Multifamily housing has missed the solar boom. PearlX wants to fix that with $70M Series B

If you’re a renter and you want solar power, you’re usually out of luck. For most, the only option is a community solar program, where people subscribe to utility-scale projects, but they’re not available everywhere. And given that most renters only stay for a few years, which of them are going to pay tens of thousands of dollars for solar panels — and what landlord would let them?

That’s where PearlX comes in. “Think of us as like the Sunrun for renters,” said co-founder and CEO Michael Huerta, referring to the company that rents solar installations to single-family homeowners. “PearlX is a rental electrification platform.”

Earlier this year, the startup began installing solar panels and backup batteries at multifamily rentals in Texas as part of its “TexFlex” project. PearlX’s next step, which Huerta shared exclusively with TechCrunch, will be a California expansion called “Flexifornia.” The startup is also rolling out a virtual power plant, which will allow the company to tap the batteries in times of high electricity demand to help lower tenants’ utility bills.

PearlX’s expansion plans are being fueled by a Series B of up to $70 million that values the company at $115 million. The round was led by Swiss asset manager Lombard Odier. The company has raised just under $5 million in previous rounds, Huerta said.

“This round is really focused on two things,” he said. First is addressing the company’s backlog. “We’ve got landlords with about a couple thousand tenants that are ready to go and super excited.” A handful of projects are complete and about a third of the backlog is at various points in the construction process. The company has also earmarked some money for the California expansion.

Multifamily housing has missed the solar boom. PearlX wants to fix that with $70M Series B by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch

‘The Merge’ could be good news for China’s Ethereum enthusiasts

When China banned cryptocurrency mining and trading, many saw it as putting an end to a burgeoning industry in the world’s second-largest economy. As it turned out, the country’s crypto investors, developers, and hobbyists continue to play a critical role in building the backbone and applications of web3.

The Merge, the much-anticipated network update on Ethereum that’s slated to unfold this week, could provide a new way for China’s crypto enthusiasts to participate in the blockchain economy two years after the country began phasing out the lucrative crypto mining industry.

While crypto mining, the process that verifies and adds new transactions to the blockchain using the proof-of-work method, is costly to join and prone to regulatory clampdown, crypto staking, enabled by the Merge, offers enhanced censorship resistance thanks to its low barriers to entry both in terms of cost and the computing power required.

More discreet

The Merge is expected to address one of the biggest criticisms against cryptocurrency — its environmental impact. For China specifically, the transition will also make it harder for regulators to trace participants in the Ethereum network, which has a market cap of over $200 billion as of writing.

Major blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum have been using what’s called the proof-of-work consensus method to validate transactions, where computer servers — or miners — race to solve cryptographic puzzles by consuming massive amounts of power.

Before China banned crypto mining, the country accounted for as much as two-thirds of Bitcoin’s worldwide hash power, the energy consumed to carry out proof-of-work.

But Beijing saw the novel sector as a drag on its economy. In 2019, China added crypto mining to a list of industries to be “eliminated” because they “lacked safe production conditions, seriously wasted resources, polluted the environment,” among other issues. Since then regulators have launched a number of crackdowns on mining, but the industry recently saw a rebound in hash rate after laying low for several months.

It won’t be surprising to see local governments loosening their grip a little as time passes. Crypto mines are often located in backward and landlocked areas of China where there isn’t much economic development for tax revenues otherwise.

But after the Merge, the amount of energy it takes to validate Ethereum transactions will be “indistinguishable”, said Daniel Dizon, co-founder and CEO of Swell Network, an Ethereum staking protocol.

Ethereum will switch to a so-called proof-of-stake mechanism. Servers compete by “staking” their tokens as collateral in the network in order to approve transactions, which is estimated to reduce the blockchain’s power consumption by 99%.

“All you need is basically fairly low computer power, like a computer at home, and the asset itself because it’s proof of the asset that you put at stake,” said Dizon.

The power needed to operate a “node” can be as lightweight as running a Raspberry Pi, the microcomputer originally designed to teach basic computer science in developing countries, Dizon added.

The switch means regulators can no longer detect Ethereum node operators by tracking abnormally high electricity consumption. Proof-of-work, on the other hand, normally takes place at mining farms full of rigs, the set of hardware and processors assembled for crypto mining.

“[A mining facility] is a big place that’s hot and noisy and uses up a lot of energy. It’s kind of hard to miss, right?” said a long-time crypto miner from Singapore who uses the nickname James.

More decentralized

Aside from its environmental impact, crypto mining also incurs exorbitant upfront investments in rigs that could easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Proof-of-stake, in comparison, allows anyone with the tokens to start staking right away.

Running a node is one way to join the staking economy, but to be a node operator, one needs to not only have a good dose of technical competency but also own at least 32 ETH, which, as of writing, amounts to $55,648.

