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NeoCarbon wants industrial cooling towers to join the climate fight



NeoCarbon, a Berlin-based climate tech startup that’s taking a retrofitting approach to scaling direct air capture (DAC) devices for uptake of CO2 emissions has nabbed pre-seed funding. Its focus is on developing DAC kit that can be installed (retrofitted) inside working cooling towers in the industrial sector — thereby, its pitch runs, slashing the cost of drawing down carbon emissions.

The €1.25M pre-seed round, which was co-led by PropTech1 and Speedinvest, will be used for the next phase of development as NeoCarbon works on turning its current, lab-based proof of concept into a pilot prototype in a commercial facility — hopefully early next year. So it’ll be using the pre-seed funds for that, including expanding its engineering team to get an MVP in shape for a first pilot in the coming months.

It’s initial focus is on retrofitting DAC to smaller scale industrial cooling towers — rather than the gigantic towers you might see at a power station. (Or indeed the really tiny units you might find on a shopping center or office building.) Though it says it hopes, longer term, to develop tech for really large towers too. But it argues that even smaller industrial towers process a lot of air and can therefore capture meaningful quantities of CO2 — and, well, the climate crisis isn’t going to hang around and wait for huge projects to kick off so its philosophy is start smaller to scale faster.

“Our sweet spot in the coming, let’s say, 2-3 years, will be 1-10 megawatts of cooling power,” says co-founder and CTO Silvain Toromanoff, talking to TechCrunch over Zoom. “And those are already in the thousands of tonnes of capture potential per year.”

“We did a very early proof of concept (POC) in the early days, in February,” he goes on. “Now today we are finalizing our very first, what we call, MVP — so it’s still very small scale. But the POC was very low budget and more like quantitive. Now we are finalizing, basically this week, the prototype MVP which will be more qualitative results.

“We haven’t started yet measurements and tests with it but it’s basically in the finalizing stage of actually getting it to work.”

While DAC sounds great in theory — using chemicals to literally suck problematic emissions out of the air! — human activity is generating vast amounts of CO2 (NeoCarbon cites the relevant stat as 51 billion tons per year) so you’d need an awful lot of DAC to make a dent in the climate crisis.

But one big barrier to scaling DAC is the cost of implementation.

NeoCarbon’s tactic for cutting the cost of DAC is to focus on repurposing existing industrial infrastructure which already has the right conditions to suck carbon out of the air — after all, cooling towers are designed to have a lot of air flowing through them — meaning there’s no need to build a whole new CO2-capturing edifice. (Though you do have to be sure your tech can adapt to varying installation conditions.)

Hence it claims it will be able to reduce the costs of DAC by up to 10x — making DAC “mass-market ready”, as its pitch puts it.

CO2 going down the chimney

Another consideration with direct air capture is, well, what do you do with the captured CO2?

If you do something that simply releases it into the atmosphere again you’re — at best — delaying rather than cutting emissions. Which isn’t going to cut it if you’re claiming to have a tech to help the climate crisis.

In the short term, NeoCarbon says its approach to this issue is to focus on sites where captured CO2 could be repurposed by the industrial facility itself — such as vertical farms (which use CO2 to feed plants), or carbonated drinks makers (which use the stuff for liquid fizz).

This is another reason why it’s settled on retrofitting industrial cooling towers — since they can be located in proximity to a business need for CO2 — allowing the carbon dioxide to be usefully fed back into commercial processes as a raw material. (Plus, as well as climate considerations, it argues there can be wider business benefits, such as bolstering supply chain resilience and reducing manufacturing costs as CO2 has faced some shortages and price spikes in recent years.)

This circularity will only enable the creation of carbon neutral processes, though. So, longer term, Toromanoff says it’s planning to partner with facilities that would plug (or rather pipe) captured CO2 into carbon permanent storage facilities so that actual sequestering can take place (aka, carbon capture & storage) — thereby dangling the possibility of DAC playing its part in reducing climate heating emissions. (“We have already a few LOIs (letters of intent) and discussions around storage partnerships — let’s say for early 2024 for the first projects,” notes Toromanoff on that.)

Again, it’s betting that infrastructure for sequestering carbon is most likely to be built out in locations that feature the sorts of industrial cooling towers it’s targeting — since industries like manufacturing and farming face rising pressure to tackle large carbon footprints.

