The Monarch could be the next big thing in Braille

For many people around the world, braille is their primary language for reading books and articles, and digital braille readers are an important part of that. The newest and fanciest yet is the Monarch, a multipurpose device that uses the startup Dot’s tactile display technology.

The Monarch is a collaboration between HumanWare and the American Printing House for the Blind. APH is an advocacy, education, and development organization focused on the needs of visually impaired people, and this won’t be their first braille device — but it is definitely the most capable by far.

Called the Dynamic Tactile Device until it received its regal moniker at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference happening this week in Anaheim. I’ve been awaiting this device for a few months, having learned about it from APH’s Greg Stilson when I interviewed him for Sight Tech Global.

The device began development as a way to adapt the new braille pin (i.e. the raised dots that make up its letters) mechanism created by Dot, a startup I covered last year. Refreshable braille displays have existed for many years, but they’ve been plagued by high costs, low durability, and slow refresh rates. Dot’s new mechanism allowed for closely-placed, individually replaceable, easily and quickly raisable pins at a reasonable cost.

APH partnered with HumanWare to adopt this new tech into a large-scale braille reader and writer code-named the Dynamic Tactile Device, and now known as Monarch.

These days one of the biggest holdups in the braille reading community is length and complexity of the publishing process. A new book, particularly a long textbook, may need weeks or months after being published for sighted readers before it is available in braille — if it is made available at all. And of course once it is printed, it is many times the size or the original, because braille has a lower information density than ordinary type.

A woman holds a Monarch braille reader next to a stack of binders making up an “Algebra 1” textbook.

“To accomplish the digital delivery of textbook files, we have partnered with over 30 international organizations, and the DAISY Consortium, to create a new electronic braille standard, called the eBRF,” explained an APH representative in an email. “This will provide additional functionality to Monarch users including the ability to jump page to page (with page numbers matching the print book pages numbers), and the ability for tactile graphics directly into the book file, allowing the text and graphics to display seamlessly on the page.”

The graphic capability is a serious leap forward. A lot of previous braille readers were only one or two lines, so the Monarch having 10 lines of 32 cells each allows for reading the device more like a person would a printed (or rather embossed) braille page. And because the grid of pins is continuous, it can also — as Dot’s reference device showed — display simple graphics.

Of course the fidelity is limited, but it’s huge to be able to pull up a visual on demand of a graph, animal, or especially in early learning, a letter or number shape.

Now, you may look at the Monarch and think, “wow, that thing is big!” And it is pretty big — but tools for people with vision impairments must be used and navigated without the benefit of sight, and in this case also by people of many ages, capabilities, and needs. If you think of it more like a rugged laptop than an e-reader, the size makes a lot more sense.

There are a few other devices out there with continuous pin grids (a reader pointed out the Graphiti), but it’s as much about the formats and software as it is about the hardware, so let’s hope everyone gets brought in on this big step forward in accessibility.

The Monarch could be the next big thing in Braille by Devin Coldewey originally published on TechCrunch

Elemental aims to pump $43M into climate startups with ‘deep community impact’

Elemental Excelerator, a nonprofit investor in climate-tech startups including BlocPower and ChargerHelp, says it’s “doubling down” in the wake of Silicon Valley Bank‘s collapse.

Elemental intends to pump $43 million more into climate-tech startups — $13 million of which will be set aside for its twelfth accelerator program, beginning in October. The investor hasn’t secured all of the money yet; it is “in the process of raising the funds,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

In a nod to both the VC slowdown and the run on SVB, Elemental said it intends for the cash to “fill funding gaps” and “accelerate climate solutions with deep community impact.” Climate tech evaded the funding drought of 2022, but the fall of SVB seems to have rattled the sector, given the bank’s longtime work with climate tech startups. 

Elemental’s interests are about as broad as climate tech itself — spanning electric vehicles, energy storage, recycling tech, cement decarbonization, seaweed cultivation and composting.

The firm’s funding target represents a step up from prior years. In 2022, it put up $8 million for 17 climate startups, offering them between $300,000 and $600,000 apiece. This time around, Elemental wants to pump between $350,000 and $1 million into up to 20 ventures.

As for the remaining $30 million, Elemental chief executive Dawn Lippert told TechCrunch that the nonprofit will “invest in an additional $30 million in catalytic project funding for three to six scale-up projects.” The firm said the startup-run projects must show they’ll have “deep impact,” which it defines as “demonstrable” greenhouse gas cuts and “significant positive community impact.” 