That’s why many ETH holders delegate third parties to stake their assets. Centralized crypto exchanges such as Binance and Coinbase allow users to put down any amount by pooling together others’ tokens. But such platforms have mostly left China and removed Chinese users following Beijing’s crackdown. That means if one holds a Chinese passport, they won’t pass the know-your-customer or KYC requirement on a centralized platform that fully abides by Chinese law.

Users who are more crypto-savvy could opt for decentralized protocols, which use algorithms to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions rather than relying on a centralized intermediary, allowing for a higher degree of anonymity. Decentralized options often enable liquid staking, meaning users can access their funds anytime and avoid the custodial risks associated with centralized platforms.

For the technically proficient, it’s possible to operate nodes from China, though the country’s intricate censorship machine could add uncertainties. Nodes need a “good internet connection” to talk to their nearby peers to carry out the validation process, explained Lecky, CTO of Swell. But nodes in China could be on a virtual private network or VPN, which is used to circumvent the Great Firewall by masking their true IP address, making it tricky for nodes to know where exactly their peers are.

Despite these obstacles, China’s crypto users are already jumping on the staking bandwagon. While it’s tricky to put a firm number down, Dizon reckoned a “meaningful” percentage of ETH is held and managed in China, with an upswing in capital inflows into the staking economy expected after the Merge.

“The issue of geography, especially in the context of a permissionless and decentralized network in cyberspace which is effectively what Ethereum is, slightly complicates things when discussing whether assets are truly held or staked ultimately within a specific ‘meatspace’ boundary, i.e. a certain jurisdiction, be it China or otherwise,” the founder added.

‘The Merge’ could be good news for China’s Ethereum enthusiasts by Rita Liao originally published on TechCrunch

Solar Foods wants to replace industrial animal farming with a high-tech protein harvest

Fermentation has a long, rich history in food production, from beer and wine, to yogurt and cheese, leavened bread and coffee, miso and tempeh, sauerkraut and kimchi, to name just a few of the tasty things we can consume thanks to a chemical process thought to date back to the neolithic period. But if this 2017-founded Finnish startup, Solar Foods, has its way fermentation could have a very special place in the future of human food too.

The industrial biotech startup is working on bringing a novel protein to market — one it says will offer a nutritious, sustainable alternative to animal-derived proteins. The product, a single cell protein it’s branding Solein, is essentially an edible bacteria; a single cell microbe grown using gas fermentation. Or, put another way, they’re harvesting edible calories from hydrogen-oxyidizing microbes.

“Technically it’s like a brewery,” explains CEO and co-founder Dr Pasi Vainikka in an interview with TechCrunch. “Like fermentation technologies are. It’s not that strange [a process] — there is this one difference, which is the feedstock.”

The production of Solein requires just a handful of ‘ingredients’: Air, water and energy (electricity) — which means there’s no need for vast tracts of agricultural land to be given our to making this future foodstuff. It could be produced in factories located in remote areas or inside cities and urban centers.

Nor indeed are other foods needed to feed it to create an adequate yield, as is the case with rearing livestock for human consumption. So the promise looks immense. (As Vainikka argues: “Land use and energy use are the two main problems of human kind — and the rest follows from these two.)

Nutritionally speaking, Solein resembles some existing foodstuffs — sitting between dried meat, dried carrot or dried soy in terms of the blend of vitamins, amino acids, proteins (overall, it’s 65% protein), per Vainikka. “So it’s very familiar but it’s a bit [of a] new combination,” he suggests, adding: “The taste is very mild, very neutral.” (A mild taste may not sound especially scintillating for the tastebuds but it means it’s easy to include as an ingredients in a wide range of foods without the need for a strong flavor to be masked.)

While Solar Foods has essentially discovered a new species through its fermentation process, the microbe itself obviously hasn’t just appeared on planet Earth — and is likely very ancient; perhaps even hundreds of millions of years old. So there’s a fascinating blend of old and new coming together in the startup’s bioreactor.

Why is finding new forms of protein important? The problem Solar Foods is aiming to tackle is that the environmental costs of livestock-based meat production are indisputably massive — whether you’re talking unsustainable land and water use; climate-heating emissions and pollution; and animal welfare concerns. But what if you could produce billions of nutritious meals without the need to deforest huge swathes of land and slaughter masses of livestock to produce the food? What if humanity could feed itself and stop consuming the planet in the process?

That’s the promise and the core differentiator that Solar Foods claims vs animal-derived proteins.

