Drowning in trash: Google opens applications for circular-economy accelerator

Google is spinning up a new, online-only startup accelerator centered around the elusive circular economy. The effort is Google’s latest to help environmentally focused startups grow while potentially hooking them on its cloud products in the process.

In the broadest of strokes, the circular economy represents a colossal shift in how humanity makes and uses stuff. Instead of primarily harvesting raw materials to produce goods that wind up incinerated, or in oceans or landfills, the circular economy offers an alternative where stuff is deliberately reused, repaired and recycled over and over again. On the whole, this is not how the world works, but the concept has gained ground among experts, as well as some corporations and lawmakers, in response to humanity’s runaway waste and climate crises.

“Every year, humanity consumes far more than what the planet can naturally replenish,” wrote Google circular economy lead Mike Werner on the company’s blog. “We need to rebuild our relationship with physical resources and how we make, process, use and recycle them,” he added, citing fashion and food among the industries that applicants might focus on.

Applications for the accelerator opened today, October 3, and will close on November 14 ahead of a February 2023 start. The 10-week program targets startups and non-profit groups in the Asia-Pacific region and North America, offering mentorship and technical support “through a mix of 1-to-1 and 1-to-many learning sessions,” per Google.

As with other “Google for Startups”-branded accelerators — such as its climate program from earlier this year — the search and advertising giant isn’t taking equity nor is it offering capital through the program. 

Google has announced so many sustainability and climate-focused efforts to date that it’s difficult to keep tabs on them all, yet the nearly $1.3 trillion company has also been called out for its banking practices, which indirectly finance fossil fuel development. The problems don’t end there: Google data centers gulp down water to stay cool, raising concerns in communities where water is scarce. Google is also a major player in the smartphone industry, which has an alarming track record of its own, regarding both the environment and its treatment of workers.

Drowning in trash: Google opens applications for circular-economy accelerator by Harri Weber originally published on TechCrunch

The biological theory that explains why investors are bullish on fusion

For decades, the answer to when fusion power would arrive was like the punchline to an oft-repeated joke — it was always 10 or 20 years away. Now, it might actually be on the cusp of commercialization.

No, really.

If that refrain sounds all too familiar, it’s because, well, something like that was written 10 years ago. Fusion research has been simmering for decades. But now, it’s reaching a boiling point, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this time will be different.

For a field that has existed for more than 60 years, a lot has happened in fusion research in the last half-decade. Researchers have set new records for how long they can contain the superheated plasma that fusion requires. Magnets to contain those plasmas have grown stronger and more efficient. As a result, the power produced by each fusion experiment has ramped up steadily, creeping closer to the point where the reactors produce more power than they consume, known as the break-even point.

“The reason to be excited about fusion now is the same reason to be excited about computers in the 1940s when someone invented the transistor.” Breakthrough Energy Ventures partner Phil Larochelle

It’s as though fusion research were a race, but the different groups competing weren’t sure where they were on the course. Then, suddenly, they all spotted the finish line: reactors creating as much power as they gobble up.

Buoyed by those results, investors are betting large amounts of money that fusion will soon banish the ghosts of its past: Fusion startups raised $2.7 billion in the last year alone, according to a TechCrunch analysis of PitchBook data.

Such a sudden burst of progress across a number of different approaches might seem implausible at first glance. At the very least, it cuts against the popular narrative of the lone genius making a key discovery that cracks the problem once and for all. But it suggests that fusion power’s time has arrived.

“Are we at an inflection point in fusion?” said Eric Toone, technical lead of the investment committee at Breakthrough Energy Ventures. “We absolutely believe so.”

Breakthrough is one of a handful of investors that have placed sizable bets on fusion power becoming a reality. Started by Bill Gates, Breakthrough joined a $1.8 billion Series B for Commonwealth Fusion Systems last year, its third investment in the startup. (Gates personally joined that round, too.) Chevron and Google in July led a $250 million Series G for TAE Systems, which has been around since 1998. Helion Energy raised $500 million last year, led by Sam Altman. Zap Energy closed a $160 million round earlier this year.

That’s a lot of money riding on a yet-unproven technology. Fusion power isn’t preordained, of course — humanity isn’t fated to control the power of the sun. But the recent momentum created by three technological advances suggests we’re closer than ever. And that frenzy can be explained by a concept drawn from a very different field of study: evolutionary biology.

The biological theory that explains why investors are bullish on fusion by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch

New York follows California mandating zero-emissions vehicles by 2035

All new passenger cars, pickup trucks and SUVs sold in New York state must be zero emissions by 2035, Governor Kathy Hochul announced Thursday.

“By revving up our clean transportation transition and making major investments to make EVs more accessible, we’re supercharging our fight against climate change,” Hochul tweeted.

