Unagi secures Best Buy as e-scooter subscription partner

E-scooter manufacturer Unagi has had a busy month. Just a couple weeks after bringing its Model One Voyager scooter to market, the company says it closed a large funding round and secured Best Buy as a scooter subscription partner.

The $29.3 million round is a combination of equity and debt. The $17.3 million in equity is led by Ecosystem Integrity Fund with Menlo Ventures and Pure Capital participating. The remaining $10 million in debt is led by Aegon Asset Management, which joins Unagi’s existing credit provider Horizon Technology Finance.

Unagi has become well known not only for its lightweight e-scooters that are perfect for city-based customers, but also for its subscription business that offers a commitment- and maintenance-free experience at a reasonable price. While the company does sell its scooters direct-to-consumer and through retail partners, almost 90% of the business is now subscription-based. It’s almost to the point that Unagi might consider halting sales altogether, T.J. Compagnone, Unagi’s chief product officer, told TechCrunch.

The funds will be used to grow that subscription business, and the partnership with Best Buy is one piece of Unagi’s strategy. Unagi has partnered with Best Buy, as well as other retailers, to sell its scooters for a couple of years. But David Hyman, CEO and founder, told TechCrunch selling scooters through a retail partner can be challenging.

“Cashflow timing, tight margins, processing returns, customer service, etc. So we’ve entirely pivoted to focusing on subscriptions via retail partners,” said Hyman.

Now customers can go to BestBuy.com to register for an Unagi subscription, which costs the same there as it would on Unagi’s website — $59 per month for the Model One Classic and $69 per month for the newly released Model One Voyager.

Customers who register through Best Buy will have the $50 registration fee waived, something Unagi is willing to sacrifice for the visibility of being on a leading U.S. retailer’s site.

“From Best Buy (or any retail partner) perspective, this is an incredibly compelling proposition. Like shared partnerships, Unagi handles all fulfillment, service and operations,” said Hyman. “So for Best Buy, there is no inventory to hold. No cash to lay out. No customer service or returns. It’s a very simple way to receive a pure-profit bounty without any costs. We think this is a business model that will soon become commonplace in all Big Box retailers and Unagi wants to be on the leading edge of establishing these new business models.”

Best Buy offers a range of electric micromobility vehicles for sale, but this might be the first time the company is doing an e-scooter subscription service. However, it’s not Best Buy’s first rodeo with hardware-as-a-service. Last October, Best Buy launched Upgrade+ to help customers finance the purchase of new devices like Mac laptops and other Apple products.


Development for Unagi’s new mobile app began with the Model Eleven, a project that ended up being too expensive to take to production. Image Credits: Unagi

Hyman said it is actually surprising to see how much more popular the subscription business is than the retail side of things. The unit economics have gotten to a good place, too, with gross margins of 50%, according to the founder.

Unagi expects to be profitable by this year — and the company means net profitable, not adjusted.

“From a strategy point of view, with a SaaS style company, their valuation multiplier on $1 of revenue is, in good times, up to 30x and in bad times 10x,” said Compagnone. “As a sales company, your multiplier as a function of revenue is like 1 to 1.5x. Hardware-as-a-service is a new space where there aren’t a lot of proxies, but we’re finding that in good times, we’re doing 12x to 15x, and in bad times 8x to 10x. So this is the place we want to be instead of sales, for sure.”

Aside from the Best Buy partnership, Unagi hopes to boost its subscription offering by partnering with enterprises. The company already works with Google to give employees access to subscription costs, which are 100% reimbursable to them.

“We are going to imminently launch a program where employees that work at companies who have known transportation reimbursements will receive exclusive benefits on Unagi’s website (i.e. waiving $50 signup fee and/or monthly discounts) simply by registering with their work email address,” said Hyman. “We will auto-detect their domain and apply the appropriate benefit to their transaction. They can then easily access their subscription account for receipts to easily receive employer reimbursement.”

