Salty, subterranean water could relieve world’s lithium shortage

The next bottleneck in lithium-ion battery supplies isn’t cobalt, even though China has a stranglehold on the market, and it’s not nickel, either, despite nickel prices nearly doubling in the past five months. Cobalt can be partially replaced with nickel, nickel can be partially replaced with manganese, and both can be completely replaced with iron phosphate, which is cheap and plentiful. 

But there’s no substitute for one crucial component of these batteries: Lithium.

Today’s lithium mines can’t hope to meet the skyrocketing demand for the next decade and beyond. Spotting an opportunity, startups like Lilac Solutions and Vulcan Energy Resources have leaped into action with new lithium extraction processes that are more efficient and potentially better for the planet.

The crunch

As automakers have fleshed out their electrification plans, they’ve caused an unprecedented rush for lithium. Over the last six months, lithium prices have gone on an epic bull run.

It started in January, when prices jumped to $37,000 per metric ton from $10,000 a month earlier, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Then it got worse in February, with spot prices rising to $52,000 per metric ton before rising again to $62,000 in March. Things have stabilized since then, but prices are still five times above the average price from 2016 to 2020.

Large companies of all stripes have been racing to secure supplies. Automakers like Ford and Tesla have signed huge contracts, and battery manufacturers and miners are rushing to secure supplies. Last year, for example, a three-way bidding war broke out for Canadian miner Millennial Lithium, which has large reserves in Argentina, and the winning bid ended up more than 40% higher than the initial offer.

Yet, those deals probably won’t be enough to fulfill the predicted demand for lithium, based on automakers’ current plans. Benchmark Mineral Intelligence is expecting demand to grow to 2.4 million metric tons in 2030 from less than 700,000 metric tons today.

Supply won’t be able to keep up given the current pace of new lithium projects.

“By the end of the decade, where we’re at now with the pipeline, we’re going to see significant deficits starting to grow,” said Daisy Jennings-Gray, a senior price analyst at Benchmark.

Last year, lithium supply fell short of demand by more than 60,000 metric tons. Jennings-Gray’s firm predicts that the deficit will be over 150,000 metric tons by 2030. To meet demand, Benchmark says that $42 billion will need to be invested in the space by the end of this decade.

Without new lithium projects coming online, it’ll likely get worse throughout the 2030s. By 2040, the International Energy Agency expects lithium demand to be 42 times higher than it is today.

“It’s an insane number,” said Jordy M. Lee, a program manager at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. What’s more, it might even be too low.

“We’ve consistently underestimated how much demand for lithium-ion batteries we’re going to have in the coming years,” he said.

As the rise in demand shows no signs of abating, startups have surged into the space, pitching novel techniques to coax the volatile metal out of the earth.

Carbon capture is headed for the high seas

Unless you live near a port, you probably don’t think much of the tens of thousands of container ships tearing through the seas, hauling some 1.8 billion metric tons of stuff each year. Yet these vessels run on some of the dirtiest fuel there is, spewing more greenhouse gases than airplanes do in the process. The industry is exploring alternative fuels, and electrification, to solve the problem for next-generation ships, but in the meantime a Y Combinator-backed startup is gearing up to (hopefully) help decarbonize the big boats that’re already in the water.

London-based Seabound is currently prototyping carbon capture equipment that connects to ships’ smokestacks, using a “lime-based approach” to cut carbon emissions by as much as 95%, cofounder and CEO Alisha Fredriksson said in a call with TechCrunch. The startup’s tech works by routing the exhaust into a container that’s filled with porous, calcium oxide pebbles, which in turn “bind to carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate,”—essentially, limestone, per Fredriksson.

Though carbon capture has yet to really catch on for ships, Seabound is just one of the companies out to prove the tech can eventually scale. Others, including Japanese shipping firm K Line and Netherlands-based Value Maritime, are developing their own carbon-capture tech for ships, typically utilizing the better-established, solvent-based approach (which is increasingly used in factories). Yet this comparably tried-and-true method demands more space and energy aboard ships, because the process of isolating the CO2 happens on the vessel, according to Fredriksson.

