Former NBA star Rick Fox’s startup gets $10M pre-seed for concrete that removes CO2

No doubt that Rick Fox has had plenty of emotional moments in his life. There was the birth of his children, of course, and as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s, he won three NBA championships. But last week, it’s clear that his third act — that of a startup founder — is becoming one of those moments.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of amazing journeys and industries, from entertainment to movies and TV. I’ve been on sets with Oscar-winning actors and directors, and I’ve been on championship NBA teams. There’s been nothing more rewarding for me in my life than to be a part of this team where we’re leaving something behind,” Fox told TechCrunch+.

Fox’s new challenge isn’t just building Partanna, a startup, but one that can make a dent in climate change. For him, it’s personal. Like many of us, Fox was sitting at home early in the pandemic mulling the challenges that were facing the world. The Bahamas, where he grew up and now lives, wasn’t just in the midst of a pandemic. It was still reeling from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

“It got me to a point of thinking about a bigger crisis, which was one that we were facing at home in the Bahamas, which is the consistent impact of the climate and the storms that were happening on a yearly basis at a different level than what I grew up with.”

Then he got a call from his manager, who had been displaced by the Woolsey Fires that swept through Malibu in 2018. In the recovery efforts, she ran into Sam Marshall, an architect who had been working on a new formulation for concrete for the last several years.

“She called me up one day and she said, ‘Hey, you have to meet this gentleman. He’s been working on concrete that acts like a tree,’” Fox recalled. “And I’ll never forget that statement, because I had just stepped out of the shower and I was drying off, and I’m thinking to myself concrete that acts like a tree — how does that work? But then I also thought, if it does work, then it’s going to be on the forefront of changing how we build in the world.”

Marshall had been working for years with other concrete experts, and the time was right to start a company. The two founded Partanna in 2021, and now the company is announcing $12 million in pre-seed funding from Cherubic Ventures, TechCrunch+ has exclusively learned. The company is valued at $190 million post-money, according to PitchBook data.

Former NBA star Rick Fox’s startup gets $10M pre-seed for concrete that removes CO2 by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch

When life gives you carbon, make Carbonaide

Concrete. Ubiquitous. A mainstay of the construction industry — over 10 billion cubic meters of concrete are used every year. And also responsible for up to 8% of CO2 emissions — one ton of ordinary Portland cement creates somewhere between 800 and 900 kilograms of CO2 emissions. Finnish startup Carbonaide has just raised €1.8 million (~$1.9 million at today’s exchange rate) in seed funding to knock down concrete’s carbon emissions but not the construction industry.

“Our goal at Carbonaide is to create a more sustainable future with cutting-edge tech that doesn’t just reduce the carbon emissions of construction materials like concrete, but that traps more CO2 than they emit throughout their lifetime,” explains Tapio Vehmas, Carbonaide’s CEO. “It is very natural that the constructed environment becomes a CO2 sink as it is the largest volume of man-made material.”

Carbonaide’s process binds carbon dioxide into precast concrete using an automated system at atmospheric pressure. By reducing the quantity of required cement content and mineralizing CO2 into the concrete itself, Carbonaide believes it can halve the carbon dioxide emissions of traditional Portland cement concrete. If it can introduce industrial waste products, for example, industry slag, green liquor dregs, and bio-ash into the process, it has the potential to produce concrete with a negative carbon footprint.

The next step for Carbonaide is to scale the technology into a production line at its factory in Hollola, Finland, which is where this seed funding round comes in.

“The goal for this funding round is to scale the technology into an industrial-scale pilot factory. With the funding, we can implement the technology into a precast concrete production line that allows carbon curing as a part of the industrial process,” says Vehmas. “When we have done that, we will know exactly the cost structure and needed parameters for effective curing,” because it does need to add up.

“Can we develop technical solutions that also make sense commercially? Low-carbon products have to have a lower price than normal products — otherwise, we can’t be sure that our technology will prevail,” says Vehmas.

Carbonaide has calculated that a fully operational chain could mineralize up to five tons of CO2 per day and increase production by 100-fold of its carbon-negative concrete products, but it’s not just about making this type of concrete industrially scalable, though. Carbonaide also needs to bring the naturally conservative construction industry with it.

“The technology must fit in perfectly — otherwise, it won’t make a change,” says Vehmas. The industry is very conservative, but there is a good reason for that. We build structures that are meant to last, and by being conservative, we can ensure that they will remain in the future.” It’s easy to say that if something isn’t broken it doesn’t need to be fixed, but Vehmas recognizes how the carbon footprint of concrete is breaking the Earth, and it does need to be fixed: “I want to see how a low-carbon industry can become a reality in highly conservative markets. If we can make this happen, maybe our generation will have some hope to pay our carbon debt for future generations.”

