How innovators in 4 emerging markets are accelerating the clean economy
Mission-driven companies are trying to tackle systemic challenges in sustainability with electrification, renewable energy, biomaterials and data management software.
Two days, four emerging markets, 14 startups. Continuing the tradition that began in 2012, GreenBiz Group’s VERGE 19 conference two weeks ago in Oakland, California, saw over a dozen innovators whose products, services and technologies offer great promise to advance the clean economy and reverse climate change.
VERGE Accelerate is a competition where early-stage startups present a 2.5-minute pitch to a group of startup experts — from investors to advisers — on the mainstage, as well as to conference attendees. Accelerate is interactive, too: The expert panel can give feedback on the solutions that the startups are developing, and the conference-goers can vote for their favorite startup. This year, the contestants are divided into two groups: circular and carbon; and energy and transport. (The startups are presented here in the order of winners from both categories, as well as other notable presentations in no particular order).
Genecis, a startup that turns food waste into bioplastics, won the hearts of the audience in the circular and carbon category. It promises to replace fossil fuel-based chemicals used in plastics production with PHAs, the natural biopolymers produced by microorganisms such as bacteria. These PHAs are usually too expensive to produce, but by using food waste as the input source, Genecis was able to drop the cost of production by 40 percent. Its approach also reduces carbon emissions caused by plastics production by 80 percent and features end-of-life use cases for bioplastics, creating a circular loop. These bioplastics are home compostable, recyclable and biodegradable. "We're really creating the next-gen building blocks of our world and crafting a world made by bacteria," said growth and partnership lead Robert Celik.
With doses of humor, a spoonful of hard science and a pinch of luck, this two-man team that built a homemade wind turbine in a garage made the winning pitch for energy and transport. Their product is a wind turbine with vertical axes whose diameter expands to 79 inches. It can generate a great deal of power with little to no noise — with the wind speed at 12 miles per hour, the turbine can generate 160 watts of power, which translates to about 15 percent of what an American household needs every year, said co-founder John Hyatt.
This versatile version transforms wind energy into power at an efficiency comparable to industrial turbines, while only costing about $1,000 to produce. It even can be folded into the size of a yoga mat and easily mounted anywhere: on vehicles, homes, yachts — even the HyperLoop, Hyatt said.
This startup developed a software that digitizes microgrid maintenance for people on the front lines of industrial power and rural electrification. Many maintenance tasks over the world are still done with pen and paper, which creates inaccuracy, risks and costs heavily for shortened asset life, said CEO Piper Foster Wilder. 60Hertz Microgrids designed an offline-first app for people who can afford a cheap smartphone but lack access to bandwidth, data or have low literacy. This pitch was a close second in the energy and transport category, wowing the audience and the expert plenary with user-focused storytelling.
This startup saved the University of Chicago $1 million and diverted one ton of waste from the landfill in two days, a result that impressed the expert plenary for the circular and carbon category. Its asset exchange manager technology helps organizations track and manage more niche resources that are hard to recycle, allowing universities, corporations, governments and even retailers to list unused assets and make them available to others who might need or want them. These assets range from an antibody for green fluorescent protein to a Chevy Blazer to an assortment of ballpoint pens to material flows. Its platform even can give data insights to help these organizations more systematically manage assets in the future. Rheaply’s vision is to make resources discoverable, easily transferable and more valuable in the global economy, CEO Garry Cooper said. It’s technology to scale the circular economy.
This blockchain-backed carbon removal credit marketplace aims to help individuals and companies "emit less and remove the rest." Compared to existing marketplaces, Nori focuses solely on carbon removal. Here’s how it works: Farmers store CO2 in their soil, a form of regenerative agricultural practice, and use the Nori platform to quantify how much carbon is stored. Then they can sell these carbon removal credits to individuals or companies who wish to offset their own carbon footprints. Buyers will get a certificate proving their ownership of carbon removals. Nori’s low verification cost attracts more people to sign up, which allows more farmers to get paid for carbon sequestration. The transparent blockchain technology ensures that carbon removal credits are only counted once, increasing buyer trust.
The demand for high-quality timber is driving global deforestation and damaging our environment. This startup is rethinking the materials we use for our built environment to answer the question: what if we could create wood — without trees? Taking agricultural crops such as flax, including waste, Lingrove developed high-performing plant fibers that function as timber. Available as veneers for interiors, the material called Ekoa is lighter than carbon fiber, stiffer than steel and can have a variety of colors, finishes and translucency. It’s also compatible with other materials. At scale, Lingrove’s products would be the equivalent of taking 97 million cars off the road, co-founder Elaine Chow said. (For full disclosure, Elaine Chow is a winner of GreenBiz’s VERGE Vanguard this year.)
As its name suggests, this startup aims to combine solar energy generation with real estate. Currently, there is a lot of untapped potential on vertical buildings, whose facades can generate massive amounts of solar energy and offset greenhouse gas emissions. With a technical platform and a network of experts, SolarSkyrise can assess how much solar potential a building has through data visualization and analysis. It also helps with the actual integration of solar technology on building projects, said Chief Development Officer Alisa Kreynes. As an example, she identified the Oakland Marriott Hotel — where VERGE 19 was taking place — as capable of generating 400,000 kwh of green energy per year. That is equal to 278 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions offset on an annual basis. Globally, at least 5 percent of over 46 million commercial buildings can become bankable projects.
Other startups include Electriphi, Sinai, Rejoule, Element 16, Nanogrid, NovoNutrients and Swirltex, focusing on areas such as electrification, water conservation, renewable energy and carbon sequestration, all of which showed impressive innovation and results that gave all of us at VERGE 19 more hope for a cleaner, more sustainable future.