In contrast, Seabound intends to process the CO2 on land, if at all. When the ships return from their journey, the limestone can be sold as is or separated via heat. In the latter case, the calcium oxide would be reused and the carbon sold for use or sequestration, per Fredriksson, who previously helped build maritime fuel startup Liquid Wind. Her cofounder, CTO Roujia Wen, previously worked on AI products at Amazon.

Seabound says it has signed six letters of intent with “major shipowners,” and it aims to trial the tech aboard ships beginning next year. To get there, the company has secured $4.4 million in a seed round led by Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital. Several other firms also chipped in on the deal, including Eastern Pacific Shipping, Emles Venture Partners, Hawktail, Rebel Fund and Soma Capital.

Beyond carbon capture, another Y Combinator-backed startup is setting out to decarbonize existing ships via a novel battery-swapping scheme. New Orleans-based Fleetzero aims to power electrified ships using shipping container-sized battery packs, which could be recharged through a network of charging stations at small ports.

One man’s quest to bring back the small phone

In 2017, we noted that smartphone screen sizes had settled into a sweet spot between five and six inches. In hindsight, that may well have been wishful thinking. A brief respite aside, it seems that phones have only continued to embiggen, driven by a continued spec war and panel manufacturers like Samsung.

Heck, even Steve Jobs famously missed the boat when he declared the 3.5-inch a platonic ideal a dozen years ago. “You can’t get your hand around it,” he noted about the four- to five-inch being manufactured by Samsung, “no one’s going to buy that.”

Now, the comparison isn’t entirely Apples to apples, as it were. For one thing, hardware makers have gotten much better at shrinking the phone around the screen in the intervening decade. That is to say that a five-inch phone in 2010 is a very different beast than a 2022 version. Even so, big phones are big. They’re so big, in fact, that folding the screen in half seems like the only reasonable exit ramp.

Where, Eric Migicovsky wonders, did all the small phones go? The man behind Pebble and Beeper (who also serves as a Y Combinator partner), is talking things into his own (self-described large) hands. Or, perhaps more accurately, he’s nudging it in someone’s direction in hopes that he doesn’t have to do the famously hard work of launching yet another hardware startup.

Noting that the dream of a premium, sub-six-inch Android handset is dying or dead, Migicovsky launched Small Android Phone. “My hope is that we can gather support from the community and convince Google (ideally) or another Android manufacturer to build this phone,” he writes on the site. Google may well have been the tipping point here, as the company notably abandoned smaller phones with hardware restructuring that gave us the Pixel 6.

He noted in an email to TechCrunch that he’s already had conversations with hardware companies and launched the site/petition in hopes of getting them to see things his way. “I am busy and happy running Beeper. My goal is to encourage someone else [to] make one.”

The petition cites the following bullets as driving factors in returning to a simpler, smaller, safer time:

  • Fits nicely in pocket
  • Are much lighter
  • Are easy to use one-handed without dropping
  • Won’t fall out of my pocket while bicycling

Currently around 20,000, Migicovsky believes 50,000 is the sweet spot for convincing a manufacture to go all in on small. “Just back-of-the-napkin math, but it feels right,” he says. “Probably ~$10 million [non-recurring engineering], means 50K units makes a decent profit at [an] $800 selling price.”

One wonders, ultimately, why the proliferation of the smartphone and increased competition have seemingly resulted in homogeneity. Certainly it’s not for lack of trying. When I mention the Palm Phone, he retorts, “I love that they tried! Also the Light Phone 2 is really interesting, but not great as primary phones.” He adds that — at the very least — he needs a good camera. That certainly doesn’t seem like too much to ask for these days.

Launching a new phone company isn’t an impossibility. We’ve got a close eye on Nothing and OSOM’s efforts. But one certainly questions the soundness of doing so in 2022, based entirely on a potentially niche corner of the market. On his site, Migicovsky makes it clear that he’d rather someone else do it.