Solar Foods bioreactor for producing Solein

A Solar Foods bioreactor for producing Solein (Image credits: Solar Foods)

If you compare Solein to the growing gaggle of plant-based meat alternatives, they do still rely upon land being farmed to produce the necessary plants — whether soy or pea or oat etc — that form the basis of their products. Although they need far less land than meat production requires so the environment upside is still very real. But Solar Foods sees itself blending into this competitive mix — selling Solein to companies producing plant-based foods as another ingredient they can use to cook up nutritious, environmentally friendly meals.

“Cereals, vegetables, fruits, herbs aren’t going anywhere,” says Vainikka, discussing how Solein might fit into an evolved food production system. “So if we go back to the original problem — 80% of all the problems that have to do with food, whether it’s loss of natural habitat or forest loss or whatever, has to do with the industrialized animal production… So actually Solein could solve 80% of the problem but 20% of the calories because mostly we are, on a calorie basis, eating carbohydrates.”

And if you’re excited about the promise of lab-grown meat — which is also seeking to de-link protein production from land use — Vainikka says the startup is supportive of such efforts since, once again, it’s spying potential customers as he says cultivated/lab-grown meat producers could use Solein to feed the cell cultures they’re using to grow slaughter-free steaks.

So use-cases for Solar Foods’ edible bacteria look broad, provided people are willing to eat it (or have it fed to something in their food chain). Conceivably it could even be used as a feedstock for livestock — although the startup’s messaging is focused on the need to transform a broken food system and enter “the era of sustainable food production”, as its website puts it.

It is also working on developing a closed-loop system in which the sole byproduct of its production process — water containing bits of the Solein protein — would be continuously recycled back into production of more of the foodstuff. And if it can pull that off, the edible bacteria could potentially function as a life support system for humans on space missions where the timescales are too long for astronauts to rely on food supplies brought with them from Earth (such as, for eg, a mission to Mars).

“The specific thing that we think is different in what we’re doing — compared to anything else on the market today — is that we don’t use any agriculture in the foods,” Vainikka tells TechCrunch. “Electricity and carbon dioxide are the main ingredients — instead of sunlight and carbohydrates or oils. So that’s the fundamental point where the disconnection of food production from agriculture happens.

“That’s our thing. And the reason to do that is once you can de-link the connection between use of land and land-use impacts and food production then basically all the environmental benefits fall on your lap that there can be in relation to food production.”

Down here on Earth, being able to unhitch food production from the vagaries of seasonal weather and other factors that can have major impacts on agricultural yields — such as pests, natural disasters, issues with supply chains specific to farming, and so on — is another touted advantage for Solar Foods’ approach. “Security of supply… consistency and quality,” says Vainikka, checking off some of the added advantages he says the edible protein offers vs traditional farming, i.e. on top of the massive heap of land-delinking-based environmental gains which could — for example — support a mass reforestation of farm land, promoting biodiversity and fighting global warming since trees suck up CO2.

Europe’s energy crisis bites

Solein looks like a no brainer on the environmental front. But one key component of its production — energy; electricity — is facing supply issues of its own in Europe at present, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Russia being a major but unreliable supplier of gas to Europe.)

Solar Foods’ long term bet is on energy production costs being brought down (or, well stabilized) by widespread access to cheap renewables — such as wind and hydro energy in the north of Europe and solar in the sunny south. Thing is, for now, the European energy markets are typically structured so that the wholesale price of energy is linked to the cost of the most expensive type of energy (fossil fuel derived), despite there already being a fair amount of renewable energy available which is far cheaper to produce. (Hence why if the price of gas goes up the wholesale price of energy rises, and the bill payer must pay more, even if their energy supplier sources their energy from cheaper to produce renewable sources.)

Since the Ukraine war started, Europe has been facing an exacerbated supply vs demand issue. And over the past several months it’s been hard for Europeans to escape energy price spikes as their governments have sought to reduce reliance on Russian gas imports — shrinking energy supply options and helping keep war-spiked wholesale prices high.

The coming winter looks very grim, with Russia recently electing to entirely shutter gas exports via its Nord Stream pipeline to Germany in what looks like an attempt to weaken Western support for the pro-Ukraine sanctions. So energy supply in Europe has become a weapon of economic war.

It’s an incredibly volatile situation but one thing is clear: Europe’s ‘competitive’ marginal-cost-based energy markets are in desperate need of structural reform — to reflect the cheaper production costs of renewables and ensure consumers and businesses aren’t at the mercy of fossil fuel volatility and cripplingly high prices linked to Russian aggression.

But, in the meanwhile, with electricity being a key component of Solar Foods’ process, the startup is having to manage what Vainikka — who has a background in energy economics that he says allows him to understand where the markets are headed — refers to with classic Nordic understatement as “turbulence”.

