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A startup using a new tech to make hydrogen extracts cash from Bill Gates’ climate tech fund

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Four years ago when Zach Jones went to do due diligence on C-Zero, a startup out of Santa Barbara, Calif. commercializing a new approach to producing hydrogen, for the small family office he was working for, he had no idea he’d wind up as the company’s chief executive officer.

Or that the company would wind up raising money from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the billionaire backed investment vehicle focused on financing companies developing technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and some of the world’s largest industrial and oil and gas companies.

At the time, Jones was working for Beryllium Capital, a small investment office out of South Dakota, and had identified a potential investment opportunity in C-Zero, a company commercializing a new way of making hydrogen developed by Eric McFarland, a professor at UCSB.

There was only one problem — McFarland had the research, but didn’t know how to run a company. That’s when Jones stepped in. His firm didn’t make the investment, but when the former Economist science writer took over, the company was able to nab a seed round from PG&E and SoCal Gas, California’s two massive utilities.

The reason for their investments is the same reason Breakthrough Energy Ventures became interested in the young company. Even with renewable energy production coming on line at a breakneck pace, much of the world will still be using fossil fuels for the foreseeable future and the greenhouse gas emissions from that fossil fuel production needs to go to zero.

C-Zero is developing a technology that converts natural gas to hydrogen, a much cleaner source of fuel, and solid carbon as the only waste stream for use in electrical generation, process heating and the production of commodity chemicals like hydrogen and ammonia. 

“Our CTO talks about running a coal mine in reverse,” Jones said.

Night image of an industrial manufacturing plant. Image Credit: Getty Images

The company’s technology is a form of methane pyrolysis, which uses a proprietary chemical catalyst to separate the hydrogen gas from other particles, leaving behind that solid carbon waste. The process, which is neither waste free (there’s that solid carbon) nor renewable (the feedstock is natural gas), is cleaner than current low-cost methods of hydrogen production and far cheaper than the more renewable ways of making hydrogen.

Making renewable hydrogen requires making electricity to send a charge through water to split the liquid into hydrogen and oxygen. And it takes far more energy to pull a hydrogen atom off of an oxygen atom than it does to split that hydrogen from a carbon atom.

“The reason that hydrogen is interesting is that it is a great supplement to intermittent renewables,” said Jones. “It’s really about energy storage… when you look at long duration storage on a daily and seasonal basis… it becomes exorbitantly expensive. Having a chemical fuel is going to be critical part of decarbonizing everything.”

Jones describes the technology as “pre-combustion carbon capture”, and thinks that it could be critical to unlocking the benefits of hydrogen for a range of industrial applications including heavy vehicle fueling, utility power generation, and industrial power for manufacturing.

He’s not alone.

 “Over $100 billion of commodity hydrogen is produced annually,” said Carmichael Roberts, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the new lead investor in C-Zero’s $11.5 million funding. “Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of that production comes from a process called steam methane reforming, which also produces large quantities of CO2. Finding low cost, low emission methods of hydrogen production – such as the one C-Zero has created – will be critical to unlocking the molecule’s potential to decarbonize major segments of the agricultural, chemical, manufacturing and transportation sectors.”

Joining the Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures in the new round is Eni Next, the investment arm of the Italian oil and gas and power company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and the hydrogen technology-focused venture firm, AP Ventures.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries already has an application for C-Zero’s technology. The company is in the process of re-powering an existing coal plant to run on a combination of natural gas and hydrogen by 2025. It’s possible that C-Zero’s technology could help get there.

Beyond the lower cost methods used in manufacturing hydrogen, C-Zero may be one of the first companies that could qualify for new tax credits on carbon sequestration established by the IRS in the U.S. earlier this year. Those credits would give qualifying companies $20 per ton of sequestered solid carbon — the exact waste product from C-Zero’s process.

Even as C-Zero begins commercializing its technology it faces some stiff competition from some of the largest chemical companies in the world.

The German chemicals giant BASF has been developing its own flavor of methane pyrolysis for nearly a decade and has begun building test facilities to scale up production of its own clean hydrogen.

