Startups woo Accelerate audience with climate, waste, ag solutions

Kathryn Cooper
Six entrepreneurs chosen to pitch in the Accelerate Showcase at VERGE 16 — from Sunswarm, UtilityAPI, Angstrom Byankuren, All Power Labs, RSM Traffic, Parjana Distribution, Nelumbo and Biome — stand with venture capitalists Lila Preston of Generation Investment Management and John Picard of John Picard Associates as well as Shana Rappaport, VERGE engagement director. Biome, maker of hydroponic walls for indoor environments, won.

We've updated this story with details about round two of the pitches.

A solution to city dwellers’ nature deprivation won the second day of the Accelerate Showcase at the VERGE 16 confab Thursday. The runner-up is a developer of a biomass digester that uses agricultural waste to create energy.

Following close at their heels were the maker of a water purification system and the developer of software to connect individuals to community solar projects.

At the GreenBiz VERGE event, the startup endeavors spanned the sustainability landscape — from carbon removal to advancing the circular economy to saving bees. Each pitch took 2 minutes before a roomful of tech innovators, investors and sustainability leaders.

Any one of these companies might become tomorrow's leaders against climate change, water scarcity or other grand problems, said Shana Rappaport, VERGE director of engagement. "It is ecosystems like this one, coming together not just as innovators but also potential corporate partners and VCs, that play such an important role in helping solutions scale," she said. 

Startups on Thursday pitched onstage to Lila Preston, a partner of Generation Investment Management, and John Picard, founder of John Picard & Associates. Six startups Tuesday presented to Dawn Lippert, managing director of Energy Excelerator; and Andrew Woodward, managing director of Prelude Capital. 

While veteran venture capitalists joined Rappaport in conversation with and about the entrepreneurs, the ballroom audience — and hundreds of others watching VERGE via webcast — cast votes to pick the winners.

Day Two

Biome (Thursday's winner)

Biome makes decorative hydroponic walls of 35 plants that it sells for offices or home, providing a wall of nature in the midst of work days or indoor life. The biome cleans indoor air because the plants eat carbon dioxide.

The problem:

We are biologically wired to live amid nature, and are dependent on the physical and psychological lift that being among trees brings. Yet 83 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. Nature deprivation has become a prevalent problem, and in workplaces a stunt to productivity. "I’m here to tell you nature is more than a destination that you go to on weekends. Our eyes are predisposed to it and our lungs predisposed to clean air," said Biome founder and CEO Collin Cavote. 

The solution: 

Biome has developed hydroponic walls — a wall of plants whose roots are bathed in nutrients and water but not planted in soil. The walls can be placed in offices, classrooms or even homes to clean the indoor air and provide the relief and well-being that a forest would.

"It can eat air pollution out of your air," Cavote said.

All Power Labs

All Power Labs created a biomass gasifier that takes in agricultural waste to produce energy and biochar, a natural fertilizer. (All Power Labs was an essential part of the microgrid that powered part of VERGE 16.)

The problem: 

California, besieged by drought and wildfires, has 66 million dead trees that are carbon time bombs waiting to go off in release of carbon dioxide and as fodder for deadly forest fires. How many trees is 66 million? That’s enough trees to go from here to the moon and back if laid down top to bottom. California has a goal to get 50 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030 along with slashing its carbon emissions.

The solution:

All Power Labs figures it has a solution for all three of these problems in one instrument. It has crated a biomass waste digester or gasifier that uses heat to turn biomass waste to energy and biochar, a key fertilizer, from its carbon by-products. Biochar is a good soil fertilizer. 

All Power Labs' other big market is struggling countries — Haiti and Liberia are two — because they lack electricity and their farmers need cheap easily available fertilizer. Its largest customer is the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Sunswarm

A community solar software platform to democratize solar. 

The problem: 

The U.S. government has declared it would like the country to reach 50 percent renewable power usage by 2050. It seems like a moon shot, especially as many households fear they cannot afford the upfront costs of installing solar arrays.  

Community solar is one answer to spreading solar in the residential market in that it lets groups of people share in both the costs and benefits. For renters and low-income households, it is a path to participate. But how do you find out about them?

The solution: 

Sunswarm has developed a software platform that CEO Aaron Clay describes as answering that dilemma by connecting people with community solar projects they can get involved in.

"I call it the Uber of solar energy," he said. Individuals can search the platform for community solar projects and carry out transactions to sign up to participate. Solar project developers can use Sunswarm to recruit households and participants.

Angstrom Byankuren (ABI)

Angstrom Byankuren created a water filtration process that gets at contaminants that city water filtration processes miss, claimed CEO Rob McGinnis.

The problem:  

As Flint, Michigan, revealed, we have problems with water quality in this country. There are contaminants in our water supply that shouldn’t be there. 

The solution:  

Angstrom Byakuren developed an advanced carbon nanotube filter to purify water at the molecular or angstrom level. The founders say that with the filters it is possible to remove all known toxins from drinking water, while retaining the healthy minerals that bodies need.

One of its filters is only 3 angstroms wide and lets only water through. Salts require 7 angstroms and industrial bacteriants 10 angstroms "and bacteria is much larger," McGinnis said. Water and salt can pass through but everything else is blocked.

UtilityAPI

Gets data out of utilities for solar and storage companies.

The problem:

"The process of doing that now is pen and paper or a fax machine and the flow of data between energy and utilities is a spaghetti mess," said Elena Lucas, CEO.

The solution:

"We are cleaning up that spaghetti mess" with an API. "The market is huge: It’s about storage, electricity and even property management." Utility API has developed a user interface for data that puts the data from various systems in one standard or language.

Day One

Evrnu

This circular economy play on making new fabric from thrown-out garments was the hands-down winner in the vote count.

