In the shift to a sustainable low-carbon economy, creative startups can offer new solutions to addressing the causes and impacts of climate change. Last month, at GreenBiz’s annual climate tech conference, VERGE 21, 25 startups competed to win the event’s startup showcase, VERGE Accelerate.
At first, the startups were grouped into five categories — carbon, energy, food, mobility and water — and in these groups, founders presented their best 2.5-minute pitches to the audience. The winners of those sections — SupplyShift, Blue Frontier, Full Cycle Bioplastics, ChargeTrip and Epic Cleantec — then faced off against one another on the main stage on the last day of the conference for a final lightning round of pitches, with exciting results.
Although the competition was fierce, ultimately, Blue Frontier took home the trophy. Check out the winner and runners-up below.
And the winner is: Blue Frontier
As the world warms, the demand for air conditioning has skyrocketed. Air conditioners and fans accounted for about 10 percent of all global electricity consumption in 2018, according to the IEA, and that percentage will likely continue to grow as temperatures rise even higher. However, air conditioners are also major energy hogs — the old-fashioned technology is a major contributor to global warming, thanks to its inefficient use of electricity and its potential to leak potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
It’s a vicious cycle. Air conditioning is crucial for livability in extreme heat, getting worse because of the climate crisis. Daniel Betts, Blue Frontier’s CEO, is determined to break that cycle. He grew up in Panama, which has global annual temperatures ranging from 75 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. He can even remember the first time he felt air conditioning — at age 12, when he walked into a store in his town that had it.
One of Blue Frontiers AC units. Image via Holly Secon.
He went on to pursue an education in engineering and while receiving his Ph.D. studying fuel cell technology, he realized how much he could improve the technology in air conditioning units.
His innovative idea? To optimize one component of the AC unit called "desiccant," or the absorbing material that keeps the unit dry (other common desiccants include those small packets of beads of silica gel that come with everything from new shoes to bags of beef jerky).
The fluid that Blue Frontier uses is a unique salt solution that, when it undergoes a chemical change, has cooling capabilities and energy storage capacities. This innovation allows the unit to reduce electricity use by up to 90 percent because it stores thermochemical energy when it’s available and cleanest and cheapest (taking into account renewables and time-of-day rates). These Blue Frontier units would be able to directly replace the costly and inefficient Packaged Rooftop Units dominating the commercial building air conditioning market.
The company has raised its seed round and conducted its trials — now, the goal is to take the product to market by 2023. (2022 will be final validation tests, raising Series A and assembling the right go-to-market team.) Betts said that the business model for the company will be "HVAC-as-a-service," so building owners will rent from Blue Frontier, which will also provide maintenance. The first target markets are in Southern California and New York, where regulatory tailwinds for the commercial real estate sector are hoped to make for quick adoption, according to Betts.
Here’s hoping. As Betts said, making HVAC technology more efficient and affordable allows us to "stay comfortable without harming the environment."
The runner-up taking on carbon emissions: SupplyShift
Supply Shift helps companies track carbon emissions. Image via Holly Secon.
This startup has built a platform to improve transparency and resilience across a company’s supplier and buyer network. Just like Salesforce created an all-in-one customer-tracking software, SupplyShift aims to create a cloud-based network to track an entire supply chain’s emissions data.
Amid a global supply chain crisis and a growing number of corporate commitments to supply chain transparency and sustainability goals such as net-zero carbon emissions, granular insights are crucial for companies. However, they’re often tedious and take too long to prepare in-house.
SupplyShift’s suite of tools allows companies to input information on their suppliers once, then calculates key equations, allows for user-friendly searchability as well as benchmarks and scores these suppliers. This actionable data management is key to companies looking to make more sustainable decisions in their supply chain.
The runner-up replacing plastic with food waste: Full Cycle Bioplastics
This startup uses synthetic biology to create a natural plastic-like biopolymer, PHA, from organic waste.
As a replacement to conventional plastic, which uses petroleum, and other forms of bioplastics, which often rely on industrially cultivated food crops, Full Cycle Bioplastic’s process upcycles food and organic waste to create PHA bioplastics. Companies that generate organic waste or already operate manufacturing facilities can license this technology to create new revenue streams and meet their sustainability goals.
That tackles three global issues at the same time — plastic pollution, food waste and climate change, co-founder Jeff Anderson pointed out onstage.
The runner-up reducing range anxiety and making electrification easier: ChargeTrip
This software startup developed a mapping app specifically for electric vehicle drivers who face a unique set of issues. The app calculates the most efficient routes for EV drivers based on factors such as distance and road curvature, weather conditions and, of course, fuel cell charging stations’ locations and prices, all in real time.
The startup offers a solution for EV drivers’ range and charge anxieties, helping to break down adoption barriers. It’s already found a dedicated niche — 212,000 drivers in Europe use it, about 10 percent of all the EVs on the continent, according to its pitch, but the company plans to expand even more.
The runner-up creating new value from wastewater: Epic Cleantec
What originally started as a project in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's 2020 Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, a global competition to develop new toilet tech that safely and effectively manages human waste, has since become an innovative new venture in the water space. This California-based startup has developed a system to capture wastewater onsite and reuse it for non-potable streams such as laundry, irrigation, and toilet water.
Epic Cleantec’s system can reuse up to 95 percent of water onsite. Plus, the company takes a "one-stop shop approach" by taking care of the engineering, permitting, ongoing maintenance and construction assistance for its customers. This enables its customers, usually real estate companies, engineers and architects, to cut water costs, proactively manage maintenance and avoid overloading local public and private municipal utilities.
Of course, as judges from all four days of the competition noted, innovation is needed on all fronts to help cut emissions and help adapt to the impacts of climate change. VERGE Accelerate showcased the wide range of founders, technologies and solutions that are taking on that mantle.
Other startups that competed in VERGE Accelerate include:
- Sustainable forestry company EcoTree
- Emission-cutting finance app Joro
- Ocean hydrogen energy company Planetary Hydrogen
- Electronic fence startup Vence
- Customizable renewable energy marketplace WattBuy
- Climate data validation company ClearTrace
- Innovative lithium battery company Soteria
- Solar panel maintenance firm Solytic
- Insect-rearing technology company BetaHatch
- Upcycled vegetable broth concentrate maker Matriark
- Plant-based chicken startup Rebellyous Foods
- Kelp chip company 12 Tides
- Sustainable behavioral change and logistics platform Signol
- Ecommerce warehousing startup Parcelly
- Carpooling mobility app Skoot
- Green hydrogen tech company Alchemr
- Beverage production-targeted wastewater processor Aquacycl
- Sustainable toxin extraction company ecoSPEARS
- Water contamination-detection sensor startup Varuna
- IoT-enabled in-field water testing device company FREDsense