Walmart drops the $35 order minimum on its 2-hour ‘Express’ delivery service

In a move designed to directly challenge Amazon, Walmart today announced it’s dropping the $35 minimum order requirement for its two-hour “Express” delivery service, a competitor to Amazon’s “Prime Now.”  With Walmart Express Delivery, customers can order from Walmart’s food, consumables or general merchandise assortment, then pay a flat $10 fee to have the items arrive in two hours or less.

The service is useful for more urgent delivery needs — like diapers or a missing ingredient for a recipe, SVP of Customer Product, Tom Ward, noted in an announcement. They’re not meant to sub in for larger shopping trips, however — Express orders are capped at 65 items.

Today, Express Delivery is available in nearly 3,000 Walmart stores reaching 70% of the U.S. population, Walmart says. It builds on top of stores’ existing inventory of pickup and delivery time slots as a third option, instead of giving slots away to those with the ability to pay higher fees.

Like Walmart’s grocery and pickup orders, Express orders are shopped and packaged for delivery by Walmart’s team of 170,000 personal shoppers and items are priced the same as they are in-store. This offers Walmart a potential competitive advantage against grocery delivery services like Instacart or Shipt, for example, where products can be priced higher and hurried or inexperienced shoppers aren’t always able to find items or search the back, having to mark them as “out of stock.”

In theory, Walmart employees will have a better understanding of their own store’s inventory and layout, making these kind of issues less common. It will also have direct access to the order data, which will help it better understand what sells, what replacements customers will accept for out-of-stocks, when to staff for busy times, and more.

In addition to grocery delivery, Express Delivery competes with Amazon’s Prime Now, a service that similarly offers a combination of grocery and other daily essentials and merchandise. Currently, Prime Now’s 2-hour service has a minimum order requirement of $35 without any additional fees in many cases — though the Prime Now app explains that some of its local store partners will charge fees even when that minimum is met, and others may have higher order minimums, which makes the service confusing to consumers.

Walmart’s news comes at a time when Amazon appears to be trying to push consumers away from the Prime Now standalone app, too.

When you open the Prime Now app, a large pop-up message informs you that you can now shop Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh from inside the Amazon app. A button labeled “Make the switch” will then redirect you. Meanwhile, on Amazon’s website touting Prime’s delivery perks, the “Prime Now” brand name isn’t mentioned at all. Instead, Amazon touts free same-day (5 hour) delivery of best sellers and everyday essentials on orders with a $35 minimum purchase, or free 2-hour grocery delivery from Whole Foods and Fresh.

When asked why Amazon is pushing Prime Now shoppers to its main app, Amazon downplayed this as simply an ongoing effort to “educate” consumers about the option.

Walmart, on the other hand, last year merged its separate delivery apps into one.

After items are picked, Walmart works with a network of partners, including DoorDash, Postmates, Roadie, and Pickup Point, as well as its in-house delivery services, to get orders to customers’ doorsteps. This last-mile portion has become an key area of investment for Walmart and competitors in recent months — Walmart, for example, acquired assets from a peer-to-peer delivery startup JoyRun in November. And before that, a former Walmart delivery partner, Deliv, sold to Target.

This is not the first time Walmart has dropped order minimums in an attempt to better compete with Amazon and others.

In December, Walmart announced its Prime alternative known as Walmart+ would remove the $35 minimum on non-same day Walmart.com orders. But it had stopped short of extending that perk to same-day grocery until now.

To some extent, Walmart’s ability to drop minimums has to do with the logistics of its delivery operations. Walmart has been turning more its stores into fulfillment centers, by converting some into small, automated warehouses in partnership with technology providers and robotics companies, including Alert Innovation, Dematic and Fabric.

And because its stores are physically located closer to customers than Amazon warehouses, it has the ability to deliver a broad merchandise selection, faster, while also turning large parking lots into picking stations — another thing that could worry Amazon, which is now buying up closed mall stores for its own fulfillment operations. 

Walmart today still carries a $35 minimum on other pickup and delivery orders and same-day orders from Walmart+ subscribers.

Atlanta startups have another venture fund to tap as Silicon Road Ventures closes on $31 million

Atlanta startups can now add another name to their rolodexes of venture firms operating out of the Big Peach with the close of Silicon Road Ventures new $31 million fund.