Hyman said he expects the enterprise program to be one of the biggest growth drivers in the coming year, with about 25% of all subscriptions coming from that vertical.

The focus on subscriptions is also part of the reason why Unagi had to throw in the towel on its much-hyped Model Eleven scooter last year. The $2,440 scooter, Hyman’s passion project, was expected to be extremely smart, with features like Bluetooth speakers so you can blast music or turn-by-turn directions, remote kill and even advanced rider assistance sensors.

Unfortunately, as the subscription business became more dominant, the likelihood of being able to offer the Eleven for monthly rental at less than $100 per month dwindled.

“And that was the real death knell,” said Hyman, noting that Unagi had begun that project before even beginning to offer subscriptions.

Unagi repurposed the smart mobile app for its new Voyager, and Hyman said many of the Eleven’s elements will come into new future products.

“We’ve got a scooter scheduled for hopefully by the end of this year that will incorporate more of the Eleven’s elements,” he said.

Unagi secures Best Buy as e-scooter subscription partner by Rebecca Bellan originally published on TechCrunch

Vibrant Planet raises $17M seed round to grow forest restoration SaaS

For Allison Wolff, the 2018 wildfire season in California marked a turning point. During that record-breaking year, she started asking a lot of questions.

“We were in the middle of the 2018 wildfire season, with the Carr Fire, and what I thought at the time was the worst season ever,” Wolff said. “I started asking lots and lots of people — climate scientists I’d worked with, land managers, utility leaders, insurance leaders — why is this happening so catastrophically? What does the future look like? And what can be done about it?”

Out of those discussions was born Vibrant Planet, a public-benefit startup that is developing Land Tender. It’s basically SaaS for forest management, something the company calls an “operating system for forest restoration.”

As wildfire season once again takes hold in the American West, Vibrant Planet told TechCrunch exclusively that it has raised a $17 million seed round led by Ecosystem Integrity Fund and The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

“I quickly realized this is a climate-related issue,” Wolff said. “Land management is a big part of the problem, of course, because even if the climate stayed stable, we’d still be losing a lot of forest. But climate change is definitely exacerbating it big time,” she said.

“We just need to do this — we need to restore forests faster, and they might make it through climate change, and they might help us survive climate change.”

Valia Ventures, Earthshot Ventures — backed by Laurene Powell Jobs and Tom Steyer — Cisco, and Halogen Ventures also participated in the round. The startup’s previous backers include Meta chief product officer Chris Cox, and Netflix’s former chief product officer, Neil Hunt, who later joined Vibrant Planet in the same role.

Vibrant Planet offers access to a range of data sets, with the centerpiece being a lidar map of the state of California. Lidar is incredibly helpful when it comes to mapping forests in 3D and determining their fire risk, but it’s not a panacea. Dense forests, which often represent the greatest fire risk, are hard to map from top to bottom, so the team has trained a machine-learning algorithm to fill in any gaps.

And since lidar is expensive to fly, the company uses another AI tool to keep it updated using cheaper satellite imagery. (All of this comes with the caveat that the data generated by the AI tools is speculative — you can’t “enhance” with 100% accuracy, no matter what police procedurals say.)

The company sells Land Tender via per-seat licenses aimed primarily at land managers who work for federal agencies — think Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and so on — as well as stakeholders who have interests in the lands they oversee. Those stakeholders might include fire chiefs, land conservation groups, or nongovernmental organizations that advocate for wildlife preservation.

The platform, which is focused on wildfire-adapted forests, will be available for users across California by the end of the year and in other Western states where demand materializes throughout next year. The company said it can add additional regions or countries depending on the availability of lidar data.

Within the platform, users can prioritize their objectives, like fire risk, endangered species conservation, or water quality. They can then run analyses to determine how different landscape treatments — say, mechanical thinning or a specific regimen of prescribed burns — will affect their priorities.