Solar Foods CEO, Dr Pasi Vainikka (left) and CTO Juha-Pekka Pitkanen

Solar Foods CEO, Dr Pasi Vainikka (left) and CTO Juha-Pekka Pitkanen (Image credits: Solar Foods)

He suggests Solar Foods may therefore need to wait out the current energy crisis before it’s able to scale commercial production of Solein in a way that’s economically viable — though it’s banking on Europe being able to find a way through to more stable electricity prices in the not too distant future. (In recent days, the Commission has said it will be coming with an emergency reform plan to curb energy prices — both in the short term and over the longer run, to ensure prices reflect cheaper renewables.)

“At the moment we shouldn’t make electricity supply agreements for our factory. We can’t be on the market today to make those agreements,” confirms Vainikka. “Because of this [energy price volatility] — it’s a fact. The second [thing] is we are quite happy that we are not fermenting natural gas — we are fermenting electricity. So we have an opportunity to make a good deal after turbulence.”

“We need to replace fossil fuels with electricity so we need a lot of new generation capacity which is also a problem in the market but we’re confident that this works,” he adds. “Unfortunately there is this turbulence now.”

Solar Foods is pressing on regardless of the current energy crisis.

It’s in the process of building its first factory — actually a demo facility, as a step on the road to future commercial scaling up of Solein production — at a cost of around €40M, drawing on backing from a number of VC funds since 2017, over seed and Series A rounds, as well as raising debt financing (such as €15M from Danske Bank Growth earlier this year).

The demo facility at least won’t have major energy requirements to run. (Although he says it’s still holding off on signing an energy supply contract for now.)

“We’ll manage the turbulence but of course it would be better for it not to continue too long,” says Vainikka. “We’re using this demo [facility] operated by one wind turbine to prove that this scales — but the real factories would be 100x larger in terms of energy use, 50x larger — and it would need rather 50 turbines to run a huge facility that will produce half a billion meals. Then you must get a good [energy supply] contract and if we were investing into that factory now it might be postponed because of the turbulence.”

Good food and food for good?

With the demo factory set to come on stream in 2023, Solar Foods’ hope is the first consumer product containing Solein will be on the market by the end of next year (or, failing that, in early 2024). Which global market will get the first commercial taste of the novel protein will depend on regulatory clearances.

Solar Foods has applied for clearance in multiple jurisdictions but can’t predict whether regulators in Europe or the US or Asia will be first with approval, given variances in this process. (But Vainikka says it’s possible the first clearance could happen this year.)

What the first product for sale to consumers that contains Solein will be also isn’t yet clear.

Vainikka suggests a few possibilities — such as that it could be added to existing foods like breakfast cereals or vegan meals for fortification purposes (owning to its vitamin and mineral content, such as iron and B vitamins); or as a main ingredient in plant-based meat replacement products, replacing stuff like pea protein. Or he says it could be used as an egg-replacement in pasta or pastry production. Or as a principle ingredient in ice cream or yogurt (or even to make a spreadable faux cheese).

“We leave the final formulation and product development for our customers so that we can empower them to renew categories,” he suggests. “And make having a food an act for good.”

Solein, a novel protein, shown integrated into a variety of foodstuffs

Some of the demo foods the startup has cooked up in its labs (Image credits: Solar Foods)

“Frankly as a company we think that it might be a good idea to focus on what we master — which is this conversion-fermentation; producing this ingredient and so that it would have the functionalities needed for food products,” he continues, expanding on Solar Foods’ decision to stay in its biotech lane. “There are so many, so huge, or so experienced or so old [food] companies on the market who have already access to the consumer, all the experience regarding textures, product development regarding all kinds of plant-based ingredients and so on. So when we introduce Solein into the market you would not only need to get everything right, what we are doing and mastering now, but also the final product — of course taste and texture is decisive.”

“So that’s a heavy investment program that we’ve dived into,” he adds, emphasizing the still extensive range of requirements for developing a product that’s designed even to be an ingredient in processed foods that people eat.

“Nutrition must be there… then second is safety, then functionality, of course — how it works and forms texture — and then scaling and production technology; who has it, how does it work, is it scalable, and how does the supply chain work — so who’s really the gatekeeper? So this we are in the middle of now… A lot will happen in the next 12-16 months.”

While Solar Foods won’t be a food product maker itself it does have an R&D lab where it carries out culinary experiments with its product — and images on its website show a selection of demo foodstuffs, from chicken-style chunks served with pasta, to soup, bread and a breakfast smoothie, all with a distinctive rich yellow hue.

In its refined form — i.e. after it’s passed through Solar Foods’ electrolysing and fermenting bioreactors and been dried — Solein takes the form of a yellow powder (the hue is down to betacarotene it naturally contains).

The strong color makes it looks a bit like a custom blend of turmeric and cumin. But taste-wise it’s nothing like that strong. Per Vainikka, one expert taster who sampled it suggested it was akin to dried carrot. But whether or not you’re a fan of carrots is besides the point; he emphasizes that the taste is mild enough that it can be easily masked in whatever food product it was being incorporated into — just without the added nutrients going anywhere.