Silicon Road invests across the U.S. from its base in Atlanta, the firm said with a focus on e-commerce, retail, and consumer packaged goods.

The firm said it’s focused on in-store retail and technology for shoppers, the multi-channel commerce world, supply chain and logistics technologies and financial technologies and payments.

Founded two years ago, the fund invested in ten startups over the course of 2020 and is targeting another twenty for its first fund.

The firm hopes that entrepreneurs find its “corporate connect” program to be a key differentiator, which relies on founder and managing partner Sid Mookerji’s experience in e-commerce, retail and consumer packaged goods to link corporations to relevant startups and research, according to a statement.

Silicon Road is already working with the upstart retail chain Citizen Supply, which provides a highly curated marketplace to showcase new consumer brands.

Mookerji previously founded Software Paradigms International Group, which was one of the first retail IT companies offering a suite of products designed to optimize omni-channel strategies. The company’s clients included Macy’s, Walmart, Carrefour, and NAPA.

Joining Mookerji is managing director and partner, Ross Kimbel, a former co-founder of Be Curious Partners and a global director of innovation and entrepreneurship at The Coca-Cola Company. curated engagements between portfolio companies and major retailers and brands.

The company’s current portfolio includesPerchToucan AIWeStockSoftWear AutomationPatronPull LogicTurnSymTrainEveryware, and Wripple.

Geothermal startups get another boost from Chevron as the oil giant backs a geothermal project developer

The U.S.-based oil major Chevron is doubling down on its investment in geothermal power by investing in a Swedish developer of low-temperature geothermal and heat power projects called Baseload Capital.

Oil companies are under pressure to find new lines of business as the world prepares for a massive shift to renewable energy resources to power all aspects of industry in the face of mounting climate-related disasters caused by greenhouse gas emissions warming the temperature on the planet.

Joining Chevron in the investment was the ubiquitous billionaire-backed clean energy investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures and a Swedish investment group called Gullspang Invest AB.

The investment into Baseload follows closely on the heels of another commitment that Chevron made to the geothermal technology developer Eavor and a recent Breakthrough Energy Ventures investment in the Google-affiliated company, Dandelion Energy (a spinout from Google’s parent company’s moonshot technology development business unit, called X).

Dandelion and Eavor are just two examples of a groundswell of startups working to leverage the knowledge from the oil and gas industry to tap geothermal resources for applications ranging from baseload energy to home heating and cooling.

They’re joined by businesses like Fervo EnergyGreenFire Energy, and Sage Geosystems, who’re all leveraging heat to generate power.

As Chevron noted in its press release, heat power is an affordable form of renewable energy that can be harnessed from either geothermal resources or waste heat.

The investments in Baseload and Eavor are financed by CTV’s Core Venture fund which identifies companies with technology that can add efficiencies to Chevron’s core business in operational enhancement, digitalization, and lower-carbon operations, the company said in a statement.

Together the two businesses are planning pilot projects to test technology and could look to current Baseload operations in Japan, Taiwan, Iceland or the United States to develop projects.

Financial terms of the deal were undisclosed. 

“In August, we announced that we were looking for a new strategic investor to help us accelerate deployment in our key markets,” said Baseload’s Chief Executive Officer Alexander Helling. “We couldn’t have asked for a better one. Chevron complements our group of owners and adds expertise in drilling, engineering, exploration and more. These assets are expected to accelerate our ability to deploy heat power and strengthen our way of working.”


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Rocket Lab debuts plans for a new, larger, reusable rocket for launching satellite constellations

Because news of its SPAC-fueled public market debut wasn’t enough, Rocket Lab also unveiled a new class of rocket it has in development on Monday. The launch vehicle, called Neutron, will be able to carry 8 metric tons (around 18,000 lbs) to orbit, far exceeding the cargo capacity of Rocket Lab’s current Electron vehicle, which can host only around 660 lbs. Neutron will also have a fully reusable first-stage, designed to launch on an ocean landing platform, not unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.

Rocket Lab says that Neutron will be designed to service increased demand from customers launching large multi-satellite constellations. The heavier lift will mean that it can take more small satellites up at one time to get those constellations in orbit more quickly. Its cargo rating also means it should be able to deliver up to 98% of all currently-forecasted spacecraft launching through 2029, according to Rocket Lab, and provide resupply services to the International Space Station. Rocket Lab also says it’ll be capable of human spaceflight missions, indicating an ambition to make it the company’s first human-rated spacecraft.