At $3,500 per seat, Vibrant Planet’s offering ranges from being competitive with annual pricing for ArcGIS, the industry-standard geographic information system, to less expensive depending on the types of ArcGIS extensions a group might spec to meet their needs. The main difference, though, is that the company includes a host of data that ArcGIS users would otherwise have to find on their own, plus what sound like some clever collaboration tools. For some groups, that might not add value, but for others, it’ll offer significant time savings.

Land Tender grew out of Vibrant Planet’s consulting for the North Yuba Forest Partnership, a group of nine organizations that was developing a forest management plan for a 275,000-acre watershed northwest of Lake Tahoe. The startup then tested an early version with the Truckee River Watershed Council, which is currently planning resilience projects across the 330,000-acre Middle Truckee River watershed that runs out of Lake Tahoe down to Reno and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Reservation. By August, Vibrant Planet said Land Tender will be used across all of the Lake Tahoe Basin and the Tahoe National Forest.

The second plank of the startup’s business model is to provide data and analysis to develop carbon credits — also known as carbon offsets — but Wolff wasn’t ready to reveal much about that yet.

Vibrant Planet has recruited heavily from the ranks of universities and government agencies, building a team of about a dozen ecologists, foresters, and geospatial experts. It has also drawn engineering talent from a range of Big Tech companies, including Facebook, Lyft, and Netflix.

For Wolff, that was all part of the plan. “I had many people in my kind of listening tour tell me, ‘How do we rally people in Silicon Valley? How do we get the best technical people that are helping sell ads on Facebook focused on building solutions for climate?’” she said.

At the time, fires were raging throughout the West, so the issue was on the top of many people’s minds. Plus, having Hunt on board with his decades of experience didn’t hurt when it came time to pitch them. “It’s been pretty easy to recruit top Silicon Valley talent,” Wolff said.

Could developing renewable energy micro-grids make Energicity Africa’s utility of the future?

When Nicole Poindexter left the energy efficiency focused startup, Opower a few months after the company’s public offering, she wasn’t sure what would come next.

At the time, in 2014, the renewable energy movement in the US still faced considerable opposition. But what Poindexter did see was an opportunity to bring the benefits of renewable energy to Africa.

“What does it take to have 100 percent renewables on the grid in the US at the time was not a solvable problem,” Poindexter said. “I looked to Africa and I’d heard that there weren’t many grid assets [so] maybe I could try this idea out there. As I was doing market research, I learned what life was like without electricity and I was like.. that’s not acceptable and I can do something about it.”

Poindexter linked up with Joe Philip, a former executive at SunEdison who was a development engineer at the company and together they formed Energicity to develop renewable energy microgrids for off-grid communities in Africa.

“He’d always thought that the right way to deploy solar was an off-grid solution,” said Poindexter of her co-founder.

At Energicity, Philip and Poindexter are finding and identifying communities, developing the projects for installation and operating the microgrids. So far, the company’s projects have resulted from winning development bids initiated by governments, but with a recently closed $3.25 million in seed financing, the company can expand beyond government projects, Poindexter said.

“The concessions in Benin and Sierra Leone are concessions that we won,” she said. “But we can also grow organically by driving a truck up and asking communities ‘Do you want light?’ and invariably they say yes.” 

To effectively operate the micro-grids that the company is building required an end-to-end refashioning of all aspects of the system. While the company uses off-the-shelf solar panels, Poindexter said that Energicity had built its own smart meters and a software stack to support monitoring and management.

So far, the company has installed 800 kilowatts of power and expects to hit 1.5 megawatts by the end of the year, according to Poindexter.

Those micro-grids serving rural communities operate through subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and currently serve thirty-six communities and 23,000 people, the company said. The company is targeting developments that could reach 1 million people in the next five years, a fraction of what the continent needs to truly electrify the lives of the population. 

