, such as a breakdown of model ownership, the average trip length and average time between plugging in.

As other electric vehicles come to market, TezLab is adding those to the app, including the Ford Mustang Mach-E.

ZeroAvia’s hydrogen fuel cell plane ambitions clouded by technical challenges

By Kirsten Korosec

When ZeroAvia’s six-seater aircraft completed an eight-minute flight from Cranfield Airfield in the U.K. last September, the company claimed a “major breakthrough” with the first-ever hydrogen fuel cell flight of a commercial-size aircraft.

The modified Piper Malibu propeller plane was now the largest hydrogen-powered aircraft in the world, wrote the company. “While some experimental aircraft have flown using hydrogen fuel cells, the size of this aircraft shows that paying passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon,” added Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia’s CEO.

But just how hydrogen-powered was it, and how close is ZeroAvia to flying passengers?

“[In] this particular setup, not all the energy is coming from hydrogen,” said Miftakhov at a press conference directly afterwards. “There is a combination of the battery and hydrogen. But the way the battery and hydrogen fuel cells combine is such that we are able to fly purely on hydrogen.”

Miftakhov’s comments don’t quite tell the whole story. TechCrunch has learned that batteries provided the majority of the power required for the landmark flight, and will continue to feature heavily in ZeroAvia’s longer flights and new aircraft. And while the Malibu is technically still a passenger aircraft, ZeroAvia has had to replace four of the Malibu’s five passenger seats to accommodate bulky hydrogen tanks and other equipment.

In less than four years, ZeroAvia has gone from testing aircraft parts in pickup trucks to gaining the support of the U.K. government, and attracting investment from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and — just last week — British Airways. Now the question is whether it can continue on its claimed trajectory and truly transform aviation.

Take off

Aviation currently accounts for 2.5% of humanity’s carbon emissions, and could grow to a quarter of the planet’s carbon budget by 2050. Biofuels can displace trees or food crops, while batteries are too heavy for anything more than short hops. Hydrogen, by contrast, can be generated using solar or wind power, and packs quite an energetic punch.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen with oxygen from the air in an efficient reaction that produces only electricity, heat and water. But that doesn’t mean you can simply drop a fuel cell into an existing aircraft. Fuel cells are heavy and complex, hydrogen requires bulky storage and there are many technical problems for startups to solve.

Russian-born Miftakhov arrived in America in 1997 to study for a physics doctorate. In 2012, after starting several companies and a stint at Google, he founded eMotorWerks (aka EMW) to produce electric conversion kits for the BMW 3-series.

But in 2013, BMW accused EMW of infringing its trademarks. Miftakhov agreed to change its logo and marketing materials, and to refrain from suggesting it was affiliated with the carmaker. He also found demand from BMW owners to be sluggish.

EMW then pivoted to providing chargers and a smart energy management platform. The new direction succeeded, and in 2017 Italian energy company Enel acquired EMW for a reported $150 million. But Miftakhov faced legal difficulties here, too.

George Betak, an EMW vice president, filed two civil lawsuits against Miftakhov alleging, among other things, that Miftakhov had left his name off patents, withheld money and even faked a document to make it seem as though Betak had assigned his intellectual property rights to EMW. Betak later withdrew some claims. The cases were quietly settled in the summer of 2020.

Weeks after selling EMW in 2017, Miftakhov incorporated ZeroAvia in San Carlos, California with the stated aim of “zero emissions aviation.” He was counting on the aviation industry being more interested in electrifying existing aircraft than BMW drivers had been.

First step: batteries

The first public outing for ZeroAvia was in October 2018 at Hollister Airport, 50 miles southwest of San Jose. Miftakhov mounted a propeller, an electric motor and batteries in the bed of a 1969 El Camino and took it up to 75 knots (85mph) on electric power.

In December, ZeroAvia bought a Piper PA-46 Matrix, a six-seater propeller plane very similar to the one it would later use in the U.K. Miftakhov’s team installed the motor and about 75kWh of lithium ion batteries — about the same as in an entry-level Tesla Model Y.

In February 2019, two days after the FAA granted it an experimental airworthiness certificate, the all-electric Piper took to the air. By mid-April, the Matrix was flying at its top speed and maximum power. It was ready to upgrade to hydrogen.