Elemental takes equity in exchange for its investments. Lippert told TechCrunch that the nonprofit “invests any upside from these investments into supporting future entrepreneurs.”

To date, Elemental says it has invested $43 million into climate-tech businesses.

Elemental aims to pump $43M into climate startups with ‘deep community impact’ by Harri Weber originally published on TechCrunch

Unearthly Materials claimed to have big-name investors, but they weren’t all on board

Ever since they were discovered over 100 years ago, superconductors have seemed a bit magical.

You might have seen one on YouTube, levitating above a pool of liquid nitrogen, shrouded in vapor as the super-chilled seventh element boils off. Or maybe you’ve been inside a much larger one that was cooled by liquid helium, generating tremendous magnetic and radio waves that allowed doctors to peer inside your body as part of an MRI.

Even with their delicate temperature requirements, superconductors have become key players in science, medicine and technology. So you can imagine the excitement when earlier this month, a team of scientists led by Ranga Dias, a professor at the University of Rochester in New York, claimed in a paper that they’d created a room-temperature superconductor, one that exhibits the same magical properties at 69.8 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact.

If the claims are true, and if scientists are able to refine the product further, it could become a truly transformative technology. Fusion reactors, which rely on superconducting magnets to confine the blazing hot plasma, would grow smaller and cheaper. The electrical grid would stand to be transformed, as lossless superconductors would make transcontinental power lines a reality. Maglev trains might stop being the butt of jokes and become a real alternative to air travel.

In order to capitalize on their research, Dias and Ashkan Salamat, co-author on the paper, founded a company called Unearthly Materials.

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube recording of a virtual talk Dias gave to a Sri Lankan scientific society and university in which he claimed to have raised a $1 million seed round and a $20 million Series A for Unearthly Materials.

In his presentation, Dias claimed to have prominent investors, too. The $1 million seed round featured Union Square Ventures’ Albert Wenger, Spotify’s Daniel Ek, Dolby chairman Peter Gotcher and Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus. The Series A included Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Open AI’s Sam Altman; Ek and Hinrikus followed up.

Though its website is spare, and LinkedIn lists just six employees, Unearthly Materials is not exactly a secret. But at the same time, the company isn’t tracked on PitchBook and doesn’t appear on Crunchbase. It’s unusual for a widely publicized startup to raise $20 million without writing a blog post or issuing a press release.

Holy grail of materials science

Unearthly Materials claimed to have big-name investors, but they weren’t all on board by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch

Rawr? Green Li-ion recharges with $20.5M to scale its recycling tech

Green Li-ion says its battery recycling machines are the “size of a small house,” so it’s no wonder the Singapore-based startup needed to top up on funds. It’d only raised about $15 million ahead of its latest cash infusion.

This week, Green Li-ion announced a $20.5 million “pre-Series B” round led by climate-tech investor TRIREC. The startup said other investors, including SOSV and Equinor Ventures (the VC arm of the Norway-owned fossil fuel giant), also chipped in.

The deal boosts Green Li-ion’s post-money valuation to $187 million after just three years, chief executive Leon Farrant told TechCrunch. The startup’s logo is (you guessed it!) a green lion.

The new cash will help the startup scale production of its recycling tech, which the firm says can process “100% of all used lithium batteries” and pop out precursor cathode active material that’ll eventually go into fresh lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium is in high demand and mining the metal wreaks havoc on the environment, making recycling tech a crucial tool in lowering the footprint of things like electric cars and storage for renewable energy.

A time lapse of Green Li-ion's recycling machines being installed in a large warehouse.

Image Credits: Green Li-ion

Green Li-ion doesn’t recycle batteries itself; it licenses its tech to battery makers and recyclers, including Aleon and TES (which is owned by SK, the South Korea-based fossil fuel giant). Green Li-ion aims to crank out 50 recycling units per year via two factories — one in Houston, Texas and another in Singapore.

As for that “pre-Series B,” Farrant said the startup has split its Series B into two parts, which encompasses the raise announced this week and another in about nine months. “Due to our relatively low levels of fund raising to date,” the founder added, the startup “needed to draw a line in the sand and establish a valuation increase for the larger portion of the raise.”

Rawr? Green Li-ion recharges with $20.5M to scale its recycling tech by Harri Weber originally published on TechCrunch