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
Starting this week, some Domino’s customers in Houston can have a pizza delivered without ever interacting with a human.
The pizza delivery giant said Monday it has partnered with autonomous delivery vehicle startup Nuro to allow select customers to have their pizzas dropped at their door via Nuro’s R2 robot.
“There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space,” Dennis Maloney, Domino’s senior vice president and chief innovation officer said in a statement. “This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations.”
On certain days and times, customers ordering from the Woodland Heights store on the Domino’s website can request R2, which uses radar, 360-degree cameras and thermal imaging to direct its movement. They’ll get texts to let them know where the robot is and what PIN they’ll need to access their pizza via the bot’s touchscreen.
Over the course of the pandemic, the contactless, autonomous food delivery industry has accelerated quickly, and Nuro is currently poised to become a leader in this space.
“Nuro’s mission is to better everyday life through robotics,” Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, said in a statement. “We’re excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino’s customers in Houston. We can’t wait to see what they think.”
This is the first time meals will be delivered by an electric, self-driving, occupant-less vehicle on the roads in Houston. Woodland Heights, which is mainly residential, is one of the oldest historic neighborhoods in Houston, flanked by the I-45 and I-10 highways. The Domino’s there is right on Houston Avenue, a main thoroughfare, making this a substantially challenging space in which to pilot this technology.
Nuro originally announced the Domino’s partnership and began testing in Houston in 2019. That same year, the company began deploying its vehicles to transport Kroger groceries in Houston and Phoenix. At the end of 2020, it was approved to begin testing on public roads in California, delivering goods from partners like Walmart and CVS. Nuro is the first company to be granted regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation for a self-driving vehicle exemption.
Domino’s appears to be Nuro’s first large foray into restaurant delivery, but it certainly won’t be the last. The company just announced its $500 million Series C round, funded in part by Chipotle. Woven Capital, the investment arm of Toyota’s innovation-focused subsidiary Woven Planet, also invested, kicking off the fund’s portfolio.
The partners at MaC Venture Capital, the Los Angeles-based investment firm that has just closed on $103 million for its inaugural fund, have spent the bulk of their careers breaking barriers.
Formed when M Ventures (a firm founded by former Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty); the first Black talent agency partner in the history of Hollywood, Charles D. King; and longtime operating executive (and former agent) Michael Palank joined forces with Marlon Nichols, a co-founder of the LA-based investment firm Cross Culture Capital, MaC Venture Capital wanted to be a different kind of fund.
The firm combines the focus on investing in software that Fenty had honed from his years spent as a special advisor to Andreessen Horowitz, where he spent five years before setting out to launch M Ventures; and Nichols’ thesis-driven approach to focusing on particular sectors that are being transformed by global cultural shifts wrought by changing consumer behavior and demographics.
“There’s a long history and a lot of relationships here,” said King, one of Hollywood’s premier power players and the founder of the global media company, Macro. “Adrian and I go back to 93 [when] we were in law school. We went on to conquer the world, where he went out to Washington DC and I became a senior partner at WME.”
Palank was connected to the team through King as well, since the two men worked together at William Morris before running business development for Will Smith and others.
“There was this idea of having connectivity between tech and innovation… that’s when we formed M Ventures [but] that understanding of media and culture… that focus… was complimentary with what Marlon was doing at Cross Culture,” King said.
Few firms could merge the cultural revolutions wrought by DJ Herc spinning records in the rec room of a Bronx apartment building and Sir Tim Berners Lee’s invention of the internet, but that’s exactly what MaC VC aims to do.
And while the firm’s founding partnership would prefer to focus on the financial achievements of their respective firms and the investments that now comprise the new portfolio of their combined efforts — it includes Stoke, Goodfair, Finesse, PureStream, and Sote — it’s hard to overstate the significance that a general partnership that includes three Black men have raised $103 million in an industry that’s been repeatedly called out for problems with diversity and inclusion.