Import records show that ZeroAvia took delivery of a carbon fiber hydrogen tank from Germany in March. One company photo exists of the Matrix with a tank on its left wing, but ZeroAvia never released a video of it flying. Something had gone wrong.

In July, ZeroAvia’s R&D director posted a message on a forum for Piper owners: “We have damaged a wing of our Matrix, which we loved and pampered so much. The damage is so bad that it has to be replaced. Is anyone aware of [a suitable aircraft] that is going to be sold for parts any time soon?”

Miftakhov confirmed that the damage, not previously reported, occurred while ZeroAvia was reconfiguring the aircraft. That aircraft has not flown since, and ZeroAvia’s time as a Silicon Valley startup was coming to an end.

Moving to the UK

With ZeroAvia’s U.S. flight tests on hold, Miftakhov turned his attention to Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is banking on ”a new green industrial revolution.”

In September 2019, Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), a U.K. government-supported company, funded a ZeroAvia-led project called HyFlyer, with £2.68 million ($3.3 million). Miftakhov committed to deliver a hydrogen fuel cell Piper that could fly more than 280 miles, within a year. Sharing the money would be Intelligent Energy, a fuel cell maker, and the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), which would provide hydrogen fueling tech.

“ZeroAvia had proved the concept of retrofitting an electric power train into an aircraft and instead of powering it by batteries, they wanted to power it with hydrogen,” said Richard Ainsworth, EMEC’s hydrogen manager at the time. “That was the whole purpose of the HyFlyer project.”

Gary Elliott, CEO of ATI, told TechCrunch that it was “really important” to ATI that ZeroAvia was using fuel cells rather than a battery system: “You need to spread your investment profile, so that you’ve got as much likelihood of success as you can.”

ZeroAvia set up in Cranfield and in February 2020, bought a six-seater Piper Malibu, similar to the damaged Matrix. Although the company fitted and flew it with batteries by June, the government still needed reassuring. “I’d be happy to catch up and think about what we can do to address the concerns that are nagging away at the ATI,” wrote an official, according to an email obtained by TechCrunch under a freedom of information request.

Intelligent Energy CTO Chris Dudfield told TechCrunch that the HyFlyer program went smoothly, but that his company is still years away from flying a larger fuel cell and that he never even saw ZeroAvia’s plane.

ZeroAvia’s partnership with Intelligent Energy might have helped it secure U.K. government funding but it wasn’t going to help power the Malibu. ZeroAvia needed to find a fuel cell supplier — fast.

Second step: Fuel cell power

In August, ZeroAvia wrote to government officials that “we are now gearing up for our first hydrogen-powered flight,” and invited the Secretary of State to attend.

Miftakhov said that ZeroAvia’s demonstration flight used a 250 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell powertrain — the largest ever in an aircraft. This is comparable in power to the internal combustion engine that Pipers typically use, giving a healthy margin of safety for the most demanding phase of flight: take off.

ZeroAvia never identified its fuel cell supplier, nor detailed how much of the 250kW came from the fuel cell.

However, the day after the demonstration flight, a Swedish company called PowerCell issued a press release stating that one PowerCell MS-100 fuel cell was “an integral part of the powertrain.”

The MS-100 generates a maximum power of just 100kW, leaving 150kW unaccounted for. This means the majority of the power needed for take-off could only have come from the Piper’s batteries.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Miftakhov acknowledged that the Piper could not have taken off on fuel cell power alone in the September flight. He said the plane’s batteries were probably operational for the entire demonstration flight, and provided “some additional safety margin for the aircraft.”

Many fuel cell vehicles use batteries, either to smooth out fluctuations or to boost power briefly, although some manufacturers have been more transparent about their sources of power. One problem with relying on batteries for take off is that the plane then has to carry them for the whole flight.

“The fundamental challenge for hydrogen fuel cell aircraft is weight,” said Paul Eremenko, CEO of Universal Hydrogen, which is collaborating on a 2000kW fuel cell powertrain for another aircraft. “One of the ways we save weight is having a much smaller battery that is only used when a pilot guns the throttle.”

In February, ZeroAvia’s vice president, Sergey Kiselev, said that the company’s goal was to do without batteries altogether. “Batteries may be used to provide an extra oomph during take off,” he told the Royal Aeronautical Society. “But if you use different types of propulsion or energy storage on the aircraft, the certification effort will be significantly harder.”