Importantly, Vehmas has the experience in the construction industry to bring with him on this lower carbon quest, and he believes that the investment that Carbonaide has raised validates both its necessity and viability.

“I also have 20+ years of experience working with concrete, meaning I have dealt with industry my whole adulthood. I basically live and breathe concrete. That helps a lot when introducing new technology into a highly conservative industry,” says Vehmas. He added that: “This investment is a sign of good progress for us because we’ve received the support and backing of players in the industry already.”

Backing for Carbonaide comes from Lakan Betoni and Vantaa Energy, which led the seed funding. The round was completed with public loans and in-kind contributions from Business Finland and other Finnish concrete companies and strategic investors.

The concrete and energy companies supporting Carbonaide are doing so in more ways than just financially. They are also able to provide CO2 for Carbonaide’s processes, because believe it or not, while too much carbon dioxide is fizzing its way into the atmosphere, the captive kind that we need for everything from concrete to soda is in short supply.

If Carbonaide’s pilot factory goes to plan, Vehmas hopes that it can have a planet-saving impact on the construction industry.

“After the piloting, our goal is to commercialize the technology. We want to make this process easy to implement by packing the technology into a modular unit that is easy to install and enables easy implementation of the technology on-site,” says Vehmas. “If everything goes as I dream, our technology will start a process where the constructed environment becomes a carbon sink in the future, not a source of massive emissions.”

When life gives you carbon, make Carbonaide by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch

Perceptron: AI mixes concrete, designs molecules, and thinks with space lasers

Welcome to Perceptron, TechCrunch’s weekly roundup of AI news and research from around the world. Machine learning is a key technology in practically every industry now, and there’s far too much happening for anyone to keep up with it all. This column aims to collect some of the most interesting recent discoveries and papers in the field of artificial intelligence — and explain why they matter.

(Formerly known as Deep Science; check out previous editions here.)

This week’s roundup starts with a pair of forward-thinking studies from Facebook/Meta. The first is a collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that aims at reducing the amount of emissions from concrete production. Concrete accounts for some 8 percent of carbon emissions, so even a small improvement could help us meet climate goals.

This is called “slump testing.”

What the Meta/UIUC team did was train a model on over a thousand concrete formulas, which differed in proportions of sand, slag, ground glass, and other materials (you can see a sample chunk of more photogenic concrete up top). Finding the subtle trends in this dataset, it was able to output a number of newformulas optimizing for both strength and low emissions. The winning formula turned out to have 40 percent less emissions than the regional standard, and met… well, some of the strength requirements. It’s extremely promising, and follow-up studies in the field should move the ball again soon.

The second Meta study has to do with changing how language models work. The company wants to work with neural imaging experts and other researchers to compare how language models compare to actual brain activity during similar tasks.

In particular, they’re interested in the human capability of anticipating words far ahead of the current one while speaking or listening — like knowing a sentence will end in a certain way, or that there’s a “but” coming. AI models are getting very good, but they still mainly work by adding words one by one like Lego bricks, occasionally looking backwards to see if it makes sense. They’re just getting started but they already have some interesting results.

Back on the materials tip, researchers at Oak Ridge National Lab are getting in on the AI formulation fun. Using a dataset of quantum chemistry calculations, whatever those are, the team created a neural network that could predict material properties — but then inverted it so that they could input properties and have it suggest materials.

“Instead of taking a material and predicting its given properties, we wanted to choose the ideal properties for our purpose and work backward to design for those properties quickly and efficiently with a high degree of confidence. That’s known as inverse design,” said ORNL’s Victor Fung. It seems to have worked — but you can check for yourself by running the code on Github.

View of the top half of South America as a map of canopy height.

Image Credits: ETHZ

Concerned with physical predictions on an entirely different scale, this ETHZ project estimates the heights of tree canopies around the globe using data from ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites (for optical imagery) and NASA’s GEDI (orbital laser ranging). Combining the two in a convolutional neural network results in an accurate global map of tree heights up to 55 meters tall.

Being able to do this kind of regular survey of biomass at a global scale is important for climate monitoring, as NASA’s Ralph Dubayah explains: “We simply do not know how tall trees are globally. We need good global maps of where trees are. Because whenever we cut down trees, we release carbon into the atmosphere, and we don’t know how much carbon we are releasing.”

You can easily browse the data in map form here.