MaC Venture Capital co-founders Marlon Nichols, Michael Palank, Charles King, and Adrian Fenty. Image Credit: MaC Venture Capital
“Our LPs invested in us… for lots of different reasons but at the top of the list was that we are a diverse team in so many ways. We’re going to show them a set of companies that they would not have seen from any [other] VC fund,” said Fenty. “We also, in turn, have the same investing thesis when we look at companies. We want to have women founders, African American founders, Latino founders… In our fund now we have some companies that are all women, all African American or all Latino.”
The diversity of the firm’s ethos is also reflected in the broad group of limited partners that have come on to bankroll its operations: it includes Goldman Sachs, the University of Michigan, Howard University, Mitch and Freada Kapor, Foot Locker, and Greenspring Associates.
“We are thrilled to join MaC Venture Capital in this key milestone toward building a new kind of venture capital firm that is anchored around a cultural investment thesis and supports transformative companies and dynamic founders,” said Daniel Feder, Managing Director with the University of Michigan Investment Office, in a statement. “Their unified understanding of technology, media, entertainment, and government, along with a successful track record of investing, give them deep insights into burgeoning shifts in culture and behavior.”
And it extends to the firm’s portfolio, a clutch of startup companies headquartered around the globe — from Seattle to Houston and Los Angeles to Nairobi.
“We look at all verticals. We’re very happy to be generalists,” said Fenty.
A laser focus on software-enabled businesses is complemented by the thesis-driven approach laid out in position papers staking out predictions for how the ubiquity of gaming; conscious consumerism; new parenting paradigms; and cultural and demographic shifts will transform the global economy.
Increasingly, that thesis also means moving into areas of frontier technologies that include the space industry, mixed reality and everything at the intersection of computing and the transformation of the physical world — drawn in part by the firm’s close connection to the diverse tech ecosystem that’s emerging in Los Angeles. “We’re seeing these SpaceX and Tesla mafias spin out, entrepreneurs who have had best-in-class training at an Elon Musk company,” said Palank. “It’s a great talent pool, and LA has more computer science students graduating every year than Northern California.”
With its current portfolio, though early, the venture firm is operating in the top 5% of funds — at least on paper — and its early investments are up 3 times what the firm invested, Nichols said.
“The way to think about it is MaC is essentially an extension of what we were building before,” the Cross Culture Ventures co-founder said. “We’re sticking with the concept that talent is ubiquitous but access to capital and opportunity is not. We want to be the source and access to capital for those founders.”
Like other venture investors over the past year, Cain McClary, co-founder of the investment firm KdT Ventures, recently made the jump to Austin. But unlike the rest of them, he was coming from Black Mountain, NC.
McClary had spent the better part of the last three years with his co-founder Mack Healy building out a portfolio that would be the envy of almost any investor looking at financing startups whose businesses depend on innovations at the borders of current technological achievement.
Since 2017, when the firm closed on the first $3.5 million of what ended up being a $15 million fund (they had targeted $30 million), McClary and Healy managed to find their way onto the cap table of businesses like the green chemicals manufacturer, Solugen; health diagnostics technology developer, PathAI; the Nigerian genetic dataset developer, 54Gene; the novel biomaterials developer, Checkerspot; and the genetics-focused therapy company, Dyno Therapeutics.
That portfolio — and the subsequent top decile performance that Cambridge Associates has said comes with it — has allowed McClary and Healy to close on an oversubscribed $50 million new fund to invest in promising startup companies.
KdT co-founders Cain McClary and Mack Healy. Image Credit: KdT Ventures
Hailing from a small Tennessee town outside of Leipers Fork (itself a small Tennessee town) McClary studied medicine at Tulane and business at Stanford where he linked up with Healy through a mutual friend.
Healy, who had done stints throughout big Bay Area startups like Airbnb, Databricks, and Facebook brought the software expertise (and some capital to stake the firm) while McClary provided the life sciences know-how.
Together the two men set out to hang their investment shingle at the intersection of software and life sciences that was proving to be fertile ground for new business creation. Each company in the firm’s portfolio depends on both the advances in understanding how to code computers and living cells.
