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For Tony Fadell, the future of startups is connected and sustainable



Tony Fadell can’t stop thinking about what’s next in tech.

The man credited with creating the iPod, building the iPhone and founding the smart-home company, Nest, had tried to retire before he started his latest venture, Future Shape, but found that retirement didn’t really take.

So the 51-year-old designer, engineer and investor, together with a core group of collaborators, has spent the last three years staking out the shape of the future of tech with a slew of public and undisclosed investments. Fadell’s bets track to personal obsessions (he’s an investor in the website for the watch-obsessed, Hodinkee) and what he sees as the next waves in technological innovation.

“We call ourselves mentors with money,” Fadell said of his latest endeavor. The idea, he said, was to “help all of these companies that are doing really difficult things.”

Fadell and his crew have identified a few really difficult things that he sees as big investment areas going forward. They include the electrification of everything; the digital connection of everything; the rise of biomanufacturing; and the eradication of waste.

Those themes drive some, but not all, of the company’s work with the over 200 companies it has in its portfolio, according to a spokesperson for the firm.

One of the areas where Fadell has been most public about his commitments is around the notion of the programmable electrification of everything. There, Fadell has made some big bets with companies like Rohinni, which makes micro-light emitting diodes; Turntide, which makes digital motors; Menlo Micro, which is making micro-electronic miniaturized switches; and Phononic, which makes a solid state chipset for cooling.

Each of these technologies takes mechanical technology that, with the exception of the lightbulb, hasn’t seen much in the way of digital advancements for decades and makes those technologies programmable.

Fadell argues that Future Shape is in a unique position to take these technologies to commercialization thanks to his history with the manufacturing industry from his days at Apple and Google .

“We span these gaps from the atoms to the electrons (software) and we try to fit those systems together,” Fadell said.

That thesis applies to the development of technologies that will leverage the growing connectivity and digitization of nearly everything.

“There’s going to be this expansion of 4G/5G connectivity through all of these regions of the world… [So] we can put cheap sensors that collect information on smart phones and integrate it with software and cloud services… From that we get data that allows for [new industry] to happen.”

The proliferation of low cost sensors batteries, and power will create opportunities for data collection that can be applied in a vast array of new markets, from farming to construction, and engender better services in industries that are already data-heavy — like finance and insurance, Fadell said.

Image Credit: Getty Images/Rost-9D

It’s one of the reasons that the company invested in Understory Weather which Fadell calls a climate-change driven, next-generation insurance company that started with smart weather stations and data. 

Other companies in the Future Shape portfolio represent Fadell’s belief in biomanufacturing and the eradication of waste. An early investor in Impossible Foods, Fadell thinks that the kinds of synthetic biological processes that could lead to the replacement of meat with alternative proteins could extend to the fabrication of a leather replacement and the development of new, bioplastics to replace chemicals currently used today.

That’s why Future Shape has invested in MycoWorks, joining a slew of celebrity and institutional backers in the $40 million financing that the company closed in November.

“Biomanufacturing is happening, and it’s happening at a staggering rate because we’re embracing the powerful thing on the planet — life,” Fadell said. “You want to drive the market to where it needs to go. And everybody follows — just like what Impossible is doing.”

Finally, Fadell sees a huge opportunity in rethinking the supply chains associated with waste streams and the opportunities in the creation of circular economies. That applies to companies in the restaurant industry — like Sweetgreen — and to packaging and products like novel bioplastics.

“Another thing we look at is waste — how do we reduce the waste and how do we recycle the waste. We go after the problems and waste is a big one,” Fadell said. 

That opportunity set extends from companies that are examining the economics and providing a life cycle analysis on company’s carbon waste streams and material, physical byproducts. “Mine the waste, don’t mine the earth,” Fadell said of the potential for replacing a multi-billion dollar extractive industry.

While many of the companies in the portfolio are still very early stage, Fadell said that there have been some exits in the Future Shape portfolio, although he expects many more are on the way.

“We’re not in this for the money we’re in this for the change,” Fadell said. “If we do this right the money comes. I’m not in the job of convincing LPs… we do it based on conviction.” 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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GSV Ventures doubles assets managed with new fund focused on global edtech



GSV Ventures, co-founded by Deborah Quazzo and Michael Cohn, has raised $180 million in its second fund, exclusively focused on backing edtech startups across the globe. The startup now manages $277 million in cumulative assets, inclusive of its debut fund that was closed in 2016.

The new fund will let GSV invest in 13 core holdings, with an average check size of $15 million. The firm reserves up to $20 million per position for follow-on capital. It will invest in seed, Series A and late growth-stage opportunities.