For example, in the sample case of adding Solein to pasta, Vainikka says it would — nutritionally speaking — be akin to eating, say, a plate of spaghetti bolognese with all the nourishment derived from an animal-based ingredient but without the need to have any minced meat on the plate. Which, well, might take some swallowing for those used to consuming traditional (and oftentimes culturally significant) recipes. (An Italian I described this meat-less but nutritionally meat-like pasta dish to at a dinner party I attended recently was visibly shocked at the prospect and a second Italian she started to explain the concept to responded by suggesting we should focus on having fun eating the actual food on our plates instead of talking about, er, such high concept stuff, so, well, there may be some acceptance humps in the short term.)

But as plant-based faux meats advance in taste and texture it’s easy to envisage creative food producers being able to whip up something that has a meat-like taste and texture and — thanks to the addition of Solein — is also imbued with similar levels of protein, iron and vitamins as actual meat. And that could be a strong selling point for consumers, especially with the current food fad for high protein eating.

Other food ideas Solar Foods has been experimenting with in its labs are ‘cheese’ ball lollypops, mayonnaises and dressings, pancakes and plenty more besides.


Image credits: Solar Foods

Vainikka says he hopes the first commercial food to contain the ingredient won’t be a burger — since there are so many meat-alternative patty options out there already. But he suggests it could be a “meat like bite” — something akin to a nugget — such as might be be served in an Asian hot-pot or similar. “Then yogurt, ice cream, soup, bakery pastry application is something that might go first,” he postulates.

“You could imagine it could be a frozen food, fresh or even on the street kitchen of Asian city,” he also suggests, saying the startup is keen to branch out and “appreciate different food cultures on the planet” — so it can “try to explain how Solein could be an ingredient in different kinds of dishes from the Asian hot pots to burger patties to soups or pastries or whatever”.

Food is of course not only cultural but individual tastes can be hugely personal — and/or political. So once Solein leaves Solar Foods’ factories and arrives in customers’ commercial kitchens that’s where all these localizing product and branding challenges will really kick in — as buyers will have to work on figuring out how best to blend it in with other taste and cultural considerations or indeed make its presence stick out loudly (at least on the packet) where shouting about sustainability benefits might be the best way to reap big sales in their particular target market.

One thing looks clear: The future of food won’t be dull — or even uniformly yellow-hued. A full rainbow of possibilities for alternative eats are coming down the pipe — and the environmental challenges we face, as a species, demand we find appetite to consume them.

US issues rare security alert as Montenegro battles ongoing ransomware attack

The U.S. Embassy in Montenegro has warned Americans that an ongoing ransomware attack in the country could cause widespread disruption to key public services and government services.

The ransomware attack, first confirmed by Montenegro’s Agency for National Security (ANB) last week, targeted government systems and other critical infrastructure and utilities, including electricity, water systems and transportation. At the time of writing, the official website of the government of Montenegro is unavailable and reports suggest that several power plants have switched to manual operations as a result of the attack.

Officials in Montenegro claimed no data was stolen and claimed that no permanent damage was done as a result of the attack.

However, Montenegro’s ANB declared that the country was “under a hybrid war,” and blamed “coordinated Russian services” for the attack. Relations between the two countries have remained strained since Montenegro joined the NATO alliance of Western countries in 2017, after which Russia threatened retaliatory action.

The U.S. Embassy in Montenegro has since published its own notice, writing that the government was facing a “persistent and ongoing” cyberattack. “The attack may include disruptions to the public utility, transportation (including border crossings and airport), and telecommunication sectors,” the Embassy warned. It advised citizens residing in the Balkan state to limit travel, review personal security plans, and “be aware of your surroundings.”

According to malware research group VX-Underground, the Cuba ransomware group claimed responsibility for the attack.

On its dark web leak site, seen by TechCrunch, the Cuba ransomware group claims it obtained “financial documents, correspondence with bank employees, account movements, balance sheets, tax documents, compensation [and] source code” from Montenegro’s parliament on August 19.

Montenegro has been without a prime minister since August 20, when the country’s parliament voted to pass a no-confidence motion in the ruling government.

Cybersecurity company Profero previously linked the Cuba ransomware group to Russian-speaking hackers, which researchers observed while the group negotiated with its victims. Profero said it believes the group is “not state-sponsored.”

The ransomware gang has been around since 2019 and last year the FBI issued an alert that warned organizations that the cybercriminals had been targeting critical infrastructure. The FBI said it had observed roughly 50 targeted entities and that hackers demanded tens of millions of dollars from victims.