Also pertaining to landscapes is this DARPA project all about creating extremely large-scale simulated environments for virtual autonomous vehicles to traverse. They awarded the contract to Intel, though they might have saved some money by contacting the makers of the game Snowrunner, which basically does what DARPA wants for $30.

Images of a simulated desert and a real desert next to each other.

Image Credits: Intel

The goal of RACER-Sim is to develop off-road AVs that already know what it’s like to rumble over a rocky desert and other harsh terrain. The 4-year program will focus first on creating the environments, building models in the simulator, then later on transferring the skills to physical robotic systems.

In the domain of AI pharmaceuticals, which has about 500 different companies right now, MIT has a sane approach in a model that only suggests molecules that can actually be made. “Models often suggest new molecular structures that are difficult or impossible to produce in a laboratory. If a chemist can’t actually make the molecule, its disease-fighting properties can’t be tested.”

Looks cool, but can you make it without powdered unicorn horn?

The MIT model “guarantees that molecules are composed of materials that can be purchased and that the chemical reactions that occur between those materials follow the laws of chemistry.” It kind of sounds like what does, but integrated into the discovery process. It certainly would be nice to know that the miracle drug your AI is proposing doesn’t require any fairy dust or other exotic matter.

Another bit of work from MIT, the University of Washington, and others is about teaching robots to interact with everyday objects — something we all hope becomes commonplace in the next couple decades, since some of us don’t have dishwashers. The problem is that it’s very difficult to tell exactly how people interact with objects, since we can’t relay our data in high fidelity to train a model with. So there’s lots of data annotation and manual labeling involved.

The new technique focuses on observing and inferring 3D geometry very closely so that it only takes a few examples of a person grasping an object for the system to learn how to do it itself. Normally it might take hundreds of examples or thousands of repetitions in a simulator, but this one needed just 10 human demonstrations per object in order to effectively manipulate that object.

Image Credits: MIT

It achieved an 85 percent success rate with this minimal training, way better than the baseline model. It’s currently limited to a handful of categories but the researchers hope it can be generalized.

Last up this week is some promising work from Deepmind on a multimodal “visual language model” that combines visual knowledge with linguistic knowledge so that ideas like “three cats sitting on a fence” have a sort of crossover representation between grammar and imagery. That’s the way our own minds work, after all.

Flamingo, their new “general purpose” model, can do visual identification but also engage in dialogue, not because it’s two models in one but because it marries language and visual understanding together. As we’ve seen from other research organizations, this kind of multimodal approach produces good results but is still highly experimental and computationally intense.

Leko Labs gets $21M to build greener

Luxembourg-based Leko Labs, a construction startup that’s developing sustainable wood-based building materials as an alternative to steel and concrete and applying automation to construction methods, has closed a $21 million Series A round of funding.

The raise is led by urban sustainability-focused fund 2150 with participation from Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund, Tencent, AMAVI, Rise PropTech Fund, Extantia and Freigeist.

Construction is of course an extremely dirty business. Not just literally, given the earth and dust that inevitably gets churned up — but in carbon emissions terms: Per a 2017 report by the World Green Building Council, building and construction activities jointly account for 39% of energy-related CO2 emissions when upstream power generation is included.

Shrinking the carbon footprint of construction must, therefore, be a key plank of global net zero climate strategy.

Leko Labs bills itself as a “carbon negative” construction company — on account of having developed a novel wall and floor system based solely on wood and wood fibre which it says is capable of replacing up to 75% of concrete and steel currently used in constructing a single building.

Its wood composite product is built to withstand high compression loads (30,000x its own mass, is the claim); and — if sourced from sustainable forestry, meaning trees felled for timber are replanted; and assuming a long, productive lifespan to the material/building — it should sequester substantially more carbon vs a traditional build made using concrete and steel which require extremely energy intensive processes to manufacture.

Leko Labs’ claim is that its more sustainable construction method can save “thousands” of tonnes of CO2 vs traditional approaches.

Additionally, the startup says its engineered wood can yield superior insulation properties for buildings that also have thinner walls — meaning both better heating/cooling performance (it says its wall system can reduce heating/cooling needs by up to 87%) and up to 10% more floor space vs traditionally constructed buildings.

Its PR bills its approach to construction as having “one of the lowest carbon footprints possible from the moment the building is completed and throughout the lifetime with low heating and cooling emissions”.

Although it is careful to add a further caveat that its methods only “potentially” enable buildings to remain carbon neutral over their entire lifetime. Clearly, there are many factors that influence a building’s emissions and construction/thermal properties are just a couple of them.