“If no one else makes one I guess I will be forced to make it myself,” he writes, “but I really, really don’t want it to come to that.”

Endel’s generative soundscapes show up in Sony’s new headphones

The other day, Brian reported on Sony’s new LinkBuds headphones, including its partnership with “what if Brian Eno was a piece of computer software” app Endel. The company uses really fascinating AI technology to generate soundscapes and music tracks to help your brain do its best work — to help you focus deeper, sleep more easily or to relax you. I spoke with one of Endel’s founders to learn more about the tech and its deal with Sony.

“Endel is first and foremost a technology that was built to help you focus, relax and sleep. And the way this technology works, it procedurally generates a soundscape in real time on the spot, on the device. It is personalized to you based on a number of inputs that we collect about you; things like the time of day, your heart rate, the weather, your movement and your circadian rhythms, like how much sleep you got last night,” explains Oleg Stavitsky, CEO and co-founder at Endel. “This technology listens to all of this data, plugs into the algorithm, which creates the soundscape in real time, which allows us to react in real time to the changes in you. Using this technology, we are building an ecosystem of products, so that our soundscapes can follow you everywhere during the day across all these channels and platforms. We are pretty much everywhere at this point; iOS, Android, Apple Watch, Mac or Apple TV, Alexa… you name it.”

In reviewing the product I did stumble across a couple of glaring omissions in where it is available: There was no way of streaming it to my Sonos speakers (the workaround is to install Alexa on Sonos), and the Endel app doesn’t support casting, so you can’t stream to Google Home either.

Running the app using earphones, however, creates an intimate and beautiful experience. The audio tracks are Eno-esque in their expansiveness; it’s like a slowly evolving ambient soundtrack to your day. Sitting at my desk, I felt myself focus; a combination of the music and blocking and drowning out distractions.

The soundscapes are stem-based — professional music industry jargon for snippets of sounds, think of them as samples. The app has a huge library of samples and stems, and the algorithm picks the right stems to sequence the audio together. On top of the basic sequencing, the software runs additional adjustments on top.

“We have a few AI systems on top of that sequencer; AI systems that generate melodies basically. There are millions and millions and millions of variations,” says Stavitsky. “Some of the soundscapes on the app are done in collaboration with some of the biggest artists on the planet. We have Grimes and Miguel and James Blake and Plastic Man and others that we’ve worked with, so they are good. The way they work with us is they prepare a stem pack, a sound pack. They never submit a musical composition. They just are the building blocks that the algorithm then uses to assemble tracks on the fly.”

The company says it’s approached by companies all the time, and have to consider whether partnerships are a cost or a benefit at any given time. It decided to say “yes” to headphones giant Sony, resulting in this collaboration.

“Sony’s headphones innovation department approached us. They said we’re working on this new model that will somehow understand the context of where you are, and we want those headphones to proactively activate a certain soundscape,” says Stavitsky, “I’m frankly very, very skeptical about all these integrations, for a number of reasons. There’s always an opportunity cost. Being a small company, you’re wondering if we should do this. What got me excited about this is that the fundamental idea of Endel is that it’s an always-on soundscape that follows you everywhere during the day. Sometimes you can barely hear it, and sometimes it’s like front and center and it shields you from the rest of the world. I think this idea of headphones that proactively trigger a certain kind of soundscape depending on the context of what’s happening with you is exactly how we envision how our product is used. This is just going to be one huge play button — you press that button, and it listens to your calendar, listens to your heart rate, and it proactively shifts between all of the soundscapes. That’s what we are working toward, and these headphones make that real.”

Luminar’s Austin Russell: ‘We probably shouldn’t have existed’ but lidar will drive next-gen safety anyway

At TC Sessions: Mobility, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell admitted that his now successful company was founded in hubris, but that a skeptical eye during peak lidar hype helped them focus on real markets. “It’s no longer about some theoretical promise — you actually have to show real results, real deliveries, real technology and product. There’s been too many promises made out there that were broken.”