Neutron could significantly expand Rocket Lab’s customer base, and it’ll also improve costs and economics vs. what Electron can do now, thanks to a design focus don efficiency and reusability. The rocket will launch from Rocket Lab’s Wallops, Virginia facility, and since there’s already a launch pad in place for it, the company expects it’ll be able to fly Neutron for the first time by 2024. In addition to its LA-based HQ and the Wallops launch site, Rocket Lab anticipates it’ll be building a new Neutron production facility somewhere in the U.S. to build the new rocket at scale.

While it won’t have the launch capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it’s still intended to be a rocket that can also carry smaller payloads to the Moon and even deep space beyond. The medium-lift category in general is generating a lot of interest right now, given the projections in the amount and variety of constellations that both private and public organization are expected to put into orbit over the next decade. Constellations are offering advantages in terms of cost and coverage for everything from communications to Earth observation. Another rocket startup, Relativity Space, just unveiled similar plans for a larger launch vehicle to complement its first small rocket.

Rocket Lab to go public via SPAC at valuation of $4.1 billion

The SPAC run is on for space startups, which have been relatively slow in their overall exit pace before the current special purpose acquisitions company merger craze got underway. Rocket Lab is the latest, and likely the most notable to jump on the trend, with a deal that will see it combine with a SPAC called Vector and subsequently list on the NASDAQ under the ticker RKLB, with the transaction expected to close in the second quarter of this year.

Rocket Lab, which got its start in New Zealand, and which still launches rockets there with its HQ now shifted to LA, will have a pro forma enterprise value of $4.1 billion via the transaction, with a total cash balance of $750 million once the deal goes through thanks to a PIPE of $470 million with funds invested via Vector, BlackRock and others. At close, existing Rocket Lab shareholders will retain 82% of the total equity in the combined company.

The launch company was founded in 2006, and is led by founder Peter Beck. In 2013, it opened its California headquarters, and it has already completed its first U.S. launch facility at Wallops Island, Virginia. The company’s Electron launch vehicle can carry small payloads to orbit, and is designed to cater to the growing small satellite market, with a focus on responsive and flexible launch options.

Rocket Lab has performed launches on behalf of the U.S. government, including national security payloads, and that’s a key revenue opportunity for it gown forward. Currently, it says it has a backlog of customers, with a projection that it will be ‘EBITDA positive’ in 2023 after adjustments, and fully cash-flow positive by 2024, with a projected run rate of over $1 billion in revenue by 2026.

The company has focused on increasing its ability to launch more frequently in a number of ways. It’s been steadily improving its production capacity, with a focus on its large automated carbon fiber production capabilities. It has also established its U.S. launch site, as mentioned, and will soon open its second launch pad at its existing New Zealand launch site, which is fully privately-owned by Rocket Lab itself. It’s also working on making its Electron vehicle partially reusable, which founder Beck says will help it turn around launches more quickly.

Finally, it has just announced a new heavier-lift launch vehicle called Neutron, with a launch payload capacity of 8 tons – around 16,000 lbs.

Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

Has a startup finally found one of food science’s holy grails with its healthy sugar substitute?

A little less than three years ago at the Computer Science Museum in Mountain View, Calif. the founders of a young company hailing from Cambridge, England addressed a crowd of celebrities, investors and entrepreneurs at Y Combinator’s August Demo Day promising a revolution in food science.

Over the years, the event has become a relatively low-tech, low-budget showcase for a group of tech investors and billionaire industry insiders to take a look at early stage businesses that could be their next billion-dollar opportunity.

Sharing the stage with other innovation-minded budding entrepreneurs the Cambridge scientists boasted of a technology could produce a sweetener that would mimic not just the taste of sugar, but the caramelization and stickiness that makes sugar the go-to additive for the bulk of roughly 74% of packaged foods that are made with some form of sweetener. Their company, Cambridge Glycoscience  could claim a huge slice of a market worth at least a $100 billion market, they said.

Now, the company has a new name, Supplant, and $24 million in venture capital financing to start commercializing its low-cost sugar substitute made from the waste materials of other plants.