McClary had left California for personal reasons when he launched the fund in 2017 and in 2020 relocated to Austin for professional ones. Healy had already set up shop in the city and it was easier, McClary said to fly out to San Francisco to look for companies from the Austin airport than it was from Ashville.
Also, both men were placing big bets on the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas to become the breeding ground for the type of entrepreneurs that the firm is looking to back.
Mack was there… the Dell Medical School and we think it’s going to be produce the types of entrpereneurs that we want to support. Houston has a med system. I firmly believe that texas has a place at the table in the future
“The way that we define it is that we like to invest in the physical layer of the world,” said McClary. “That includes not only medicine, but chemicals and agriculture. All of that is driven by some of the things that we have this sourcecode for the physical world.”
Mapping the unmapped corners of the frontier tech startup world means that the firm not only has a presence in Austin, but has hired principals to scour Houston and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina for hot deals.
That doesn’t mean the firm is forsaking California though. One of the most recent deals in the KdT portfolio is Andes Ag, an Emeryville, Calif.-based startup that’s applying yield-boosting microbes directly to seeds in an effort to improve crop performance for farmers.
“The KdT team speaks the language of science, making them an outlier in this area of venture investing,” said JD Montgomery of Canterbury Consulting, a limited partner in KdT’s first and second fund. “They are passionate about building the science companies of the future that will tackle some of the significant challenges our world faces in the next decade and beyond.”
A new nanocoating from Curran Biotech could dramatically improve air filtration to prevent the spread of COVID-19 indoors.
Their Capture Coating technology acts as a supplement to any household or commercial HVAC system by bonding to the filter fibers, giving them greater hydrophobic properties. This combined effect prevents virus-carrying droplets from traveling through the filter fibers, which, without the treatment, only prevent some viral transmission.
“’Capture Coating’ is designed to mitigate and significantly decrease viral transmission of COVID-19 through specified air filtration media by forming a breathable, flexible, non-leaching, water-repellent barrier against aqueous respiratory droplets that act as virion carriers that can potentially be recirculated through conventional air-filters,” wrote Curran Biotech founder and University of Houston physics professor Shay Curran in an email. Despite the molecular complexity of the coating, the product itself can simply be sprayed onto an HVAC system’s filter.
This new droplet-targeting coating is an improvement over current filtration methods, which typically only target dry molecules. Not only do those methods often have at least some potential of viral droplet transmission, but current solutions to improve them aren’t always energy efficient.
“In the world where energy management is very important, that means recycling the same air in the building with the risk of cross contamination,” wrote Curran. “Taking outside air is one way to dilute the air, but that means we also lose a huge amount in terms of energy, and still don’t solve the problem of taking the virus away from places where people congregate.”
Indoor air ventilation remains an important tool in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 across schools, small businesses, and other public buildings, but updating old HVAC systems to the recommended CDC standards can be costly. Curran hopes that his company’s approach can help address this issue, as the Capture Coating requires only a simple spray, rather than a completely new system of filters. “That really means for a few dollars when used on a standard issue MERV8, you can have huge indoor protection and stop its spread throughout the building,” he wrote.
Because of the nature of the nanocoating, Curran’s technology can help prevent viral droplet transmission long after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hydrophobic qualities of the coating prevent respiratory droplets from actions like sneezing or coughing from passing through the filter, while the HVAC system itself retains its normal capabilities for dry molecule filtration. With the Capture Coating, common droplet-transmitting viruses like the flu or cold will also be filtered out of circulation.
Similarly, the nanocoating would work in preventing transmission of any variant of the COVID-19 virus, as all of those variants also undergo droplet transmission. “It does not mean we get away from taking precautions such as hand washing, wearing masks etc, but it does mean we can work indoors far more safely,” wrote Curran.
So far, Curran Biotech’s Capture Coating technology is in use in 11 states, and will soon be announcing partnerships with distributors and filter companies to directly provide consumers with coated filters. Curran wrote that the company has also had successful trials of the technology in New York City, and hopes to expand use of the product even further across businesses and institutions around the country.
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