The attack on Montenegro comes just months after the Russia-linked Conti ransomware group attacked the Costa Rican government in a weeks-long attack starting in April. In a message posted to its dark web leaks blog, Conti urged the citizens of Costa Rica to pressure their government to pay the ransom, which the group later doubled to $20 million.

Tesla doesn’t need to hit the panic button over China heat wave disruptions just yet

Some parts of China are suffering from record high temperatures in the past few weeks, prompting local governments to halt industrial power use, including those of battery plants.

When news reaches the West, it generates fear-mongering headlines like “China heat wave shuts Tesla suppliers” which have likely rattled investors (because Tesla is all we care about, right?). But is the EV giant really suffering from China’s scorching heat?

First off, we need to look at which factories are affected. Lithium battery giant CATL is among the companies that have been ordered to shut down production in the landlocked province of Sichuan, according to a local media report. The pause, which lasts from August 15 to 20, is part of the province’s effort to ration electricity as it suffers from a devastating drought and heat wave.

While CATL, a major battery supplier to Tesla, might have trouble fulfilling some orders for customers, there’s no indication that Tesla is the one to bear the cost. For one, CATL has production plants all over China, from Guangdong, Jiangsu to Shanghai, so it’s unlikely that a temporary, regional rest — even though six days may seem long in the auto industry — will collapse the multi-billion business’ well-oiled supply chain.

Suppliers are also more likely to prioritize demand coming from Tesla because of its reputation and sheer volume. The American firm was the third-best-selling electric carmaker in China in the first half of 2021, according to an auto industry association.

“In China, Tesla enjoys a privilege just like Apple with all the manufacturers clamoring to be its suppliers. Even if production is restricted, it’s very likely that suppliers will prioritize Tesla’s orders while putting others’ on hold,” a Tesla parts supplier told TechCrunch.

The supply chains for Tesla and its local EV rivals like Xpeng and Nio are concentrated in manufacturing hubs around the Pearl River Delta, which include megacities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as the Yangtze Delta, which is home to Tesla’s Gigafactory in Shanghai and scores of chip makers around Suzhou, an employee at a Chinese EV startup pointed out to us.

Shanghai has been a victim of China’s recent heat wave, though there are no signs that the weather is stopping production at Gigafactory yet.

Shanghai already had its tough times in spring when a two-month-long COVID-19 outbreak forced Gigafactory to halt production twice.

Precisely due to these sporadic COVID-induced shutdowns over the past two years, “suppliers have become a lot more flexible,” the Tesla supplier said. “Many large manufacturers are stocking up on supplies to create a buffer for absorbing COVID shocks.”

Lastly, it’s worth noting that China is gathering steam to recover its sluggish economy at all costs. And it’s likely that industries that have been designated as the state planner’s top priorities, such as the EV sector, will receive more support when resources are limited.

As the heat wave tests the country’s ability to keep its manufacturing running, vice premier Hang Zheng highlighted “the importance of the energy and power supply for social and economic stability.”

“The country will also beef up policy support and take multi-pronged measures to help related enterprises address difficulties,” Han added.

Massive iron batteries could be key to displacing natural gas from the grid

With the impending passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, renewables are about to get a fresh jolt in the U.S. They’re already some of the cheapest sources of electricity to build and run, but they haven’t taken over because they’re often dependent on the weather.

The simple solution is to store any excess power produced, but that raises the overall cost of renewable power. That’s set off a race among startups to find the cheapest way to do it, from batteries to compressed air and even giant concrete blocks.

The front runner so far appears to be batteries, many of which use the same lithium-ion chemistries found in EV batteries. The scale of EV battery production has made lithium-ion easy to obtain, allowing it to get a foothold in the sector, but its long-term prospects for grid-scale storage are murkier given its high cost of materials.

Competition for battery materials is intensifying, and there are many uses for batteries beyond EVs, which is why some companies, like Germany’s VoltStorage, are trying to build batteries using the cheapest, most widely available materials possible — chiefly, iron.

Beacon Power Services raises $2.7M to improve electricity access for sub-Saharan African cities

Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of the global population without access to electricity stood at 77% in 2020, according to reports. Also, the average daily electricity supply in some of Africa’s largest cities is less than 12 hours. As a result, individuals and businesses find other options and substitutes, such as generators, to deal with their power issues; however, these solutions can either be costly to use or affect the climate.

While solar grids and panels are another viable option and have compelling use cases for end consumers, there’s still an opportunity to launch products targeted at power distribution companies, and that’s where Beacon Power Services (BPS) plays. The energy tech company, which provides data and grid management solutions to help Africa’s power sector distribute electricity more efficiently, is announcing today that it has closed a seed round of $2.7 million.