 

The bitter history of the sweetest ingredient

Sugar came into the human diet roughly 10,000 years ago as sugarcane, which is native to New Guinea and parts of Taiwan and China. Over the next 2,000 years the crop spread from those regions to Madagascar and eventually took root in India, where it was first refined in about 500 BC.

From there, the sweetener spread across the known world. By the first century AD Greek and Roman scholars were referencing its medicinal properties and, after the Crusades, sugar consumption traveled across Europe through the Middle Ages.

It was a welcome replacement from Europe’s mainstay, honey, and the early artificial sweeteners used by the Romans, which contained near-lethal doses of lead.

The cold climates of Northern Europe proved mostly inhospitable to sugarcane cultivation so the root took root in the more temperate South and the islands off of Europe’s southern coast.

Those regions also became home to the first European experiments with agricultural slavery — a byproduct of the sugar trade, and one that would plant the seeds for the international exploitation of indigenous American and African labor for centuries as the industrial growth of sugar production spread to the New World.

First, European indentured servants and enslaved indigenous people’s powered the production of sugar in the Americas. But as native populations died off due to the introduction of European diseases, genocidal attacks, and back-breaking labor, African slaves were brought to the new colonies to work the fields and mills to make refined sugar.

Sugar hangover

The horrors of slavery may be the most damning legacy of industrial sugar, but it’s far from the only problem caused by the human craving for sweeteners.

As climate change becomes more of a threat, fears of increasing deforestation to meet the world’s demand — or to provide cover for other industrialization of virgin forests — have arisen thanks to new policies in Brazil.

“Conventional cane sugar is heavily heavily water intensive,” said Supplant co-founder Tom Simmons in an interview. That’s another problem for the environment as water becomes the next resource to be stressed by the currents of climate change. And species extinction presents another huge problem too.

“The WWF number one source for biodiversity lost globally is cane sugar plantations,” Simmons said. “Sugar is a massive consumer of water and in contrast, there’s big sustainability pitch for what we do.. the raw materials are products of the current agricultural industry.”

And the quest for sugar substitutes in the U.S. has come with related health costs as high fructose corn syrup has made its way into tons of American products. Invented in 1957, corn syrup is one of the most common sweeteners used to replace sugar — and one that’s thought to have incredibly disastrous effects on the health of consumers worldwide.

The use of corn syrup has been linked to an increasing prevalence of diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver disease, in the world’s population.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 08: In this photo illustration, products containing high sugar levels are on display at a supermarket on April 8, 2016 in Melbourne , Australia. The World Health Organisation’s first global report on diabetes found that 422 million adults live with diabetes, mainly in developing countries. Australian diabetes experts are urging the Federal Government to consider imposing a sugar tax to tackle the growing problem. (Photo by Luis Ascui/Getty Images)

Looking For A Healthier Substitute

As Supplant and its investors look to take the crown as the reigning replacement for sugar, they join a long line of would-be occupants to sugar’s throne.

The first viable, non-toxic chemically derived sugar substitute was discovered in the late 18th century by a German chemist. Called saccharine it was popularized initially during sugar shortages caused by the first World War and gained traction during the health crazes of the sixties and seventies.

Saccharin, still available in pink Sweet n’ Low packets and a host of products, was succeeded by aspartame (known commercially as Equal and present as the sugar substitute in beverages like Diet Coke), which was supplanted by sucralose (known as Splenda).

These chemically derived sweeteners have been the standard on the market for decades now, but with a growing push for natural — rather than chemical — substitutes for sugar and their failures to act as a replacement for all of the things that sugar can do as a food ingredient, the demand for a better sugar has never been higher.

Supplanting the competition 

“Not everything that we back is going to change the world. This, at scale, does that.” said Aydin Senkut, the founder and managing partner of Felicis Ventures, the venture firm that’s one of Supplant’s biggest backers. 

Part of what convinced Senkut is the fact that Supplant’s sweetener has already received preliminary approvals in the European Union by the region’s regulatory equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration. That approval not only covers the sale of Supplant’s product as a sweetener, but also as a probiotic with tangible health benefits he said.

So not only is the Supplant product arguably a better and more direct sugar replacement, as the founders claim, it also has health benefits through providing increased fiber in consumers who use it regularly, Senkut said.

