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DuPont and VCs see lithium mining as a critical investment for the electric future

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“Mining” has become synonymous with crypto the past few years in the tech industry, what with Bitcoin piercing the $50,000 barrier and GPUs and ASICs worldwide scrambling to hash functions in a bid for distributed crypto manna. That excitement belies an increasingly energetic push though to bring VC dollars and entrepreneurial acumen back to Mining 1.0 — actual meatspace resource extraction.

One of the key target resources is lithium, a critical component for smartphones, electric vehicle batteries and nearly every other electric tool of modern convenience and industrial import. China through its mining companies and battery manufacturers is currently in the lead, thanks to a years-long push to control both the supply of lithium and develop massive new manufacturing capacity to meet global demand. As tensions rise between China and the United States however, companies are racing to find alternative supplies as the world transitions to more electric-based infrastructure systems.

That’s one reason why DuPont is making a push to prove out its extraction technologies.

The water filtration and purification service provider DuPont Water Solutions has teamed up with Vulcan Energy Resources, a developer of lithium mining and renewable energy projects, to test a new process for direct lithium extraction.

Current processes for mining lithium are bad for the environment (to put it mildly), involving heavy use of toxic chemicals and increasingly scarce water resources. This new joint project, which is being developed in the Upper Rhine Valley of Germany, would tap DuPont’s direct lithium extraction products and filtration expertise to mine and refine lithium in a more environmentally-friendly way, the company said.

Dr. Francis Wedin, Managing Director of Vulcan, said in a statement that “DuPont’s diverse set of products, which can be manufactured at scale, are likely to be well-suited to sustainably extract the lithium from the brine.”

DuPont is hoping to push the technology out across the mining industry and make its portfolio of sorbents, nanofiltration technologies, reverse osmosis filters, ion exchange resins, ultrafiltration, and close-circuit reverse osmosis products available to a wider group of customers.

A push by DuPont to become more involved in the lithium-mining business will heighten competition for startups like Lilac Solutions, which has developed its own technology for lithium extraction. The company has partnered with an Australian company, Controlled Thermal Resources, to develop lithium brine deposits in the Salton Sea, which is among California’s most blighted environmental disasters.

Last year, the Oakland-based startup announced a $20 million investment led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures (those folks are everywhere), the MIT-affiliated investment firm The Engine and early Uber investor Chris Sacca’s relatively new climate-focused fund, Lowercarbon Capital.

Outside Lilac, there’s been a stream of VC dollars flowing into the (non-crypto) mining business as software helps extraction companies operate more efficiently. Notable investments include high-tech prospectors like KoBold Minerals (another Breakthrough Energy Ventures portfolio company), which uses big data and machine learning to help pick better targets for mines and Lunasonde, which prospects from space using satellites.

Other solutions to the lithium problem are attracting investor attention, too. For Jeff Chamberlain, the founder and chief executive of the battery technology investment firm Volta Energy Technologies, an alternative may be found in “urban mining,” or the recycling of used lithium-ion batteries. For decades, lead-acid batteries have been recycled for their component materials, and Chamberlain expects that the lithium-ion supply chain will evolve to support more efficient reuse of existing materials as well.

There’s a slew of companies trying to prove Chamberlain right. They include businesses like Li-Cycle, which yesterday announced that it would go public through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in a deal that would value the company at $1.67 billion.

Meanwhile, privately-held and venture-backed startups are developing other recycling solutions. Battery Resourcers, a spinout from Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is focused on making cathode power converters from recycled scrap. Singapore-based Green Li-ion is another company that’s opening a recycling plant for lithium-ion battery cathodes, and Northvolt, a Swedish battery startup that was founded by former Tesla executives in 2016, already has an experimental recycling plant up and running.

Finally there’s J.B. Straubel’s Nevada-based startup Redwood Materials, which was one of the first companies to receive funding from Amazon through its Climate Pledge Fund.

“Ultimately we won’t have to extract lithium out of rock. We can extract lithium from pools and using urban mining,” said Chamberlain. Call it Mining 1.0, Version 2 — but it’s just the kind of investment our world needs if we are going to secure a better climate future.

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

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India’s Paytm turns Android smartphones into POS machines in merchants push

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Paytm said on Tuesday it is turning NFC-enabled Android smartphones into point-of-sale machines, as it looks to win more merchants in one of the world’s largest mobile payments markets.

A Paytm merchant partner will now be able to enable card acceptance feature from their Paytm Business app. Once activated, they will be able to process a transaction by tapping a plastic card to their phone.

Paytm Smart POS supports Visa, Mastercard, and Rupeek, the Indian startup said.

Existing payment devices in the market haven’t proven very successful in reaching small and medium sized businesses in India, most of which remain offline, said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of Paytm, at a virtual press conference today.

To win these merchants, Paytm has in recent years rolled out QR codes that work across several payment networks, and launched jukeboxes and other gadgets to make it easier for merchants to accept payments digitally.

With today’s move, said Sharma, “the obligation of buying a POS machine, too, is no longer needed.” The startup said that most new Android smartphone models support the NFC feature.

Paytm also unveiled the newer generation jukebox POS that looks similar to a QR placard. “The reason why merchants haven’t actively adopted many of the existing POS machines is that they are not comfortable with it,” said Dilip Asbe, head of payments body NPCI, at the virtual conference.