The company’s material can be used for buildings up to 100m tall, per Leko, which was founded back in 2017 and now has “multiple” construction projects ongoing across its home Benelux region currently, including homes, offices and data centers (some ongoing projects are visible on its website).

As well as engineered wood, Leko says it uses a “fully circular manufacturing process” — and what it bills as an “automotive style, robotics driven” approach to construction, with components such as walls prefabricated off-site in its factory and delivered at the point of installation — which can reduce the time needed for a build vs traditional methods (50% faster builds is the claim).

The company has also developed a software platform to help automate and optimize the building design process, using algorithms which it says it are able to reduce wood usage vs traditional buildings (by up to 50%), as well as ensuring better thermal, acoustic and static properties.

This algorithmic approach also means Leko can resolve the moisture and noise problems that are typically associated with wooden buildings — or, at least, that’s the claim.

Fire risk is perhaps a tougher challenge to entirely resolve, given timber is a flammable material. But of course engineered wood would obviously still need to meet building fire safety standards.

Leko says the Series A funding will be used to scale its software and robotics construction system throughout Europe — including in Germany, the Nordics and the UK, while still supplying finished walls from its factory in Luxembourg.

There’s a key change to its exec team also being announced today — with former CCO of the air taxi startup Lilium, Dr Remo Gerber, joining as CEO, with Leko’s current CEO and founder, Francois Cordier, moving to the CTO role to focus more on product.


Heimdal pulls CO2 and cement-making materials out of seawater using renewable energy

One of the consequences of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is that levels also rise proportionately in the ocean, harming wildlife and changing ecosystems. Heimdal is a startup working to pull that CO2 back out at scale using renewable energy and producing carbon-negative industrial materials, including limestone for making concrete, in the process, and it has attracted significant funding even at its very early stage.

If the concrete aspect seems like a bit of a non sequitur, consider two facts: concrete manufacturing is estimated to produce as much as eight percent all greenhouse gas emissions, and seawater is full of minerals used to make it. You probably wouldn’t make this connection unless you were in some related industry or discipline, but Heimdal founders Erik Millar and Marcus Lima did while they were working in their respective masters programs at Oxford. “We came out and did this straight away,” he said.

They both firmly believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but were disappointed at the lack of permanent solutions to its many and various consequences across the globe. Carbon capture, Millar noted, is frequently a circular process, meaning it is captured only to be used and emitted again. Better than producing new carbons, sure, but why aren’t there more ways to permanently take them out of the ecosystem?

The two founders envisioned a new linear process that takes nothing but electricity and CO2-heavy seawater and produces useful materials that permanently sequester the gas. Of course, if it was as easy that, everyone would already be doing it.

Heimdal founders Marcus Lima (left) and Erik Millar sitting by a metal gate on stone steps..

Image Credits: Heimdal

“The carbon markets to make this economically viable have only just been formed,” said Millar. And the cost of energy has dropped through the floor as huge solar and wind installations have overturned decades-old power economies. With carbon credits (the market for which I will not be exploring, but suffice it to say it is an enabler) and cheap power come new business models, and Heimdal’s is one of them.

The Heimdal process, which has been demonstrated at lab scale (think terrariums instead of thousand-gallon tanks), is roughly as follows. First the seawater is alkalinized, shifting its pH up and allowing the isolation of some gaseous hydrogen, chlorine, and a hydroxide sorbent. This is mixed with a separate stream of seawater, causing the precipitation of calcium, magnesium, and sodium minerals and reducing the saturation of CO2 in the water — allowing it to absorb more from the atmosphere when it is returned to the sea. (I was shown an image of the small-scale prototype facility but, citing pending patents, Heimdal declined to provide the photo for publication.)

A diagram describing Heimdal's carbon extraction process

Image Credits: Heimdal

So from seawater and electricity, they produce hydrogen and chlorine gas, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Carbonate, and Magnesium Carbonate, and in the process sequester a great deal of dissolved CO2.

For every kiloton of seawater, one ton of CO2 is isolated, and two tons of the carbonates, each of which has an industrial use. MgCO3 and Na2CO3 are used in, among other things, glass manufacturing, but it’s CaCO3, or limestone, that has the biggest potential impact.

As a major component of the cement-making process, limestone is always in great demand. But current methods for supplying it are huge sources of atmospheric carbon. All over the world industries are investing in carbon reduction strategies, and while purely financial offsets are common, moving forward the preferred alternative will likely be actually carbon-negative processes.