Relying heavily on batteries allowed ZeroAvia to pull off its high-profile demonstration flight for investors and the U.K. government, but could ultimately delay its first flights with paying passengers.

The problem of heat

Without an exhaust to expel waste heat, fuel cells usually need a complex air or liquid cooling system to avoid overheating

“This is really the key intellectual property, and why it isn’t just a matter of buying a fuel cell, buying a motor and plugging them together,” says Eremenko.

The German Aerospace Center in Cologne has been flying hydrogen fuel cell aircraft since 2012. Its current aircraft, the custom-designed HY4, can carry four passengers up to 450 miles. Its 65kW fuel cell has a liquid cooling system that uses a large, aerodynamically optimized channel for the cooling air flow (see picture).

A similar 100kW system would generally need a cooling intake longer and a third bigger than the HY4’s. ZeroAvia’s Piper Malibu has no additional cooling intakes at all.

“The openings look way too small for the air speed at take off, and even for cruise speed,” said an aviation fuel cell engineer who asked not to be named because they deal with some of the same companies as ZeroAvia.

“We had to experiment with the location and configuration of the heat exchangers… but we did not have to redesign the shape of the aircraft to handle the heat,” countered Miftakhov. He claims the fuel cell was operating at between 85 and 100kW during the flight.

Following TechCrunch’s interview with ZeroAvia, the company released a video that appears to show the Piper’s fuel cell operating at up to 70kW during a ground test, which could equate to a higher power level when airborne.

Although this still needs to be demonstrated with long-distance flights, ZeroAvia may have solved the heat problem that has dogged other engineers for years.

The next plane: bigger and better?

In September, aviation minister Robert Courts was at Cranfield to watch the demonstration flight. “It’s one of the most historic moments in aviation for decades, and it is a huge triumph for ZeroAvia,” he said after the flight. Time magazine named ZeroAvia’s technology as one of the best inventions of 2020.

Even with the HyFlyer extended flight still to come, in December the U.K. government announced HyFlyer 2 — a £12.3 million ($16.3 million) project for ZeroAvia to deliver a 600kW hydrogen-electric powertrain for a larger aircraft. ZeroAvia agreed to have a 19-seat plane ready for commercialization in 2023. (It now says 2024.)

On the same day, ZeroAvia announced its $21.3 million Series A investor lineup, including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Ventures Fund, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Horizon Ventures, Shell Ventures and Summa Equity. It announced another $23.4 million raise from these investors, without Amazon but with British Airways, in late March.

Miftakhov said the Malibu has now completed about a dozen test flights, with the long-distance U.K. flight pushed to later this year, due to COVID delays. And as for HyFlyer 2, Miftakhov now says that this will initially use half batteries and half fuel cells, although “the final certifiable flight configuration will get its full 600kW from the fuel cells.”

There is no doubt that ZeroAvia is facing a steep climb to deliver its promised aircraft, starting with the 19-seater, then a 50-seater plane in 2026, and a 100-seater by 2030.

Hydrogen fuel cells still have a whiff of snake oil about them, thanks to Nikola, a startup that exaggerated a public demonstration of a hydrogen fuel cell truck, triggering a collapse in its share price and investigation by the SEC. The best option for ambitious start-ups like ZeroAvia is to be more transparent about their current technology and the challenges that lie ahead, even if that means tempering the expectations of investors and a public excited by the prospect of sustainable air travel.

“I desperately want ZeroAvia to be successful,” says Paul Eremenko. “I think we have very complementary business models and together we help complete the value chain to make hydrogen aviation happen.”

EcoCart raises $3 million for a Honey-like browser extension to offset shoppers’ carbon emissions

By Jonathan Shieber

EcoCart, a company pitching consumers on ways to offset their carbon emissions for free at select merchants (with a browser extension!) has raised $3 million in financing from Base10 Partners.

Brands pay the company a commission to drive traffic to their websites under a standard affiliate marketing model and EcoCart uses a portion of the proceeds to offset a shopper’s carbon emissions.

About 10,000 companies work with EcoCart, either through direct partnerships, or passive affiliate marketing services. EcoCart also offers a carbon accounting tool for businesses and an offsetting offering for them as well, according to co-founders Peter Twomey and Dane Baker.