Founder and chief executive officer Bimbola Adisa, an aerospace engineer, started the company in 2014 after working several years for a power turbine manufacturer and as an investment banker covering the power sector in the U.S. For the latter, most of his clients included electric utilities, service providers and manufacturers. In an interview with TechCrunch, he said these experiences gave him exposure to the application of technology in the power sector, and he saw an opportunity to apply that in Nigeria and across Africa.

Adisa launched BPS in 2014 to address the inadequate electricity supply from power distribution companies. The U.S.- and Nigeria-based utility company provides energy management software and analytics for utilities. Its AI-enabled grid management platform, Adora, solves one of two fundamental problems power distribution companies face in Africa.

The software offers real-time visibility on network performance for electric utilities and connects to every utility asset and customer node on the grid, allowing energy providers to preempt outages and identify network losses, respond to them quickly and distribute electricity more efficiently. “The result is that utilities can operate more efficiently, recover more revenue, and by reducing outages, customers get increased supply of electricity (more hours supplied daily), so everyone wins,” said BFS in an emailed response to TechCrunch on how Adora works.

The other problem is data-focused, tackled by the company’s proprietary platform called Customer and Asset Information Management system (CAIMs). Utilities in Africa struggle to maintain an accurate database of their customers, assets and grid topology (the relationship between assets and customers). The CAIMs solves this by factoring in the unique conditions within which Africa’s utilities operate, for example, poor address systems, and helps them digitize their data, which serves as a foundation for network improvements.

“Africa is home to the fastest growing cities in the world, but when most people think of energy access in Africa, they think of the rural areas with little or no access to electricity at all. However, it is impossible for Africa to develop without significantly improving electricity access and reliability across its major cities,” said CEO Adisa in a statement. “When we realized that solutions designed for mature markets fail to address the unique infrastructure challenges Africa faces, we developed a tailored solution for power companies on the continent to improve daily grid supply of electricity.”

Bim Adisa (CEO)

Adisa told TechCrunch that BPS has grown from a single utility in Nigeria to four utilities in two countries, including Ghana, covering more than 8 million customers (residential and businesses). BPS’ business model entails working with its clients as partners over the long term, and not just to sell products, said Adisa. As such, the company can defer most of the upfront cost of deploying its technology in exchange for service-based payments commensurate with the value it creates.

The eight-year-old energy utility company says it differs from other platforms because it provides “local solutions that factor in the local operating environment in Africa.” For instance, most off-the-shelf solutions created for mature markets do not factor in the frequency of outages encountered in Africa or the network communications issues experienced, but BPS claims its solutions have solved that.

The company’s seed round was led by Seedstars Africa Ventures with participation from Persistent Energy, Kepple Africa Ventures, Factor[e] and Oridun Capital Management. Speaking on the investment, Maxime Bouan, managing partner at Seedstars Africa Ventures, said, “As a society, we have recognized climate change as one of the biggest threats to our generation, and it is critical we use smart capital to support entrepreneurs across Africa who are creating innovative and localized solutions to tackle this challenge.”

The new funding would enable BPS to improve its current products (product upgrades to add new features and incorporate automation) and expand into new markets beyond Nigeria and Ghana, where it currently operates.

The road map for building the Uber of climate tech

The world needs a company willing to force governments to take action on climate change.

So far, climate tech has been the polite corner of the startup world. All pleases and thank yous, triple bottom lines and shared upsides, plenty of virtue and virtue signaling.

That’s great and all. Saving the world from probable calamity is an honorable mission statement, one that probably bleeds over into the way companies do business. And certainly the world could use more kindness, not less.

But here’s the thing: Right now, the world is moving too slowly, on track for 2.7 C of warming by 2100, far short of the 1.5 C goal that’s in the Paris Agreement. There’s no longer time for niceties. We need a climate tech startup that’s going to throw its weight around and force evolution on sclerotic governments and companies.

In short, the world needs a climate tech startup that’s like an early-days Uber, a company that won’t take no for an answer, one that tackles an entrenched, slow-moving industry bound by regulation, one with deep pockets and an eye toward the long game. Should it succeed, everyone would want to sign up as a customer. The rewards for the startup and its investors could be handsome.

Will Volkswagen’s new CEO hamstring its EV push?

Volkswagen dropped a bombshell announcement late last week: Herbert Diess was out as CEO.

As a manager, Diess was controversial, with a style that chafed both executives and labor leaders alike. But as a strategist, he was on firmer ground, deftly steering Volkswagen out of the Dieselgate scandal and setting it on a path toward full electrification.

With Diess leaving at the end of August, Porsche CEO Oliver Blume will step into Volkswagen’s corner office. There are plenty of reasons to think that Blume will continue the company’s EV push. After all, he oversaw the development and rollout of the sports car maker’s first electric model, the Taycan, which is already outselling the flagship 911.