While edtech was certainly spotlighted by the pandemic’s impact on the adoption of remote education, GSV Ventures is a case study in what happens when you invest in a category before it has generalist eyes on it. The first fund had three of its largest positions in Coursera, which is planning to go public this year; Course Hero, which was valued at $1.1 billion last year; and ClassDojo, which finally hit profitability after spending eight years focusing on customer growth instead of monetization.

The firm was also an early believer in Nearpod, which exited for $650 million in an all-cash deal in February 2021. Quazzo, who contributed her angel portfolio into the fund, says that this gives the firm 10 exits under its belt to date.

GSV Ventures began around the same time as other exclusively-edtech funds launched, such as Reach Capital, Learn Capital and Owl Ventures. These funds have all closed new capital in the wake of the coronavirus, with $165 million, $132 million and $585 million, respectively.

The biggest change between GSV Ventures’ debut fund and Fund II is the opportunity that Quazzo seeds internationally. Fund 1 only had one investment outside the United States, and Fund II already has holdings in Capetown, Croatia, Jordan, as well as, Quazzo confirms, six incoming investments split between Indonesia and India.

“There are very important businesses being built in these markets with missions to democratize and improve the delivery of learning at scale to all people,” Quazzo tells TechCrunch. To date, GSV Ventures’ portfolio has 37% female founders and 43% people of color.

While there was a four-year gap between Fund I and Fund II, GSV’s ability to back edtech startups with an ambitious trajectory hasn’t gone unnoticed. Its third fund, already mid-raise, will have its first close in the next few months.

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From the ashes of nearly a billion dollars, Ample resurrects Better Place’s battery swapping business model



A little over thirteen years ago, Shai Agassi, a promising software executive who was in line to succeed the chief executive at SAP, then one of the world’s mightiest software companies, left the company he’d devoted the bulk of his professional career to and started a business called Better Place.

That startup promised to revolutionize the nascent electric vehicle market and make range anxiety a thing of the past. The company’s pitch? A network of automated battery swapping stations that would replace spent batteries with freshly charged ones.

Agassi’s company would go on to raise nearly $1 billion (back when that was considered a large sum of money) from some of the world’s top venture capital and growth equity firms. By 2013 it would be bankrupt and one of the many casualties of the first wave of cleantech investing.

Now serial entrepreneurs John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah are reviving the battery swapping business model with a startup called Ample and an approach that they say solves some of the problems that Better Place could never address at a time when the adoption of electric vehicles is creating a far larger addressable market.

In 2013, there were 220,000 vehicles on roads, according to data from Statista, a number which has grown to 4.8 million by 2019.

Ample has actually raised approximately $70 million from investors including Shell Ventures, the Spanish energy company Repsol, and the venture capital arm of the $10 billion money manager, Moore Capital Management. That includes a $34 million investment first reported back in 2018, and a later round from investors including Japan’s energy and metals company, Eneos Holdings that closed recently.

“We had a lot of people that either said, I somehow was involved in that and was suffering from PTSD,” said de Souza, of the similarities between his business and Better Place. “The people who weren’t involved read up about it and then ran away.”

For Ample, the difference is in the modularization of the battery pack and how that changes the relationship with the automakers that would use the technology.

“The approach we’ve taken… is to modularize the battery and then we have an adapter plate that is the structural element of the battery that has the same shape of the battery, same bolt pattern and same software interface. Even though we provide the same battery system.. .it’s same as replacing the tire,” said Hassounah, Ample’s co-founder and chief executive. “Effectively we’re giving them the plate. We don’t modify the car whatsoever. You either put a fixed battery system or an Ample battery plate. We’re able to work with the OEMS where you can make the battery swappable for the use cases where this makes a lot of sense. Without really changing the same vehicle.”

Ample’s currently working with five different OEMs and has validated its approach to battery swapping with nine different car models. One of those OEMs also brings back memories of Better Place.

It’s clear that the company has a deal with Nissan for the Leaf thanks to the other partnership that Ample has announced with Uber. Ample’s founders declined to comment on any OEM relationships.

It’s clear that Ample is working with Nissan because Nissan is the company that inked a deal with Uber earlier this year on zero-emission mobility. And Uber is the first company to use Ample’s robotic charging stations at a few locations in the Bay Area, the company said. This work with Nissan echoes Better Place’s one partnership with Renault, another arm of the automaker, which proved to be the biggest deal for the older, doomed, battery swapping startup.

