Outdoor startups see supercharged growth during COVID-19 era

After years of sustained growth, the pandemic supercharged the outdoor recreation industry. Startups that provide services like camper vans, private campsites and trail-finding apps became relevant to millions of new users when COVID-19 shut down indoor recreation, building on an existing boom in outdoor recreation.

Startups like Outdoorsy, AllTrails, Cabana, Hipcamp, Kibbo and Lowergear Outdoors have seen significant growth, but to keep it going, consumers who discovered a fondness for the great outdoors during the pandemic must turn it into a lifelong interest.

Outdoorsy, AllTrails, Cabana, Hipcamp, Kibbo and Lowergear Outdoors have seen significant growth, but to keep it going, consumers who discovered a fondness for the great outdoors during the pandemic must turn it into a lifelong interest.

Social media, increased environmentalism and high urbanization were already fueling a boom in popularity. There was a 72% increase in people who camp more than three times a year between 2014 and 2019, mostly spurred by young millennials, young families with kids and nonwhite participants.

But 2020 was a different animal: After months of shelter-in-place orders, widespread shutdowns and physical distancing, outdoors became the only location for safe socializing. In South Dakota, the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area saw a 59% increase in visitors from 2019 to 2020. In the pandemic year, consumers spent $887 billion on outdoor recreation according to the Outdoor Industry Association, more than pharmaceuticals and fuel combined.

And it’s going to continue to grow. Hiking equipment alone is supposed to reach a $7.4 billion market size by 2027, a 6.3% compound annual growth rate. Camping and caravanning is having an even more drastic moment. Without international travel, vacations shifted from flights to exotic resorts to domestic road trips, self-contained rentals and camping. In 2020, the market for camping and caravanning was almost $40 billion and is predicted to rise 13% to just over $45 billion this year.

After the initial and extreme drop-off in engagement early as national parks closed, private camping sites shut down and domestic travel ceased, many outdoor startups have had a breakout year. Outdoorsy, the peer-to-peer camper van rental marketplace, said it saw 44% of all bookings in the company’s history in 2020.

Campsite booking platform Hipcamp said it sent three times as much money to landowners in 2020 as compared to 2019. And it’s not just experienced outdoor veterans taking advantage of the work-from-home lifestyle: in 2020, Cabana, a camper van rental startup, said 70% of its customers had never rented a camper van or an RV before and another 26% had only done it once.

But a report commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association showed that the most popular outdoor activities were ones that people could do close to home, not the traveling kind Hipcamp, Cabana and Outdoorsy traffic in. The three most popular outdoor activities for newbies: walking, running and bicycling.

But the pandemic did create a small boost for camping, climbing, backpacking and kayaking; fueled by an increase in women, younger, more ethnically diverse, urban and slightly less wealthy people pushing into the outdoors. This class of outdoor startups will need to engage the new demographic shift to capitalize on the pandemic’s outdoor boom because, according to the report, a quarter of those who started new outdoor activities during the pandemic don’t plan on continuing once it’s over.

Startups are increasing accessibility to the outdoors

But getting into the outdoors can be overwhelming: there’s gear to buy, skills to learn, exploring unfamiliar areas and the added stressor of safety. Outdoor startups are working to lower the barrier to entry to help grow their businesses.

“I think anytime you have like 2,000 articles with two dozen tips on how to use a product, that tells me that it is really, really too hard to use,” said Cabana founder Scott Kubly. “To me, that says there’s nothing but friction in this process. If you want to build something that’s mainstream, you need to make it super consistent and really easy to use.”

Kubly said only half a percent of the U.S. population takes a rental van or RV trip each year. Planning an outdoor adventure can be time-consuming — choosing a location, finding an open campsite, planning meals and water, and figuring out dump stations for trash or septic. That planning is multiplied tenfold if you are going for a road trip or backpacking and need to find new places every other night.

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

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

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).

HY4 65kw system - zeroavia story

Image Credits: Credit: DLR

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

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 Base10 Partners; PopSugar co-founder Brian Sugar’s early-stage venture fund and angel investors like Ben Jabbawy, 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 plug-in 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

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.