The San Francisco-based startup uses services like ClimeCo and BlueSource to source and aggregate offset projects that companies can finance.

The two co-founders, who met at the University of San Diego previously founded a startup called Toyroom, which rented outdoor equipment to customers in an effort to reduce unnecessary consumption.

“We live this problem ourselves. We realized it was incredibly difficult to maintain this sustainability ethos,” Baker said. 

While the browser extension sets EcoCart apart from other offsetting services like Cloverly, the company does share some functionality in its business-facing offering where an option to offset the carbon associated with a purchase is integrated directly into the checkout flow.

EcoCart launched its business-to-business integration in June of last year and now counts 500 vendors as customers. So far, about a quarter of customers have chosen to offset their purchases at checkout amounting to the capture of an estimated 25 million pounds of CO2, the company said.

Investors backing the company include Base 10 Partners; PopSugar co-founder, Brian Sugar’s early stage venture fund and angel investors like Ben Jabbaway, the founder of Privy; Rich Gardner, the VP of global partnerships at Klaviyo; Kyle Hency, the co-founder of Chubbie; Bryan Meehan, the chair of Blue Bottle Coffee; and Carly Strife, the co-founder of BarkBox.

While online shopping gets a bad reputation, it’s actually sometimes a greener option than shopping in physical stores, according to one study published in Nature last year.

Consumer offsets, while well-meaning, don’t have nearly the same impact as having the companies themselves actually rein in their greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize their operations. In fact, the whole notion of the consumer carbon footprint and the personal responsibility of consumers for planetary pollution was dreamed up by advertising executives at the behest of oil and gas and consumer goods companies pushing products.

But something is better than nothing, and offsets do help necessary projects get funding.

EcoCart said it spent months developing a proprietary algorithm to calculate the carbon footprint of online orders. For both the e-commerce plugin and browser extension, EcoCart uses the characteristics of each order including material inputs to the item, shipping distance, and package weight to estimate the emissions created from that order, the company said.

“We believe EcoCart is reinventing how brands interact with their customers while also managing and addressing their environmental impact at scale,” said Chris Zeoli, Principal at Base10 Partners, in a statement. “EcoCart represents a solution that is helping reverse decades of harmful climate change. Base10 is proud to be partnering with the EcoCart founders as they continue to make carbon neutral shopping the new checkout standard for industries including retail, micromobility, food delivery, and more.”

Ocean Solutions Accelerator doubles down on blue economy with new track for later-stage companies

By Devin Coldewey

The planet-loving folks at the Sustainable Ocean Alliance started an accelerator a couple years back focusing on very early-stage companies, but this year they’re expanding the program to accept those that have already closed their first round. The mix of experimental and (comparatively) proven approaches may help diversify the accelerator’s growing network.

“Last year, amidst the onset of a global pandemic and mounting urgency related to solving the ocean’s greatest challenges, we received unprecedented demand for the Ocean Solutions Accelerator,” said the accelerator’s co-founder, Craig Dudenhoeffer. “It became clear to us that now more than ever, ocean tech startups need powerful community support, mentorship and access to those unique opportunities that truly propel their businesses. We decided to double our efforts and run two accelerator cohorts in 2021 in order to support 21 incredible innovators.”

Last year’s cohort included companies creating robotic fish, kelp-based foods, artificial reefs, aquaculture animal feed and other interesting and potentially breakthrough products. But one thing they all have in common with each other and those from previous years is they are nearly all very early stage.

Having a prototype and taking on a big problem or market is a great start, but it’s also where a lot of startups wash out. Companies like Coral Vita have powered through repeated disasters (in their case hurricanes and of course the pandemic) to raise money and move toward scaling up.

But others in the sadly undervalued conservation space still have a long road ahead before VCs think it’s worth taking a risk on them. Few check writers will see the problems and potential solutions up close and personal and make a personal connection with the driven and occasionally idealistic young founders, but those that I saw do that in Alaska were convinced.

This year the accelerator will have two sequential cohorts, an early-stage one in June for pre-seed companies and another in September for those that have raised a seed or A round and have “a strong MVP.” Applications for both are open until April 12th, with 21 spots available. That’s Monday, so better get to it.