But Blume is also an advocate for e-fuels, which are fossil-fuel replacements made from hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Last year, he reportedly went so far as to personally lobby for them with the German finance minister, who subsequently pushed back against EU plans to phase out fossil fuel vehicles entirely. (The whole business, known as Porschegate in the German press, has roiled national politics.)

Under Diess, Volkswagen’s path toward an electric future appeared to be set. Now, under Blume, it seems less certain. His push for e-fuels could bring the company some much-needed stability. But it also risks becoming a strategically perilous distraction at a time of great turmoil in the automotive industry.

E-fuel problems

South African startup Qwili gets $1.2M to scale its app and low-cost NFC-enabled smartphone

Qwili, a startup that provides a hybrid sales product to micro and small merchants in South Africa, has raised $1.2 million in seed funding a year after closing an undisclosed pre-seed round.

E4E Africa, a South African venture capital firm, led the round, which welcomed participation from other firms such as Strat-Tech, Next Chymia, Untapped Global and Codec Ventures and angels like Ashwin Ravichandran and Kanyi Maqubela.

In a statement shared with TechCrunch, Qwili said it would use the investment for app development, new hires (improvement in operations and development capabilities) and hardware production.

The company’s hardware is a low-cost NFC-enabled smartphone called Qwili Pula that allows merchants to send and receive payments. The platform’s software (which can be downloadable as an app on any smartphone or automatically installed on Qwili’s phones) turns these smartphones into point-of-sale devices permitting merchants to sell value-added services such as data and pay-TV subscriptions, groceries and clothing to their customers. CEO Luyolo Sijake told TechCrunch on a call that Qwili’s phones cost between $60 and $70.

Qwili says its target audience are digitally excluded and unbanked customers. Its mobile app serves as a “digital sales portal” through which micro and small merchants (agents) can facilitate the sale of goods and value-added services, the company said in a statement.

At first, Sijake and his co-founders Thandwefika Radebe and Tapfuma Masunzambwa launched Qwili as a different idea. They employed a business-to-customer model where Qwili sold these devices to individual users who used the platform’s digital wallet to buy value-added services. The plan was as users operated the phone and Qwili took a piece of every transaction, the phone would eventually commercialize itself, and users could buy them off Qwili. It turns out that didn’t work, hence the pivot to merchants.

“During those early stages, the phone wasn’t paying back quickly enough, and there wasn’t high enough adoption of the digital services. But what happened was that people started using the digital wallet to sell pay TV, electricity and other value-added services to people around them,” said the chief executive. “They started using the phone in a way we hadn’t intended, making more sense commercially. That’s how we ended up with this agent model: essentially people using the device and the software to sell to others instead of buying services for themselves.”

Image Credits: Qwili

Qwili sold over a thousand smartphones to end users before the pivot. Its business-to-business model has picked up steam, too, as 500 micro and small merchants use the hybrid platform (about half use Qwili’s NFC-enabled smartphones). Its typical business customer is a seller without a storefront that sells digital products to immediate communities and networks informally. Buying a point-of-sale device with limited functionality doesn’t make economic sense for this category; in contrast, a smartphone where they can collect payments and advertise products over WhatsApp suffices.

Sijake said Qwili doesn’t profit from selling smartphones, as it is just an enabler to the company to impact merchants that use the platform for commercial purposes. It takes a commission on every sale made on its application. “We’re all about enabling people who are currently digitally excluded, to participate in the various forms of value that being digitally included has to offer,” he said. “So the real barrier to that has been hardware: a reliable quality smartphone being too expensive, which means access to the mobile internet being too expensive. So we hope to continue making smartphones available at below cost.”

Qwili, in a statement, says its impact is felt in three areas: first, agents on the platform have access to an alternative, flexible source of income through the commission they earn on sales made through Qwili. Second, customers of these agents see time, efficiency and financial barriers between them and the services they need significantly minimized. And third, the providers of value-added services have facilitated access to a previously offline market. Qwili says the funding allows it to increase the pace at which it scales its operation toward seeing its effect in all three of these areas grow.

According to Sijake, Qwili currently processes $75,000 monthly GMV from its 500 merchants. However, the South African platform — which saw strong turnover growth of over 300% from Q1 to Q2 of 2022 — plans to get those numbers up to $1 million from 3,000 merchants by the end of the year after it expands into neighboring Botswana.

“We believe that Qwili is both highly scalable and high impact. Qwili agents love the entrepreneurial opportunity that Qwili provides them while giving their community access to e-commerce and to fairly priced goods and services,” says Bastiaan Hochstenbach, co-founder and managing partner at E4E Africa on the investment. “Qwili’s founding team is exceptional, and the business model is a strong fit with E4E Africa’s aspiration to support diverse founders in creating a thriving, innovative, and inclusive Africa.”