 The problem: 

"Did you know it takes 700 gallons of water to make a T-shirt?" asked Stacey Flynn, founder and CEO of Evrnu, driving home the need for a better way to manufacture fabric. Moreover, fabric manufacturing is a massive carbon emitter because 60 percent of all clothing worldwide is made from petroleum — as in with polyester, she said. Manufacturing cotton textiles also leaves a significant environmental impact. And U.S. consumers throw away 14 million tons of garment waste a year.  

The solution:

Evrnu takes cotton-based garment waste, strips it of dyes and chemical processing and breaks it down into its constituent fiber molecules to be recombined for new fabric. The fabric is not only good for clothing but "is testing out to be three times stronger than steel" for a range of applications.

The  new fabric, made from converting the cotton garment waste to a pulp and extruding it to a new fiber, is "finer than silk and stronger than cotton," Flynn said, so it can be sold as a premium fabric.  

Bee Downtown

Another big vote-getter was Bee Downtown, whose founder aims to reverse bee extinction and pollinator loss by encouraging city businesses and organizations to host bee hives on their properties.

The problem:

Those buzzing beings that pollinate our plants and thus allow them to bear fruits and vegetables are dying off in masses around the world. "Last year, the U.S. lost 44 percent of its honeybees," said Bee Downtown founder Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, a fourth-generation beekeeper, citing a statistic widely quoted in reports.

Without bees, fruit-bearing plants don’t bear fruit, so maintaining bee species is not only kind to those creatures, but the food supply of humans depends upon it.

The solution:

"Recent experiments show that bees thrive in cities," Bonner said. Pesticide use and monoculture farming in agricultural areas are believed to be culprits in the loss of bees. Monoculture plants are not part of the city scene. And pesticide use is typically less common in cities, too.

Bee Downtown created a business model in which businesses, such as restaurants or schools or retailers, can provide locales for beehives. Bee Downtown will maintain them. The business gets all the honey it wants, sweetened by the positive public relations of helping bees.

Opus 12 

This scientific startup has a plan for reducing carbon emissions and making the chemical industry more benign to the planet.

The problem: 

Experts who analyze how the world will satisfy the Paris Accords say that reducing carbon emissions won't be enough. We actually have to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Many industrial sectors are actively pursuing low-carbon alternatives to their processes or creating low-carbon products.

"If you’ve seen Teslas, you’ve witnessed the tip of the iceberg in the electrification of everything," said Opus 12 co-founder Nicholas Flanders. "One sector absent from this trend is the chemical industry."  

Reliance on fossil fuels or petroleum as a basic feedstock in the chemical industry, especially in polymer-making, is almost as problematic as the reliance on fossil fuel generation by power plants. Why not tackle both problems?

The solution: 

Opus 12 is developing an electrochemical process to transform CO2 emissions into valuable liquids such as ethanol and liquids that can be used to create products. Flanders described this as a platform technology that enables the electrification of the chemical industry. 

"We split CO2 molecules — which is not something anyone has been able to do," he said. With this scientific base, Opus 12 is developing a technology to convert CO2 smokestack emissions into liquid fuels and chemicals for industry.

Smart Yields

"We are Fitbit for farms meets Moneyball for crops," said Smart Yields CEO Vincent Kimura.

The problem: 

In a drought-plagued era, farmers no longer can afford to waste water — nor can the earth afford wasted water or excess fertilizer and pesticide use. But small and medium-plot farmers don’t have the capital for the precision ag tools that are sweeping industrial farming.

"Farmers make decisions based on tradition or gut instinct," Kimura said.

The solution: 

Smart Yields has developed inexpensive, mobile data analytics software for small farmers.

"Our mobile platform helps farmers reduce waste in use water, chemicals and fertilizers, and saves them money," he said. The wireless ground sensors can pick up data on soil moisture or nutrient needs and provide the data analytics to farmers, similar to what larger precision-ag systems do for big industrial farms.

CURB 

This home energy monitor system plugs into electric circuit breakers.

The problem:  

"In most of our homes, it is virtually impossible to tell why our electricity bill from two or three months ago was so high," said Erik Norwood, founder and CEO of CURB. If a breakage occurs with an appliance, or something has been inadvertently left on, it often goes undetected. The result is the average home pays for at least 20 percent more energy than is being used.

The solution: 

"CURB takes advantage of the central hub that already exists inside your home: the circuit breaker box," he said. With this small system, a homeowner can plug into the circuit breaker box to collect data on energy use and distribution through the house.

This "allows you to know how much power everything in your home is costing you, and not just in confusing kilowatt hours but in dollars and cents," Norwood said.

Not only can you monitor how much energy your refrigerator is using or the computer in the kids' bedroom, but you can also turn those things off — remotely.  Basement light on? Hot iron still plugged in? No problem. Turn it all off from the office.

Swiftly

This entrepreneurial team is writing software for intelligent, connected transportation.

The problem: 

"By 2050, two-thirds of world’s population will be living in cities," said Swiftly CEO Jonny Simkin. 

While various ride-sharing and autonomous vehicle models have been put forward as potential sustainability answers to transportation, "we need more [than two or three] people per vehicle" to avoid massive carbon and congestion buildup in cities. "Ultimately, what will get us there is public transportation." Unfortunately, that's often unreliable, he noted. 

The solution: 

Swiftly developed an app to monitor transit networks in real time "to help transit operators improve operating performance of their networks and, secondly, to help riders optimize their commutes."

Its analytics platform shows transit agencies how they can improve operations. And "for riders, you enter your destination (in the app) and it shows you all of your options from public transport to renting a scooter if you’re in San Francisco, to walking." People in its cities testing the beta version of Swiftly's tool "have used the app 2.6 million times this year."

You could say they are going places.

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