So, more generally, its strategy to drive uptake of DAC is to zero in on a dovetailing of needs that it reckons will foster the right conditions for scaling the tech — and so scaling DAC’s utility as a climate-change mitigation measure — as well as for growing a technology licensing business around that.

The target customers for licensing its DAC tech for cooling towers — which is the piece it wants to focus on as a business, along with scaling uptake of its tech — could end up being cooling tower manufacturers themselves. After all, they have plenty of built infrastructure but aren’t a modern industry so are likely to lack the sort of product innovation that would allow them to develop such services in-house to differentiate what’s otherwise a pretty standard industrial component they’re selling (so working with a startup is one way to bridge that disruptive gap).

“We’re going industry by industry so we can tailor our product to one or a limited set of industries at the beginning and then expanding. And then of course we’ve also been in touch with all the largest global players in cooling tower manufacturing,” says Toromanof, discussing NeoCarbon’s go to market plans. “We’re currently developing an MOU with at least one of them with means we could have co-development of our product with their cooling towers specifically

“One thing that has been brought up is the idea that we could focus on the capture tech and they could focus on the connecting part — which is not the core of the IP or the difficult part it’s more just difficult in the sense that there’s a lot of variety but technically it’s just connecting the pieces together.”

“In the long run we don’t want to handle all this ourselves because — for example — [for] international scaling, we don’t want to have a fleet of maintenance especially when cooling tower manufacturers already have this,” he adds. “We could leverage [existing maintenance contract relationships they have with their customers] so they would also do the maintenance for our product. And of course that means that on their end they would have some kind of exclusive licence to utilize our product in a certain geography and timeframe.”

It’s still early days for the startup, which was only founded in January, but the climate crisis isn’t hanging about so NeoCarbon’s founders are keen to move as fast as they can to scale their prototype into tested and proven hardware that makes adding a CO2-capture facility to a cooling tower a matter of ‘plug and play’.

They were inspired to take a retrofitting approach to drive uptake of DAC by another climate tech startup — US-based Noya Labs — but argue they have a bit of a different focus (i.e. on industrial rather than on commercial buildings). Plus of course they’re building in Europe (not the US) so will be focused on the 300,000 or so cooling towers they’ve identified where their tech could be most quickly retrofitted across the region.

What’s the biggest challenge to successfully scaling their technology? Toromanoff says one of the “most critical” elements is ensuring they can retrofit their DAC devices without negatively impacting the cooling function (or indeed creating any other problems for industrial processes).

“That is one of the non-negotiable things because otherwise we couldn’t do this so there’s a few ways we’re looking at this. It might be also something we need to develop with iterations but basically… if you’re adding something on top of the cooling tower it creates a bit more resistance to the air flow but at the same time we’re also consuming some of the heat so the idea’s that those two things [balance out],” he suggests. “Basically the tower would indeed be less efficient but it would also need to do less work.”

The startup’s origin story includes its two scientist co-founders meeting at a co-founder matching event run by company-builder Antler in Berlin — after they’d both quit their jobs and been casting around for startup ideas where they could make a climate impact fast. (NeoCarbon’s other founder is CEO René Haas, who was stuck on a delayed train for most of our Zoom chat.)

It was also at Antler — which is another participant in NeoCarbon’s pre-seed raise, along with some unnamed angels — where the pair were brainstorming ideas when they came across what Noya Labs was doing with retrofitting DAC and saw an opportunity to do something similar in Europe (and for European industrial infrastructure), which they also thought offered the best chance for them to leverage their existing startup experience and skills, in execution and scaling, to the climate-imperative task of quickly expanding uptake of DAC.

“The best case scenario is to have it running by end of Q1 next year,” says Toromanoff of the upcoming pilot, adding: “We have a very strong incentive to act as fast as possible [because of the climate crisis]. That’s why also it’s called a pilot — because we are not pretending it will be a final product so we are also looking for a partner that would be ready to take a bit of risk.”


Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022



Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.

The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.

TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.

The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.

Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.

Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.

The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.

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Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development



Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.

It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.

In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.

Image credit: Stoke Space

“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”

While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.

Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.

Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.

“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”

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Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors



Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.

Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.

Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.

We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.

For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”

There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.

As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.

There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.

Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.

At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.

Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.

Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.

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