“In expanding to two accelerator programs this year, we’re now able to provide highly curated content and tailored support to serve our entrepreneurs and meet them exactly where they’re at in their unique journeys to addressing our most critical ocean challenges,” said Dudenhoeffer.

While the organization is still small and the accelerator a relatively straightforward affair, the space that they are in is expanding and gaining credit among investors. Renewed attention and funding on climate change, ecological stewardship and alternative energy sources from the new Biden administration change the equations for startups and services in related industries; all of a sudden an idea that seemed wild a couple years ago makes perfect sense. With luck that means a bit of wind in the sails of entrepreneurs trying to save the world.

 

Shell invests in LanzaJet to speed up deliveries of its synthetic aviation fuel

By Jonathan Shieber

The energy giant Shell has joined a slew of strategic investors — including All Nippon Airways, Suncor Energy, Mitsui and British Airways — in funding LanzaJet, the company commercializing a process to convert alcohol into jet fuel. 

A spin-off from LanzaTech, one of the last surviving climate tech startups from the first cleantech boom that’s still privately held, LanzaJet is taking a phased investment approach with its corporate backers, enabling them to invest additional capital as the company scales to larger production facilities.

Terms of the initial investment, or LanzaJet’s valuation after the commitment, were not disclosed.

LanzaJet claims that it can help the aviation industry reach net-zero emissions, something that would go a long way toward helping the world meet the emissions reductions targets set in the Paris Agreement.

“LanzaJet’s technology opens up a new and exciting pathway to produce SAF using an AtJ process and will help address the aviation sector’s urgent need for SAF. It demonstrates that the industry can move faster and deliver more when we all work together,” said Anna Mascolo, president, Shell Aviation, in a statement. “Provided industry, government and society collaborate on appropriate policy mechanisms and regulations to drive both supply and demand, aviation can achieve net-zero carbon emissions. The strategic fit with LanzaJet is exciting.”

LanzaJet is currently building an alcohol-to-jet fuel facility in Soperton, Georgia. Upon completion it would be the first commercial-scale plant for sustainable synthetic jet fuel with a capacity of 10 million gallons per year.

The fuel is made by using ethanol inputs — something that Shell is very familiar with. It’s also something that the oil giant has in ready supply. Through the Raízen joint venture in Brazil, Shell has been producing bio-ethanol for more than 10 years.

The company expects that its sustainable fuel will be mixed with conventional fossil jet fuel to power airplanes in a lower carbon intensity way. Roughly 90% of the company’s production output will be aviation fuel, while the remaining 10% will be renewable diesel, the company said.

LanzaJet’s SAF is approved to be blended up to 50% with fossil jet fuel, the maximum allowed  by ASTM, and is a drop-in fuel that requires no modifications to engines, aircraft and infrastructure. Additionally, LanzaJet’s SAF delivers more than a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis, compared to conventional fossil jet fuel. The versatility in ethanol, and a focus on low carbon, waste-based and nonfood/nonfeed sources, along with ethanol’s global availability, make  LanzaJet’s technology a relevant and enduring solution for SAF. 

 

Recycling startup Redwood Materials is partnering with Proterra to supply EV battery materials sustainably

By Aria Alamalhodaei

A growing number of companies have emerged over the last few years determined to reduce waste in the electric vehicle battery market. Chief among these is recycling firm Redwood Materials, which has quickly expanded since its launch in 2017 by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel to become the largest lithium-ion battery recycler in North America. Now the firm is teaming up with electric commercial vehicle manufacturer Proterra in a deal that may help boost the domestic battery supply chain.

This is the first publicly announced partnership between Redwood and an automaker.

Under the agreement, all Proterra batteries will be sent to Redwood’s facilities for recycling in Carson City, Nevada. The two companies entered the agreement in January, but have been in discussion since last summer, when Proterra reached out to learn more about Redwood’s recycling process. That led to a trip out to Redwood’s facilities in Nevada to see if the recycler could process Proterra battery packs.

“That went really well,” Proterra CTO Dustin Grace told TechCrunch. Grace worked for Straubel for around nine years at Tesla. “We were super excited to see their operation. From there, we started work on our master supply agreement.”

Proterra has sent around 26,000 pounds of battery material to Nevada for recycling since entering the partnership, though this does not represent the pace of future deliveries. Overall, Redwood receives 60 tons per day, or 20,000 tons of batteries per year.