To reach the 2035 goal, Hochul said 35% of new cars will need to be zero-emission by 2026 and 68% by 2030. New school buses have until 2027 to meet these standards, with the entire fleets required to be zero-emissions by 2035, according to Hochul.

The new legislation, which will require new cars to be either electric or hydrogen, comes a month after California’s Air Resources board voted to also phase out the sale of new gas-powered cars in the state. New York is the second state to make such a mandate, and signals that others will soon follow.

“We had to wait for California to take a step because there’s some federal requirements that California had to go first — that’s the only time we’re letting them go first,” the governor said in a press conference Thursday, according to The Hill.

Per the 1970 Clean Air Act, California was authorized by Congress to set its own emissions standards for vehicles. Other states are allowed to adopt California’s policies, but they can’t implement their own standards. As a result, California has to lead the way for any state-led enforcements of stricter emissions rules.

The governor also announced Thursday a $10 million investment in the state’s Drive Clean Rebate Program. The program offers New Yorkers a rebate of up to $2,000 for the purchase of over 60 electric car models that, coupled with a federal tax rebate of $7,500, could make the switch to electric significantly more affordable. The state has already issued almost 80,000 rebates and spent more than $92 million on the program, the governor said.

“Adopting this program sends a loud and clear message to carmakers that New Yorkers want electric vehicles,” said Leah Meredith, principal at Advanced Energy Economy, a trade association. “With electric vehicles in high demand but currently in short supply, carmakers are prioritizing the states that speak up, and the Governor’s announcement helps ensure that New Yorkers will have the full range of electric vehicle models to choose from. And by increasing the number of new electric vehicles in New York, this program will also quicken the development of a robust market for used electric vehicles.”

Last week, the New York Power Authority announced its 100th high-speed charger installation in the EVolve NY statewide EV charging network. These charging stations can be found along major travel corridors, like from Buffalo to Albany or from the Adirondacks to Long Island. EVolve NY has committed up to $250 million through 2025 to expand its network of chargers.

New York State will also get $175 million from the infrastructure bill’s $5 billion total allocation for EV charging networks across the country, according to Hochul. The governor said the expansion of widely available charging infrastructure will help increase the sale of EVs in the state.

New York follows California mandating zero-emissions vehicles by 2035 by Rebecca Bellan originally published on TechCrunch

As extreme weather events worsen, 7Analytics meshes AI and big data to predict flooding

Anyone who has followed global news events of late will have noticed the devastating floods that have engulfed pretty much every corner of the world, from the U.S. and Europe, to Africa, Australia, and Asia, where India and Pakistan have been hit by some of their worst floods in recent memory.

By pretty much all accounts, such climate change-driven disasters are only going to get worse. And while there are varying opinions on what — if anything — we can do to avert such catastrophes in the future, some companies are looking at ways to plan for this new reality, and at least go some way toward mitigating the impact of flooding.

One of these companies is 7Analytics, a Norwegian startup founded back in 2020 by a team of data scientists and geologists to reduce the risks of flooding for construction and energy infrastructure companies. With its first product, FloodCube, 7Analytics serves customers with AI and advanced machine learning techniques to calculate current surface water and where it’s flowing today (the “runoff”), then models how that will look in the future with increased rainfall.

So in effect, FloodCube is more about predicting how a flood will unfold, showing exactly where water is likely to accumulate based on various environmental factors. While it’s possible to achieve this already today through combining multiple software programs and manual calculations, FloodCube brings everything together under one roof.

FloodCube in action Image Credits: 7Analytics

Show me the data

As with just about any AI and ML-infused software, large data sets are pivotal to 7Analytics’ promise — it gathers data from openly available sources spanning digital elevation models (DEM) for terrain, satellite imaging, and climate data, then integrates these sources to make it easier for users to derive insights from. Its customers include the Municipality of Bergen where 7Analytics is headquartered, multinational construction giant Skanska, and engineering consultancy Multiconsult. And this gives a strong indication as to who 7Analytics is targeting, and who is most likely to care about predicting future flooding scenarios — protecting urban infrastructure is very much the name of the game here.

“Today, most developers and real estate owners know very little about their exposure to flood risk,” 7Analytics cofounder Jonas Toland told TechCrunch. “We close this gap with a high-precision risk tool.”

While its technology is mainly used by construction companies in Norway for now, 7Analytics is expanding into new areas such as energy infrastructure, and is currently in talks with a handful of energy companies in the U.S. To help, 7Analytics’ has partnered with StormGeo, a weather service and meteorological company that essentially tailors risk data for specific business use-cases — such as disaster management in ship-routing, or energy production sites. In short, 7Analytics is helping StormGeo “enhance” its existing offering to its oil and gas customers, which includes companies in Houston, Texas.