To further stack the deck in its favor, Heimdal is looking to work with desalination plants, which are common around the world where fresh water is scarce but seawater and energy are abundant, for example the coasts of California and Texas in the U.S., and many other areas globally, but especially where deserts meet the sea, like in the MENA region.

Desalination produces fresh water and proportionately saltier brine, which generally has to be treated, as to simply pour it back into the ocean can throw the local ecosystem out of balance. But what if there were, say, a mineral-collecting process between the plant and the sea? Heimdal gets the benefit of more minerals per ton of water, and the desalination plant has an effective way of handling its salty byproduct.

“Heimdal’s ability to use brine effluent to produce carbon-neutral cement solves two problems at once,” said Yishan Wong, former Reddit CEO, now CEO of Terraformation and individually an investor in Heimdal. “It creates a scalable source of carbon-neutral cement, and converts the brine effluent of desalination into a useful economic product. Being able to scale this together is game-changing on multiple levels.”

Terraformation is a big proponent of solar desalination, and Heimdal fits right into that equation; the two are working on an official partnership that should be announced shortly. Meanwhile a carbon-negative source for limestone is something cement makers will buy every gram of in their efforts to decarbonize.

Wong points out that the primary cost of Heimdal’s business, beyond the initial ones of buying tanks, pumps, and so on, is that of solar energy. That’s been trending downwards for years and with huge sums being invested regularly there’s no reason to think that the cost won’t continue to drop. And profit per ton of CO2 captured — already around 75 percent of over $500-$600 in revenue — could also grow with scale and efficiency.

Millar said that the price of their limestone is, when government incentives and subsidies are included, already at price parity with industry norms. But as energy costs drop and scales rise, the ratio will grow more attractive. It’s also nice that their product is indistinguishable from “natural” limestone. “We don’t require any retrofitting for the concrete providers — they just buy our synthetic calcium carbonate rather than buy it from mining companies,” he explained.

All in all it seems to make for a promising investment, and though Heimdal has not yet made its public debut (that would be forthcoming at Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day) it has attracted a $6.4 million seed round. The participating investors are Liquid2 Ventures, Apollo Projects, Soma Capital, Marc Benioff, Broom Ventures, Metaplanet, Cathexis Ventures, and as mentioned above, Yishan Wong.

Heimdal has already signed LOIs with several large cement and glass manufacturers, and is planning its first pilot facility at a U.S. desalination plant. After providing test products to its partners on the scale of tens of tons, they plan to enter commercial production in 2023.

These baby concrete speakers aren’t as heavy as they look

To paraphrase P. T. Barnum, “there’s a Bluetooth speaker born every minute.” At no time of year is that more true than at CES in Las Vegas, where they are bountiful beyond belief. But very few — nay, only one that I found — are made of concrete. And it’s French!

The speakers immediately attracted my attention because of their simplicity and of course material. I’m generally repelled, like water, from the plastic and silicone that most speakers are made out of these days. If it’s going to be visible in my house, shouldn’t it be wood or ceramic or steel? (That’s why I like Joey Roth’s stuff so much).

And why not concrete? It’s hard-wearing, cool-looking, tactile — and like ceramic actually has good qualities as far as using it for audio purposes. So the honest folks at Le Pavé Parisien tell me.

The speaker itself is single-channel, meaning it will mix down your music to mono (like many such speakers), but you can easily daisy chain a couple together for stereo or wire a bunch for a concrete wall of sound like they had on display.

I won’t speculate on the audio quality (it was extremely loud in the hall) but they’re marketing it as a high-end device, so it’s probably not bad. 60-20,000 Hz means you’ll miss out on the low end somewhat, but that’s kind of expected with small speakers.

[gallery ids="1766869,1766870,1766865,1766867,1766868,1766864,1766873,1766866"]

One of the company’s engineers, Aurelien Bertini, explained that concrete is actually also more eco-friendly, since it can be recycled by being pounded into dust and recast. Sounds labor-intensive, but that’s how recycling is.

Bertini noted that concrete also can easily be customized — laser etched, dyed, etc. The magnetic grilles on the front are easily swapped out as well. They’re really not as heavy as they look, either: about 3 pounds. It’s mostly air in there.

More importantly, the device is designed to be repaired; you pop the grille off and there are only four screws holding the guts in; take it out, replace a piece, fit something back in place that fell off, that sort of thing.

You’ll want to repair yours, too, since Le Pavé Parisien is currently selling for $400, rather higher than the average Bluetooth speaker. If you simply must have them, they’re on sale now (following a successful recent crowdfunding campaign) and expected to ship next month.