Ample says it only takes weeks to set up one of its charging pods at a facility and that the company’s charging drivers on energy delivered per mile. “We achieve economics that are 10% to 20% cheaper than gas. We are profitable on day one,” said Hassounah.

Uber is the first step. Ample is focused on fleets first and is in talks with multiple, undisclosed municipalities to get their cars added to the system. So far, Ample has done thousands of swaps, according to Hassounah with just Uber drivers alone.

The cars can also be charged at traditional charging facilities, Hassounah said, and the company’s billing system knows the split between the amount of energy it delivers versus another charging outlet, Hassounah said.

“So far, in the use cases that we have, for ride sharing it’s individual drivers who pay,” said de Souza. With the five fleets that Ample expects to deploy with later this year the company expects to have the fleet managers and owners pay for. charging.

Some of the inspiration for Ample came from Hassounah’s earlier experience working at One laptop per child, where he was forced to rethink assumptions about how the laptops would be used, the founder said.

“Initially i worked on the keyboard display and then quickly realized the challenge was in the field and developed a framework for creating infrastructure,” Hassounah said.

The problem was the initial design of the system did not take into account lack of access to power for laptops at children’s homes. So the initiative developed a charging unit for swapping batteries. Children would use their laptops over the course of the day and take them home, and when they needed a fresh charge, they would swap out the batteries.

“There are fleets that need this exact solution,” said de Souza. But there are advantages for individual car owners as well, he said. “The experience for the owner of a vehicle is after time the battery degrades. With ours as we put new batteries in the car can go further and further over time.” 

Right now, OEMs are sending cars without batteries and Ample is just installing their charging system, said Hassounah, but as the number of vehicles using the system rises above 1,000, the company expects to send their plates to manufacturers, who can then have Ample install their own packs.

Currently, Ample only supports level one and level two charging, but won’t offer fast charging options for the car makers it works with — likely because that option would cannibalize the company’s business and potentially obviate the need for its swapping technology.

At issue is the time it takes to charge a car. Fast chargers still take between 20 and 30 minutes to charge up, but advances in technologies should drive that figure down. Even if fast charging ultimately becomes a better option, Ample’s founders say they view their business as an additive step to faster electric vehicle adoption.

“When you’re moving 1 billion cars, you need everything… We have so many cars we need to put on the road,” Hassounah said. “We think we need all solutions to solve the problem. As you think of fleet applications you need a solution that can match gas in charge and not speed. Fast charging is not available in mass. The challenge will not be can the battery be charged in 5 minutes. The cost of building  charges that can deliver that amount of power is prohibitive.”

Looking beyond charging, Ample sees opportunities in the grid power market as well, the two founders said.

“Time shift is built into our economics… that’s another way we can help,” said de Souza. “We use that as grid storage… we can do demand charge and now that the federal mandate is there to feed into the grid we can help stabilize the grid by feeding back energy.. We don’t have a lot of stations to make a significant impact. As we scale up this year we will.”

Currently the company is operating at a storage capacity of tens of megawatts per hour, according to Hassounah.

“We can use the side storage to accelerate the development of swapping stations,” de Souza said. “You don’t have to invest an insane amount of money to put them in. We can finance the batteries in multiple ways as well as utilize other sources of financing.” 

Ample co-founders John de Souza and Khaled Hassounah. Image Credit: Ample

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Cables could help soft robots transform into harder structures



The sub-category of soft robotics has transformed the way many think about the field. Oft-influenced by natural phenomenon, the technology offers a dramatically different approach than the sort of rigid structures we traditionally think of when we discuss robots.

Soft designs offer a number of benefits, including compliance, which has already seen a number of real-world applications in manufacturing and fulfillment. But like their more rigid cousins, soft robots have their limitations. As such, designers generally choose between one or the other for a given job — or, best-case scenario, design swappable parts.

A team at MIT’s CSAIL lab is exploring a technology that could make choosing less of a trade-off. The project has been in the works since 2017, though it’s still in the somewhat early stages — still largely the realm of computer simulation, though the details have been outlined in a new paper.

“This is the first step in trying to see if we can get the best of both worlds,” CSAIL post-doc James Bern said in a release.

In the project (or the simulated version, at least), the robot is controlled by a series of cables. Pulling on them in the right combination turns the soft structure into a hard one. The team uses the analogy of a series of muscles controlling the human arm — if the right ones are flexed, you can effectively lock a position in place.

The team will present their findings at a conference next month. For the time being, they’re currently working on a prototype to showcase how it operates in a real-world setting. Combining the two fields could go a ways toward building safer collaborative robots for interacting with human workers.

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