“The European FDA is even stricter than the U.S. FDA,” Senkut said. “[And] they got pre-approval for this.”

Senkut and Felicis invested in Cambridge Glycosciences almost immediately after seeing the company’s presentation at Y Combinator.

“We became the largest investors at seed,” Senkut said.

Its selling points were the products extremely low glycemic index and its ability to be manufactured from waste plant fibers, which means that it ultimately can be produced at a lower cost, according to Senkut.

What’s the difference? 

Supplant differs from its competition in a number of other key ways, according to company co-founder Tom Simmons.

While companies like the Israeli startup DouxMatok or Colorado’s MycoTechnology and Wisconsin’s Sensient work on developing additives from fungus or tree roots or bark that can enhance the sweetness of sugars, Supplant uses alternative sugars to create its sweetener, Simmons said. 

“The core difference is they’re working with cane sugar,” according to Simmons. “Our pitch is we make sugars from fiber so you don’t need to use cane sugar.”

Simmons said that these other startups have been approaching the problem from the wrong direction. “The problem that their technology addresses isn’t the problem the industry has,” Simmons said. “It’s about texture, bulking, caramelization and crystallization… We have a technology that’s going to give you the same sweetness gram for gram.”

There are six different types of calorific sugar, Simmons explained. There’s lactose, which is the sugar in milk; sucrose, which comes from sugarcane and sugar beets; maltose, found in grains like wheat and barley; fructose, the sugar in fruits and honey; glucose, which is in nearly everything, but especially carbohydrate-laden vegetables, fruits, and grains; and galactose, a simple sugar that derives from the breakdown of lactose.

Simmons said that his company’s sugar substitute isn’t based on one compound, but is derived from a range of things that come from fiber. The use of fibers means that the body recognizes the compounds as fibrous and treats them the same way in the digestive tract, but the products taste and act like sugar in food, he said. “Fiber derived sugars are in the category of sugars, but are not the calorific sugars,” said Simmons.

NEW YORK – DECEMBER 6: Packets of the popular sugar substitute Splenda are seen December 6, 2004 in New York City. The manufacturer of sucralose, the key ingredient in the no-calorie sweetener, says demand is so high for the product that it will not be able to take on new U.S. customers until it doubles production in 2006. Splenda has been boosted by the popularity of the low-sugar Atkins diet. (Photo Illustration by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Trust the process? 

Supplant’s technology uses enzymes to break down and fragment various fibers. “As you start breaking it down, it starts looking molecularly like sucrose — like cane sugar — so it starts behaving in a similar way,” said Simmons.

This is all the result of years of research that Simmons began at Cambridge University, he said. “I arrived at Cambridge intending to be a professor. I did not arrive in Cambridge intending to start a business. I was interested in doing science, making inventions and stuff that would reach the wider world. I always imagined the right way for me to do that was to be a professor.”

In time, after receiving his doctorate and beginning his post-doctoral work into the research that would eventually turn into Supplant, Simmons realized that he had to start a company. “To try and do something impactful I was going to have leave the university,” he said. 

In some ways, Supplant operates at the intersection of all of Simmons’ interests in health, nutrition, and sustainability. And he said the company has plans to apply the processing technology across a range of consumer products eventually, but for now the company remains focused on the $100 billion sugar substitute market.

“There’s a handful of different core underlying scientific approaches in different spaces,” he said. The sort of things that go into personal care and homecare. Those chemicals. A big drive in the industry is for both less harsh and harsh chemicals in shampoos but also to do so in a way that’s sustainable. That’s made form a sustainable source but also biodegradable.”

Next steps 

With the money that the company has now raised from investors including Bonfire Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Felicis, Soma Capital, and Y Combinator, Supplant is now going to prove its products in a few very targeted test runs.* The first is a big launch with a celebrity chef, which Simmons teased, but did not elaborate on.

Senkut said that the company’s roll out would be similar to the ways in which Impossible Foods went to market. Beginning with a few trial runs in higher end restaurants and foodstuffs before trying to make a run at a mass consumer market.

The feedstocks for Supplant’s sugar substitute come from sugar cane bagasse, wheat and rice husks, and the processing equipment comes from the brewing industry. That’s going to be a benefit as the company looks to build out an office in the U.S. as it establishes a foothold for a larger manufacturing presence down the line.