In an interview with TechCrunch transportation editor Kirsten Korosec, Russell noted that he, like pretty much everyone else, was convinced early on that self-driving cars were just around the corner. (Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.)

“The reality is, I think that the sheer complexity of solving an end to end autonomous driving problem in urban environments was underestimated in terms of the difficulty by at least a couple orders of magnitude,” he said. “If something is at peak hype cycle, it’s something you should be skeptical about. There was just a massive disconnect between the core engineers behind the actual tech, and leadership at the time, in terms of what was possible.”

It was in 2017, he recalled that the company made the decision to pursue other applications for high-performance lidar tech: “It became very clear that the level of requirements for an R&D test platform, versus a true series production vehicle, is a completely different game altogether. The huge roof racks that you see that are $100,000 and a supercomputer in the trunk… it needs to be more like $1,000. And by the way, economies of scale are fundamentally required to be able to build a product, the cost is a significant factor at the end of the day.”

The question became not one of raw capability or even just cost, but what would consumers, and by extension OEMs, pay for? Safety. And as it turns out, even top of the line ADAS and collision avoidance tech is seriously lacking right now.

“It’s surprising to see how ineffective the current assisted driving systems are just at being able to do basic things like… not letting you smash into the thing right in front of you in your car, right? It sounds like a simple problem, like you wouldn’t even need lidar for that,” he said. “But the reality is it’s a lot more complicated, a lot more difficult than that — to even confidently understand what’s going on around you and come to a safe stop is not a solved problem.”

The company has set up numerous examples of these failures — one of which showing a small fake pedestrian being plowed down by an ADAS-equipped car went viral. The combination of robo-taxis being far further out than expected and of ADAS systems as being both desirable and incapable seems to have spurred mainstream automakers to invest heavily in something better.

“The transformation is that this is no longer about being an option on a high end, niche vehicle,” he explained. “This is something that has the opportunity to truly go mainstream, in the mass market… Nissan, they were actually showing off crash avoidance scenarios made possible by Luminar lidar; in their case they actually said they want to be able to standardize this type of tech on every vehicle they build by the end of the decade. Which I think is probably faster than any major tech adoption cycle, not for initial adoption, but full standardization across the lineup.”

There will of course be Luminar-powered cars out there sooner than that: “Within the next 12 months there’s going to be series production cars that are Luminar equipped that are out there advancing this industry forward,” Russell confirmed.

It’s funny to think, however, that a company born out of a plan to obsolete traditional vehicles has become the biggest proponent of its use in those vehicles. But an early recognition of the future of the industry made all the difference.

“We probably shouldn’t have existed,” Russell said when asked about taking part in the hype cycle he later distanced himself from. “There’s no reason why any of the Googles, Apples, all the major automakers and other stuff couldn’t have, in some theoretical world, done exactly what we did.”

“But the reason why were were able to build this company, this technology, this product and help lead the industry with it is just fundamentally because we had a completely different viewpoint. I guess what’s titled here [i.e. the name of the panel, A Contrarian View on Deploying Autonomy at Scale], the contrarian view,” he said, laughing.

As for another contrarian view, the oft-repeated jibe by Elon Musk that lidar is unnecessary and Tesla will get by without it, Russell took it in good humor as well:

“If somebody didn’t go out and say, ‘this is a fool’s errand, this shouldn’t exist, we made the right decision and we’re sticking to our guns!’… that’s the irony around all these things. It actually just calls attention to what’s important, because you only say that if you’re really self-conscious about it.”

Coca-Cola’s attached bottle cap is rock bottom of hokey greenwashing

I don’t cover post-IPO companies a lot, and Coca-Cola is def on the list of ones I can generally ignore. But when the company sends out a hand-wringing press release about how awesome they are for launching a bottle cap where the cap stays attached to the bottle “for environmental reasons,” I’m sorry, my blood just boils.