Through two subsidiaries, Black Star Energy, in Ghana, and Power Leone, in Sierra Leone, Energicity has a 20-year concession in Sierra Leone to serve 100,000 people and has the largest private minigrid footprint in Ghana, the company said.

Most of the financing that Energicity has relied on to develop its projects and grow its business has come from government grants, but just as Poindexter expects to do more direct sales, there are other financial models that could get the initial developments off the ground.

Carbon offsets, for instance, could provide an attractive mechanism for developing projects and could be a meaningful gateway to low-cost sources of project finance. “We are using project financing and project debt and a lot of the projects are funded by aid agencies like the UK and the UN,” Poindexter said. 

The company charges its customers a service fee and a fixed price per kilowatt hour for the energy that amounts to less than $2 per month for a customers that are using its service for home electrification and cell phone charging, Poindexter said.

While several other solar installers like M-kopa and easy solar are pitching electrification to African consumers, Poindexter argues that her company’s micro-grid model is less expensive than those competitors.

“Ecosystem Integrity Fund is proud to invest in a transformational company like Energicity Corp,” said James Everett, managing partner, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, which backed the company’s. most recent round. “The opportunity to expand clean energy access across West Africa helps to drive economic growth, sustainability, health, and human development.  With Energicity’s early leadership and innovation, we are looking forward to partnering and helping to grow this great company.”

Vericool raises $19.1 million for its plant-based packaging replacement for plastic coolers

Vericool, a Livermore, Calif.-based startup that’s replacing plastic coolers and packaging with plant-based products, has raised $19.1 million in a new round of financing.

The company’s stated goal is to replace traditional packaging materials like polystyrene with plant-based insulating packaging materials.

Its technology uses 100% recycled paper fibers and other plant-based materials, according to the company, and are curbside recyclable and compostable.

Investors in the round included Radicle Impact PartnersThe Ecosystem Integrity FundID8 Investments and AiiM Partners, according to a statement.

“We’re pleased to support Vericool because of the company’s track record of innovation, high-performance products, well-established patent portfolio and focus on environmental resilience. We are inspired by the company’s social justice commitment to address recidivism and provide workplace opportunity to formerly incarcerated individuals,” said Dan Skaff, managing partner of Radicle Impact Partners and Vericool’s new Lead Director. 


Electric vehicle charging software EV Connect raises $12 million

EV Connect, the Los Angeles-based company that sells software to manage electric vehicle charging, has raised $12 million in a Series B round led by investors Mitsui & Co. and Ecosystem Integrity Fund.

The company has raised $25 million to date.

EV Connect’s cloud-based platform has an open standard architecture that is designed to be hardware agnostic. In other words, EV Connect aims to provide a variety of hardware vendors a way to monitor, manage and maintain charging stations.

The end goal is to push the industry away from a closed and fragmented system to a more open one, according to EV Connect CEO and founder Jordan Ramer.

EV Connect has a two-tiered approach. The company provides and manages 1,000 electric vehicle charging sites through its EV Connect network. EV Connect has a smartphone app to give drivers of electric vehicles real-time access to charging station status.

Its also sells a cloud-based software platform that businesses can customize. Clients include Yahoo!, Marriott, Hilton, Western Digital, Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New York Power Authority.

As part of the round, Mitsui and EV Connect have agreed to develop new business models around EV charging infrastructure. EV Connect plans to work with Mitsui on various applications of EV charging to lower the cost of charging and maximize its utilization, including fleet and energy management solutions, Ramer elaborated to TechCrunch in an emailed response.

“We strongly believe that EV Connect’s infrastructure management technology accelerates the electric vehicle revolution in the energy and power industry where Mitsui has many assets and access to partners,” Kazumasa Nakai, the COO of Mitsui’s infrastructure projects business unit, said in a statement. “Our unique engineering capabilities, in conjunction with EV Connect’s cloud-based EV infrastructure, will enable us to develop new business models to solve the challenges EV infrastructure currently pose for energy management companies.”