And yesterday, two other big European corporations are also joining the hydrogen production game as the French chemicals company Air Liquide announced a joint venture with Siemens Energy to work on hydrogen production.

Jones acknowledges that the company’s technology is only a stopgap solution… for now. In the future, as the world moves to renewable natural gas production from waste, he envisions the potential of a potentially circular hydrogen economy.

In 100 years will this technology be around? If it is it’ll be because we’re using renewable natural gas,” Jones said. There are a lot of steps that need to be traveled to get there, but Jones is confident in the near-term success of the project. 

“There’s always going to be  a need for a very energy dense fuel. Liquid hydrogen is the most energy dense thing that’s out there outside of something that’s nuclear in nature,” he said. “I think that hydrogen is here to stay. At the end of the day the lowest cost of energy that has the lowest cost for avoided CO2 is what’s going to win.”

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

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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An NBC peacock logo is on the loose and hiding behind the corner of a brick building.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks

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As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.

 

 

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Cashify raises $15 million for its second-hand smartphone business in India

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Tens of millions of people each year purchase a second-hand smartphone in India, the world’s second largest market. Phone makers and giant online sellers such as Amazon and Flipkart are aware of it, but it’s too much of a hassle for them to inspect, repair, and resell used phones. But these firms also know that customers are more likely to buy a smartphone if they are offered the ability to trade-in their existing handsets.

A startup that is helping these firms tackle this challenge said on Thursday it has raised $15 million in a new financing round. New York-based Olympus Capital Asia made the investment through Asia Environmental Partners, a fund dedicated to the environmental sector. The five-year-old startup, which counts Blume Ventures  among its early investors, has raised $42 million to date.

Cashify operates an eponymous platform — both online and physical stores and kiosks — for users to sell and buy used smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops, desktops, and gaming consoles. 90% of its business today surrounds the smartphone category, explained Mandeep Manocha, founder and chief executive of Cashify, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“For consumers, our proposition is that we make it easy for you to sell your devices. You come to our site or app, answer questions to objectively evaluate the condition of your device, and we give you an estimate of how much your gadget is worth,” he said. “If you like the price, we pick it up from your doorstep and give you instant cash.”

A few years ago, I wrote about the struggle e-commerce firms face globally in handling returned items. There are many liability challenges — such as having to ensure that the innards in a returned smartphone haven’t been tempered with — as well as overhead costs in reversing an order.

Manocha said that phone makers and e-commerce firms have found better ways to handle returned items in recent years, but they still lose a significant amount of money on them. These challenges have created a big opportunity for startups such as Cashify.

In fact, Cashify says it’s the market leader in its category in India. The startup has partnerships with “nearly every OEM” including Apple, Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo, and HP. “If you walk into an Apple store today, they use our platform.” For consumers in India, if they opted for the trade-in program, Apple.com also uses Cashify’s trading platform, he said.

The startup also works with top e-commerce firms in India — Amazon, Flipkart, and Paytm Mall. The firms use Cashify’s trading and exchange software, and also rely on the startup for liquidation of devices. The startup then repairs these gadgets and sells the refurbished units to customers.

“Essentially, whether you come directly to us, or go to popular e-commerce firms or phone OEMs, we are handling the majority of the trading,” he said. Even if a customer trades in the device to OEMs, or e-commerce firms, these companies sell the device to players like Cashify, which serves over 2 million customers in more than 1,500 cities.

The startup plans to deploy part of the fresh capital to expand its presence in the offline market. Manocha said Cashify currently has dozens of offline stores and kiosks at shopping malls across the country and it has already proven immensely effective in brand awareness among customers.

The startup also plans to expand outside of India, hire more talent, and invest more in getting the word out about its offerings. Manocha said the team is also working on expanding its expertise to more hardware categories such as cameras.

“The management team at Cashify has an excellent track record in building a strong consumer-facing franchise and building relationships with OEMs, e-commerce companies and electronic product retailers to be present across all touch points for the consumer,” said Pankaj Ghai, Managing Director of Asia Environmental Partners, in a statement.

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