“Our product takes a real-time StormGeo weather forecast — for example, the risk of rainfall tomorrow — and translates it into actionable risk info, such as their site is at risk of x-inches of flooding tomorrow,” Toland explained. “This information can be used to inform them whether their staff will be able to use the parking lot, or to reroute supply trucks [for example].”

Startups to the rescue?

Recent data from reinsurance company Swiss Re suggests that extreme global weather events cost insurers $101 billion last year, apparently only the third time since 1970 this figure has surpassed $100 billion. And Hurricane Ida alone reportedly caused at least $50 billion in damages, depending on what figures we’re to believe. As such, we’re seeing all manner of climate-tech startups enter the fray, even companies that weren’t initially focused on climate at all. Yesterday, TechCrunch wrote about a six-year-old company called VRAI, which initially delivered VR simulation training to the aerospace and defence sectors, but is now expanding into renewable energy, where it will focus on helping to upskill the European workforce and support plans to increase offshore wind energy capacity in the coming decade.

Elsewhere, Australia’s FloodMapp recently raised $8.5 million to serve real-time flood forecasts, while last year we wrote about New York-based Forerunner, which is developing a flood plain management platform.

To take things to the next level now that it’s officially entered the U.S. market, 7Analytics today announced that it has raised $2.5 million in a seed round of funding led by sustainability-focused VC firm Momentum Partners, with participation from Construct Venture and Obos VC. While this funding will help 7Analytics expand both in Europe and the U.S., the company said that it eventually plans to use its technology to model for other “nature risks,” including landslides and biodiversity.

“Everything we build is rigged for global use, so we are scaling our model fast across continents,” Toland said. “At the same time, we need to consider that our cities are different both in terms of topography, climate, and how they are built. Our models are easy to adapt for new use cases which is underlined by the various customer groups we have onboarded  — from construction developers to municipal caseworkers and infrastructure owners.”

As extreme weather events worsen, 7Analytics meshes AI and big data to predict flooding by Paul Sawers originally published on TechCrunch

Fairphone adds fully refurbished handsets to its modular reuse mix

Away from the premium smartphone feature-utility hyperbole swirling around dynamic islands, mobile devices remain much of a muchness. But ethical mobile brand Fairphone has always done innovation differently — applying attention to supply chain conditions and novel modularity to support repairability and lifespan longevity, with a dual mission to make consumer electronics more ethical and sustainable.

It’s now added another string to its sustainability bow by selling a (limited) stock of its 2019 flagship, the Fairphone 3, as refurbished handsets — which come with a two-year warranty.

It said the refurbished Fairphone 3 devices are on sale from today — offered as a more environmentally conscientious alternative to purchasing last year’s Fairphone 4 flagship (aka, its first 5G handset).

This means you can pick up a three-year-old Fairphone 3 with the promise that it’ll work for (at least) another couple of years. That represents a decent run for an Android-based smartphone — akin to iPhone-levels of device longevity. (NB: Fairphone has previously achieved seven years of software support for the Fairphone 2 by getting Android 10 running on the 2015-released device.)

The “New Life Edition” of the Fairphone 3 is being sold for €359. 

The Fairphone 3 is already modular, so owners of the device have always been able to avoid the need for a full upgrade by paying to replace only parts that break or otherwise need a boost.

Fairphone said it will also be offering refurbished Fairphone 3+ handsets in the coming weeks. The latter was already backwards compatible with the Fairphone 3 and available as a €70 upgrade by swapping out a few modules (vs buying a whole new Fairphone handset).

The Dutch social enterprise is now taking that reuse agenda a little further by bringing fully refurbished handsets to market — offering an entry point to its reusable, modular mobiles that comes with an even lower carbon footprint since the handset you’re buying has already been pre-owned.

“These pre-owned phones have been refurbished in France and tested to ensure 100% functionality,” said Fairphone in a press announcement about the refurbished device sale which notes the second-hand devices will come with a new or “almost-new” battery that it said “guarantees at least 80% of the original capacity”.

There is limited stock of the refurbished phones — so sales will only continue while stocks last.

“They have the same 2-year manufacturing warranty originally reserved for new devices of this model,” Fairphone added.

The market for second hand smartphones has been heating up for years as the mobile market has matured and hardware innovation has become increasingly incremental — driving major investments into reseller marketplaces such as France’s Back Market and Finland’s (iPhone-focused) Swappie, to name two.

Environmental concerns are also encouraging consumers to look toward pre-owned mobiles — and opt for reuse vs buying new.

Fairphone adds fully refurbished handsets to its modular reuse mix by Natasha Lomas originally published on TechCrunch