“We’re taking known science and applying it in the food industry where we know that it has value,” Simmons said. “We’re not inventing any brand new enzymes and each part of the process — none of it on their own are new. The discovery that these sugars work well and can replace cane sugar. That’s someone that no one has done before. Most sugars don’t behave like cane sugar in food. They’re too dry, they’re too wet, they’re too hard, they’re too soft.”

Ultimately the consumer products mission resonates highly for Simmons and his twenty person team. “We’re going to use these hugely abundant renewable resources produced all around the world,” he said. 

*This story was updated to include Bonfire Ventures and Khosla Ventures as investors in Supplant.

Marc Benioff and this panel of judges will decide who gets one seat on the first all-civilian spaceflight

SpaceX’s first all-civilian human spaceflight mission, which will carry four passengers to orbit using a Crew Dragon capsule later this year if all goes to plan, will include one passenger selected by a panel of judges weighing the submissions of entrepreneurs. The panel will include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Fast Company Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Mehta, YouTuber Mark Rober and Bar Rescue TV host Jon Taffer. It may seem like an eclectic bunch, but there is some reason to the madness.

This seat is one of four on the ride – the first belongs to contest and mission sponsor Jared Isaacman, the founder of Shift4 Payments and a billionaire who has opted to spend a not insignificant chunk of money funding the flight. The second, Isaacman revealed earlier this week, will go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital employee and cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux.

That leaves two more seats, and they’re being decided by two separate contests. One is open to anyone who is a U.S. citizen and who makes a donation to St. Jude via the ongoing charitable contribution drive. The other will be decided by this panel of judges, and will be chosen from a pool of applicants who have build stores on Shift4’s Shift4Shop e-commerce platform.

That’s right: This absurdly expensive and pioneering mission to space is also a growth marketing campaign for Isaacman’s Shopify competitor. But to be fair, the store of the winning entrant doesn’t have to be news – existing customers can also apply and are eligible.

The stated criteria for deciding the winner is “a business owner or entrepreneur the exhibits ingenuity, innovation and determination” so in other words it could be just about anybody. I’m extremely curious to see what Benioff, Mehta, Rober (also a former NASA JPL engineer in addition to a YouTuber) and Taffer come up with between them as a winner.

The Inspiration4 mission is currently set to fly in the fourth quarter of 2021, and mission specifics including total duration and target orbit are yet to be determined.

Noya Labs turns cooling towers into direct air capture devices for CO2 emissions

Not every company’s founders find themselves on a first name basis with the local bomb squad, but then again not every company is Noya Labs, which wants to turn the roughly 2 million cooling towers at industrial sites and buildings across the U.S. into CO2 sucking weapons in the fight against global climate change.

When the company first started developing prototypes of its devices that attach to water coolers, the company’s founders, Josh Santos and Daniel Cavero, did what all good founders do, they started building in their backyard.

The sight of a 55 gallon oil drum, a yellow refrigeration tank in a sous vide bath attached to red and blue cables didn’t sit so well with the neighbors, so Santos and Cavero found themselves playing host to the bomb squad multiple times, according to the company’s chief executive, Santos.

“We proved that it could capture CO2, and we achieved something that no startup should achieve,” Santos said of the dubious bomb squad distinction.

Santos and Cavero were inspired to begin their experiments with direct air capture by an article describing some research into plants’ declining ability to capture carbon dioxide that Santos read on the Caltrain on his way to work back in 2019. That article spurred the would-be entrepreneur and his roommate to get to work on experimenting with carbon chemistry.

Their first product was a consumer air purifier that would pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in homes and capture it. Homeowners could then sell the captured gases to Santos and Cavero who would then resell it. But the two quickly realized that the business model wasn’t economical, and went back to the drawing board.

They found their eventual application in industrial cooling towers, which the company’s tech can turn into CO2 capturing devices that have the capacity to take in between half a ton and a ton of carbon dioxide per day.

Noya’s tech works by adding a blend of CO2 absorbing chemicals to the water in the cooling towers. They then add an attachment to the cooling tower that activates what Santos called a regeneration process to convert the captured CO2 back into gas. Once they have captured the CO2 the company will look to resell it to industrial Co2 consumers.