The batteries that power Proterra’s fleets are designed to last the lifespan of the vehicle, but the company offers a battery leasing program that guarantees replacement after six years — which means plenty of useful life will remain in the battery, as much as 80-90% charging capacity. To exploit the remainder of this capacity, Proterra has plans to reuse the batteries in second-life applications — such as in stationary storage systems hooked up to Proterra charging hardware — before they head to Nevada.

“First the grading of the battery will occur at Proterra by our remanufacturing engineering team. If the battery is deemed ready for second-life, it will go into one of those applications; if it’s not, it gets recycled,” Grace said.

Only once all this useful life is exhausted will the batteries be sent to Redwood, where the waste will be reprocessed into valuable raw material. And with the transit EV market poised to reach 50% of all annual sales by 2025, there will be plenty of batteries that will need reprocessing.

The news comes just weeks after Redwood announced it was teaming up with e-bike manufacturer Specialized to recycle its batteries. Redwood already has arrangements to process scrap from Panasonic’s battery cell production at the Nevada Tesla Gigafactory, and with Amazon to recycle EV batteries and other waste. Through these business-to-business partnerships Redwood aims to develop a circular battery supply chain, supplying the raw materials back to the manufacturer. The company also accepts electronics and batteries from everyday consumers, which can be mailed to Redwood via a mailing address posted on its website.  

The partnership is a sign that both companies are thinking large-scale and long-term. A spokesperson for Redwood said in a statement to TechCrunch that the recycler is focused on “developing the solution for a fully closed-loop recycling for EV batteries.” That means finding truly sustainable, long-term sources of materials like cobalt, lithium and copper to eventually move beyond terrestrial mining. And Straubel has been vocal in the past about his ambition to grow Redwood into one of the world’s largest battery materials companies.

As more battery-grade raw materials become available in the United States, Proterra sees an opportunity to eventually expand into domestic battery-cell manufacturing.

“It’s still early days but we’re trying to set ourselves up for the future state of this market at scale. That’s really the primary benefit of this partnership existing today,” Grace said. “The way we see it, domestic cell production for Proterra is a very, very important part of our roadmap here in the coming years. The idea of generating more battery-grade raw materials on North American soil directly supports the expansion of that battery manufacturing concept within the U.S. So I think this starting now absolutely aids our plans for domestic cell manufacturing in the near future.”

Will the pandemic spur a smart rebirth for cities?

By Annie Siebert
Michael Proman Contributor
Michael Proman is a managing director at Scrum Ventures and heads the firm’s SmartCityX program.

Cities traditionally have been bustling hubs where people live, work and play. When the pandemic hit, some people fled major metropolitan markets for smaller towns — raising questions about the future validity of cities. It’s true that we’re still months away from broader reopenings and herd immunity via current vaccination efforts.

However, those who predicted that COVID-19 would destroy major urban communities might want to stop shorting the resilience of these municipalities and start going long on what the post-pandemic future looks like.   

U.N. forecasts show that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities, communities that are the epicenters of culture, innovation, wealth, education and tourism, to mention just a few benefits. They are not only worth saving — they’re also ripe for rebirth, precisely why many municipal leaders in the U.S. anticipate the Biden administration will allocate substantial monetary resources to rebuilding legacy infrastructure (and doing so in a way that prioritizes equitable access). 

With this emphasis on inclusivity and social innovation, the tech community has the ability to address a range of lifestyle and well-being issues: infrastructure, transportation and mobility, law enforcement, environmental monitoring, and energy allocation.

In this time of reset for cities, what smart city technologies will transform how we live our lives? What kinds of technology will make the biggest impact on cities in the next 12 months? Which smart cities are ahead of the curve? 

