Driving Change

Startup accelerator spotlights bright ideas amid dark days

Relectrify battery management, Plug and Play demo
Relectrify
Australian startup Relectrify, featured this week at the Plug and Play demo days, has developed a battery management system that can combine second-life EV battery packs with inverters for $150 per kilowatt-hour.

I got a solid taste this week of what our virtual post-coronavirus world will look like over the next several weeks or maybe longer. From the quiet of my San Francisco apartment, on Monday afternoon I tuned into a YouTube livestream of the Silicon Valley accelerator Plug and Play showing off a cohort of energy startups.

It wasn't exactly like being in the front row at the group's seasonal entrepreneur pitches, but it was a pretty good substitute. Kudos to the organizers for pulling it off and for also deciding that their other selection days for "mobility" and "internet-of-things" would be entirely virtual Tuesday and Wednesday. Plug and Play investor Milad Malek described the energy day as "one of the last [physical] events we'll be throwing for a while."

Fear of the virus might keep us from the same physical spaces for the time being. It'll also crash markets, divide us and sometimes bring out the worst in us.

But it won't easily clamp down on the innovation that will continue to march on from the seemingly irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit. Creators will keep on tinkering with ideas such as some of the ones I heard from the Plug and Play startups this week, but also more broadly around the emerging and exciting trend of climate tech

Here are just a few ideas that caught my fancy over the past week:

  • Deep learning for better last-mile delivery: Created by a former X engineer, Froglabs uses machine learning and weather data to help retailers determine if their deliveries might face delays. The same data tools and weather info also can make connections between other areas of climate and human patterns such as helping companies better predict the output of solar panel farms. Froglabs raised a seed round of funding last year including from Plug and Play (they're also in Y Combinator). 
  • Cheaper, smarter EV chargers: The CEO of Ampcontrol.io, Joachim Lohse, described the company's service as "helping more companies install more chargers at lower costs." It sells AI-based smart charging software to charging infrastructure companies, which face high capital costs, long construction timelines and sometimes high demand charges when deploying EV chargers. The company is working with European charging network and e-mobility company Has-To-Be. 
  • Unlocking second-life EV batteries for the grid: An Australian startup called Relectrify has developed a battery management system that can combine second-life EV battery packs with inverters for $150 per kilowatt-hour. The low price means that battery makers, utilities and auto manufacturers actually might be interested in developing an ecosystem around repurposing EV batteries for grid storage.

These are just a few big ideas coming out of innovation hubs around the globe that can accelerate transportation electrification and boost clean energy. And yes, amidst the enthusiasm, startups — like many businesses in general — will face some difficult times in the coming months.

Last week, one of the most respected venture capital firms, Sequoia Capital, sent a note to its founders and CEOs calling coronavirus "the black swan of 2020." Sequoia urged companies to take measures such as maintaining a cash runway, getting ready for a drop in sales forecasts and reining in capital spending.

But meanwhile, we can't forget there's another crisis underway: climate change. I've been increasingly emboldened this year that tech companies and startups alike have seemed to be taking the climate crisis ever more seriously. And more entrepreneurs and investors are "awakening" to climate tech and its emerging opportunity.

This article is adapted from GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, Transport Weekly, running Tuesdays. Subscribe here.

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