Don’t get me wrong, better recyclability is a good thing, and fewer bottle caps failing to make their way to recycling? I’m all for it. But the context for this is that in the U.K. — like in the U.S. — bottles are recycled, rather than reused. And they’re recycled at rates that are pitiful.

In the rest of Europe, Coca-Cola and other drink manufacturers figured out a functioning system: pay a deposit when you buy a bottle or aluminum can and you get a deposit back when you return it. It works: In Norway, for example, in 2018, the return ratio of reusable bottles was 95%, and aluminum cans were returned in upwards of 98% of all cases. After being returned, the packaging is reused in some cases, or recycled in others. There’s a bigger reliance on plastic bottles that are sturdy enough that they can be reused 20 times before they are recycled; and beer often comes in reusable glass bottles that are actually re-used by the breweries, rather than having to melt and re-make the bottles after a single use.

In the U.S., in contrast, not only are the bottles not re-used, less than 30% of bottles are even recycled — the rest goes to landfill. In the U.K. — where Coca-Cola is patting itself on the back about its cap-connecting prowess — the number is around 45%.

“Coca-Cola Great Britain takes another step towards a World Without Waste for PET bottles,” good heavens, come the hell on. You know that this is bollocks, as they would say in the U.K.

Congratulations, Coca-Cola, on figuring out some details here, but as a company, you know that there are better solutions, and if you wanted to, you could put systems in place to drive recycling rates to 90%+, rather than the paltry 30-45% we’re seeing in the U.K. and U.S. Yes, the markets are bigger. Yes, cultural differences exist. But if you really gave two shits about the environment, how about you lean on local governments and recycling infrastructure, and help make some difference that actually matters, rather than incremental bullshit that really only serves to entice journalists to blow smoke up your asses?

How to get Customer Feedback from Colleagues

Product management thrives on being able to get customer feedback from all kinds of sources, especially customers. So it’s important to create feedback channels through customer-facing teams, which can capture all the user insight that filters through those sales and support conversations.

The problem is that these other teams are really busy with their own tasks, focused on hitting their own quotas and goals, particularly Sales. It’s a challenge to make space for internal feedback to Product – but it’s possible!

Similar to my post about product feedback from Customer Support, here I’ll explore the challenges of getting input from the Sales team and how to create a two-way collaboration that benefits both sides.

how to get customer feedback from colleagues

Understand the other side

Let’s start off with some empathy, shall we?

Often, from Product’s perspective, it seems like Sales just doesn’t see the value in how to get customer feedback. This might be the case. Maybe they don’t think it’s their place, or they don’t think it’s their job. Which is fair! They do have a point.

As a product person, I wondered why other teams wouldn’t take the time to tell us all the stuff they were hearing from customers. It can be frustrating. But in my roles since, I often think to myself, “When am I supposed to do this? They want me to send a bug report or fill a form in a certain way. I haven’t got time for that!”

It’s difficult to find the time and motivation to provide feedback to another team – especially when it doesn’t seem core to your role, and when your pay doesn’t depend on it. 

Consider how your sales team is compensated. They’re often paid by commission, which means their income isn’t guaranteed like yours. If they want to make the amount of money they’re expecting and have planned for, then they better hustle – and stay focused. Keeping differences like this in mind will help as you build a better relationship with the sales team.

So, with that said, we want to do two things:

  • 1. Encourage sales colleagues to see the value in sharing their feedback.
  • 2. Make it super, super easy for them to do so.

How to encourage Sales to add customer feedback

It’s in their best interest, too!

Explain to Sales how providing customer feedback is in their own best interest. If they’re constantly hearing the same objection, or trying to clarify the same confusion, or whatever the potential customers keep repeating – maybe a tweak in the product would solve it. Passing on that information to Product could save time and energy, allowing them to close more deals.

This is a classic case of putting in a bit more effort now to receive a payoff in the longrun. 

Reciprocity between sales and product

When it comes to the app or the tool, the product team knows what they’re talking about. That’s why they’re so valuable to have on hand for sales calls and demos! The product team’s knowledge will enrich those conversations and help close the sale.