It’s not green yet, at least not exactly, because that CO2 is being recirculated instead of sequestered, but Santos said it’s greener existing sources of the gas, which come from ammonia and ethanol plants.

Noya Labs co-founders Josh Santos and Daniel Cavero. Image Credit: Noya Labs

Five years from now we fully intend to have vertically integrated carbon capture and sequestration. Our first step is locally produced low cost atmospherically captured CO2,” said Santos. “If we were to go all in on a carbon capture that would require a lot of time for us to develop. What this initial model allows us to do is fine tune our capture technology while building up longterm to go to market.”

Santos called it the “Tesla roadster approach” so that the company can build up capital and get revenue and prove one piece of it as an MVP so they can prove other steps of it down the line.

Noya Labs already is developing a pilot plant with the Alexandre Family Farm that should capture between the estimated half a ton and one ton target.

To develop the initial pilot and build out its team, the company has managed to raise $1.2 million from the frontier tech investment firm Fifty Years, founded by Ela Madej and Seth Bannon, and Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital (whose mission statement to invest in companies that will buy time to “unf*ck the planet” might be one of the greatest). The company’s also in Y Combinator.

“One of the things that makes us excited about this technology is that in the U.S. alone there are 2 million cooling towers. Looking conservatively — if our initial pilot plant can capture 1 ton per day — we’re at right over half a gigaton of CO2 capture.”

And companies are already raising their hands to pick up the CO2 that Noya would sell on the market. There’s a growing collection of startups that are using CO2 to make products. These companies range from the slightly silly, like Aether Diamonds, which uses CO2 to make… diamonds; to companies like Dimensional Energy or Prometheus fuels, which make synthetic fuels with CO2, or Opus12, which uses CO2 in its replacements for petrochemicals.

Prices for commercial CO2 range between $125 per ton to $5,000 per ton, according to Santos. And Noya would be producing at less than $100 per ton. Current Direct Air Capture companies sell their CO2 from somewhere between $600 to $700 per ton.

Stoya’s first installation could cost around $250,000, Santos said. For Bannon, that means the company passes his “Mr. Burns test.”

“We’ve been digging into the DAC space but haven’t liked the techno-economics we’ve seen. Previous approaches have had too much capex and opex and not enough revenue potential,” Bannon wrote in an email. “That’s what Noya has solved. By leveraging existing industrial equipment, their model is profitable. And better yet, they make their carbon capture partners money, allowing them to scale this up fast. This creates an opportunity to profitably remove 1 gigaton plus a year.”

ClimaCell plans to launch its own satellites to improve its weather predictions

The weather data and forecasting startup ClimaCell today announced that it plans to launch its own constellation of small weather satellites. These radar-equipped satellites will allow ClimaCell to improve its ability to get a better picture of global weather and improve its forecasting abilities. The company expects the first of these to launch in the second half of 2022.

As ClimaCell CEO Shimon Elkabetz points out in today’s announcement, ground-based radar coverage, which allows you to get information about precipitation and cloud structure, remains spotty, even in the U.S., which in turn often makes even basic forecasting more difficult. And while there are (expensive) space-based radar satellites available, those often only revisit the same area every three days, limiting their usefulness. ClimaCell hopes that its constellation of small, specialized satellites will offer hourly revisit times.

We started with proprietary sensing and modeling to predict the weather more accurately at every point in the world, and built on top of it one software platform that can be configured to every job and vertical,” Elkabetz writes. “[…] Now, we are evolving into a SaaS company powered by Space: We’re launching a constellation of satellites to improve weather forecasting for the entire world. For the first time, a constellation of active radar will surround Earth and provide real-time observations to feed weather forecasting at every point on the globe.

That’s indeed a big step for the company, but we may just see more of this in the near future. While even 10 years ago it would have been hard for even a well-funded company to launch its own satellites, that’s quite different now. A number of factors contributed to this, ranging from easier access to launch services, breakthroughs in building these proprietary radar satellites and the availability of auxiliary services like ground stations as a service, which now even AWS and Microsoft offer, and a whole ecosystem of vendors that specialize in building these satellites. The ClimaCell team tells me that it is talking to a lot of vendors right now and will choose which one to go to later on.