To unpack these questions and more, we conducted the SmartCityX Survey of industry experts — including smart city investors, corporate and municipal thought leaders, members of academia, and startups on the front lines of urban innovation — to help provide valuable insights into where we’re heading. Below you’ll find some key takeaways:

Infrastructure is the most crucial issue for cities

Critical infrastructure topped the list of most prominent issues facing today’s cities, followed closely by traffic and transportation. Cisco may have left the party too soon, but others, including countless startups, are lining up and capitalizing on future growth opportunities in the space. A couple of recent data points that support this trend — particularly as it relates to infrastructure rebuilding, IoT and open toolkits to connect fragmented technologies — include the following:  

“Smart Infrastructure is paramount to Smart City success. It’s crucial that this infrastructure be ‘architected’ as opposed to just connected. This is the only way to truly achieve seamless interoperability while ensuring scalability, reliability, security and privacy. Technology companies that offer robust architectural components and/or platforms stand to deliver tremendous stakeholder value and outsized returns to investors.” – Sue Stash, – — General Partner, Pandemic Impact Fund

What’s driving change in cities?

When asked what will accelerate innovation and change in cities, an overwhelming majority cited COVID-19 as the primary factor, followed by remote work, which has accelerated the adoption of online collaboration tools and forced legacy companies to complete multi-year digital transformation projects in a matter of months. The biggest opportunity is to build cities back better and smarter, focusing on new infrastructures that do more with less, and for most of us, that begins and ends at home.

Berlin’s Blacklane raises $26M to expand its high-end chauffeur-driven sustainable car service

By Ingrid Lunden

As the Ubers of the world continue to scale, a smaller on-demand transportation startup has raised some funding in Germany, underscoring the opportunities that remain for startups in the space targeting specific service niches. Blacklane — the Berlin startup that provides on-demand black-car chauffeur services in Berlin, London, Dubai, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Singapore and 16 other cities — has closed a round of €22 million ($26 million at current rates). After taking a majority stake in Havn, the Jaguar-hatched electric car service in London, in February, Blacklen said that it will be using this latest round of funding to continue expanding sustainable travel initiatives, and to continue expanding its existing business with more flexible options for riding.

The funding, which is being made at an upround valuation, is a sign of how the company is showing signs of growth after a year in which monthly revenues dropped 99% in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting drop in travel, and specifically people willing to be in small spaces that are shared with others.

“The global travel and mobility industries have suffered, with several players struggling between drastic cuts, hibernation or ceasing operations. Blacklane has taken the opportunity to cater to travelers’ emerging needs,” said Dr. Jens Wohltorf, CEO and co-founder of Blacklane, in a statement. “Thanks to this financing, we will continue to fast-track our innovation, with zero layoffs.”

The company said that the investment is coming from existing investors German automotive giant Daimler, the UAE’s ALFAHIM Group and btov Partners. And while it is coming at an upround, Blacklane is not disclosing any figures, nor has it ever disclosed valuation. Previous backers of the company also include the strategic investment arm of Recruit Holdings, the Japanese HR giant, and it has raised around $100 million to date, including a round of about $45 million in 2018.

The funding is coming after what has been an extremely rough year for travel and transportation startups due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with Blacklane itself seeing monthly revenues drop 99% after the pandemic hit last year, the company tells me.

Some others in the space that diversified into other areas like food delivery or other kinds of transport (eg, bikes or scooters) were able to offset declines in their more core ride-hailing services, which in the meantime were repositioned as a safer alternative to public transportation. Blacklane, however, had never positioned itself as a ride for “everyman” — its core use case were higher-end rides and airport trips (which had also died a death) — so when movement shut down, so Blacklane’s business nosedived.

It was particularly bad timing for Blacklane, considering that in the lead up to the pandemic, it looked to be on course to turn a profit on its focused model.

The reason that Blacklane has managed to raise at an upround tells another side of the story, however.

As companies in transport and travel gingerly started to show the smaller signs of recovery last summer, so too did Blacklane. It coupled that with the first steps of diversification itself.

Earlier this month, it added “chauffeur hailing” in 22 cities, an on-demand service that reduced the lead time for an order to under 30 minutes (its previous service was based on more advanced bookings). It also changed its pricing structure to get more competitive on shorter distances, since so many of the airport rides that were the basis of its revenues have yet to return.

In addition to that, Blacklane took a majority stake in Havn, an electric-based car service hatched by Jaguar, for an undisclosed sum, to spearhead a move into more sustainable travel options alongside the fleet of Teslas already operated by Blacklane.

“Worldwide travel restrictions give us a one-time chance to reset our expectations for safe and sustainable trips,” said Wohltorf in a statement. “Blacklane will recover responsibly and continue to grow while caring for both people and the planet.”

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