Explain how this goes both ways! Sales needs to be there for Product in return. The sales team knows what they’re talking about when it comes to customer objections and user feedback. Passing along this information will enrich the product team’s knowledge, strategy, and decision-making.

It’s a collaboration. It’s about working together, and it’s got to be two-sided.

Now, if there’s an issue with how to actually provide the feedback, Sales and Product should discuss a process that works for both sides. On that note…

How to get customer feedback from Sales

This is probably the most important tip on how to get customer feedback: make it frictionless! For any of the above efforts to be successful, you need to make the process as convenient as possible. Here are a couple ideas on how to do that.

Provide a template

Templates reduce cognitive load. If you provide a template for bug reports or other customer feedback, then the salesperson just fills in the blanks and submits it. They know exactly what information you need, and you don’t need to chase them up (i.e. annoy them) for pertinent details. That’s a win-win for both sides. 

This is similar to writing user stories, where we recommend choosing one specific story format.

Collect feedback directly in CRMs

One great thing about standar sales processes today is that when sales reps have a call with a customer, they’re logging it in a CRM. These call notes can be written manually or automatically through a transcription service. But the point is: there’s already logging of customer insights and feedback going on! We just need to get it to the right place.

ProdPad integrates with Intercom and Salesforce to do just that! Feedback is automatically fed to the product team, and it’s no extra effort for the salesperson.

Benefits of a Sales-Product feedback pipeline

Putting a feedback process in place, and making it seamless, does take some work upfront. But the result of getting customer feedback will benefit everyone on all sides of the product.

  1. It saves time for Sales in the short term (no one will follow up with questions or ask them to resubmit with different information) and the long term (those questions and objections disappear because the product is better!)
  2. The product team receives feedback right away – and the evidence they need to act on it! – without needing to follow up or cause friction with other teams. This is another timesaver.
  3. Sales feels listened to, Product feels supported. And ultimately, the customers gain from a business that collaborates and continuously innovates on a great product.

The post How to get Customer Feedback from Colleagues appeared first on Product Management Software | ProdPad.

Terra creator Do Kwon faces prosecutions in South Korea

Do Kwon, the creator of the stablecoin TerraUSD (UST) and its sister token Luna, is facing legal prosecutions in South Korea over the collapse of the two coins that have wiped billions of dollars off investors around the world earlier this month.

The Seoul Southern District Prosecutors’ Office said Friday that it has kicked off an investigation on Terraform Labs, the organization behind the stablecoin project Terra led by Do Kwon, and assigned the case to its Financial and Securities Crime Joint Investigation Team, a special financial crimes unit brought back recently by the newly appointed justice minister Dong-hoon Han, according to local media.

The announcement came a day after five Korea-based crypto investors with combined damages of 1.4 billion won (about $1.1 million) filed criminal complaints against Kwon and his Terraform co-founder Daniel Shin over charges of fraud and other violations of financial regulations.

South Korea’s financial authorities estimated that about 280,000 users owned a combined amount of 70 billion Luna in Korea.

“The design and issuance of Luna and Terra to attract investors, but the failure to properly inform them about the flaws, and the unlimited expansion of Luna’s issuance amounted to defrauding investors,” said a representative from LKB & Partners, the law firm hired by the five investors bringing charges against Terraform Labs.

Do Kwon is also reportedly facing a tax fine of 100 billion won ($78 million) for evading corporate and income tax payments.

UST, which was once one of the most promising stablecoins, depegged from its $1 value last week and has since dropped to $0.079. Rather than being backed by fiat money or real life assets like some other stablecoins, the value of UST is maintained by “burning” its sister token Luna. The price of Luna has plummeted over 99% since last week.

The Block first reported Terraform Labs’ in-house legal team has resigned in the wake of the UST and Luna collapse.

Terraform Labs is incorporated in Singapore but was registered to operate its business as Terraform Labs Korea in South Korea