The Indian startup, which processed more than 1.2 billion transactions last month, said it will charge a small subscription fee to merchant partners for accessing either of the aforementioned payments services.

The move, which in many ways pits Paytm against Sequoia Capital-backed Pine Labs, a market leader in the POS category but a significantly smaller startup, demonstrates just how aggressively Paytm is expanding its payments platform to go after merchants.

“Just the way, mobile phones saw an evolution from featurephone to smartphone, we believe the merchant PoS market in India is at an inflexion point to evolve from the traditional (aka dumb-PoS) to Smart-PoS. Unlike traditional PoS, which only allows transactions from debit/credit-card, some of the features of a Smart-PoS are: GST compliant bill, scanner/printer, takes all payments including UPI, is Bluetooth enabled and could be customized for different merchants as per their needs. While currently the Fintech companies are offering these devices, we expect banks to catch-up eventually,” wrote analysts at Bank of America in a recent note to clients.

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Taipei-based Influenxio gets $2M from DCM Ventures for its “microinfluencer” marketing platform

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Influencer marketing startup Influenxio's team, with founder and CEO Allan Ko in the center

Influenxio’s team, with founder and chief executive officer Allan Ko in the center

“Microinfluencers” are gaining clout among marketers. Though they may have as little as a thousand followers, microinfluencers tend to focus on specific content and be seen as more engaging and trustworthy by their audience, said Allan Ko, founder and chief executive officer of Influenxio. The Taipei-based startup, which connects brands with Instagram microinfluencers through its online platform, announced today that it has closed $2 million in pre-Series A funding led by DCM Ventures, and is launching a new subscription plan.

Founded in 2018, Influenxio has now raised over $3 million in total, including from seed investor SparkLabs Taipei. It currently operates in Taiwan and Japan, where it has databases of 100,000 and 250,000 Instagram creators, respectively. So far, over 6,000 brands have registered on Influenxio’s platform, and it has been used to run over 1,000 campaigns.

Influenxio plans to use its new funding for hiring and product development. Influenxio’s new subscription plan is a relatively novel model for the field, so one of the startup’s goals is to prove that it works, Ko told TechCrunch. The company also plans to build out its Japanese platform and expand into more countries.

A screenshot of Influenxio's platform

A screenshot of Influenxio’s platform

Influenxio analyzes past campaigns, performance data and client reviews to improve its algorithms. Since the entire campaign creation process–from finding influencers to paying them–is performed through Influenxio, this allows it to gather a wide range of data to refine its technology, Ko told TechCrunch.

Influencers typically make about $35 to $40 USD for each campaign they participate in, and most of the brands the company works with focus on food (like restaurants), fashion, beauty or lifestyle services.

Before launching Influenxio, Ko spent 15 years working in the digital marketing field, serving as an account manager at Yahoo! and Microsoft, and then head of Hong Kong and Taiwan for Google’s online partnerships group. He wanted to create a startup that would combine what he had learned about digital marketing and make accessible to more businesses.

Large brands have used Influenxio to quickly generate marketing campaigns for special occasions like Mother’s Day or Christmas. For example, one advertiser in Taiwan used Influenxio to hire almost 200 influencers in one week, who were asked to test and post about their products, and some of Influenxio’s highest profile clients include Shiseido, Shopee, iHerb and KKBox.

But the majority of Influenxio’s clients (about 80% to 90%) are small- to medium-sized businesses, and Ko said they usually create multiple campaigns to build brand awareness over time, working with a few influencers a month.

Influenxio’s new subscription plan, which costs less than $100 USD a month and is launching first in Taiwan before rolling out to other markets, was created for them. “The first year we launched the platform, we found small businesses want experts and advice,” said Ko. Many don’t have marketing managers, so Influenxio’s subscription plan automatically matches them with new influencers each month and provides them with analytics so they can see how well campaigns are performing.

Influenxio is among a growing number of startups that are tapping into the “microinfluencer economy,” with others including AspireIQ, Upfluence and Grin.

Ko said Influenxio’s biggest difference is its focus on small businesses, and serving as a one-stop marketplace for influencer campaigns. “The important thing for our platform is that it needs to be very easy and simple,” he added. “We spent a lot of time on the execution and details to make it smoother on the advertiser side. For the influencer side, we try to make it more convenient. For example, the way they receive money, our goal is to also make it easy.”

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Kia’s electric vehicle plans take shape with EV6 teaser, new naming strategy

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Kia started the year by dropping “motor company” from its corporate name and revealing a new logo and slogan as part of Plan S, a strategy to shift its business away from internal combustion engines and towards EVs, mobility services and autonomous vehicle technology.

Now, the South Korean automaker is starting to share more details of the first vehicle that will come out of Plan S. Kia released Tuesday several teaser images of the EV6, its first dedicated battery-electric vehicle built on its new Electric-Global Modular Platform, or E-GMP platform. This platform is shared with Hyundai and is the underlying foundation of the new Hyundai Ioniq 5 compact crossover.

These are teasers and so the vehicle isn’t shown in full. But even with the limited view enough design features are visible to begin to understand what Kia’s design language means for the EV6 and its other future electric vehicles.

The EV6 is a four-door crossover, which isn’t a surprise considering the popularity of such vehicles in the U.S. The low front end moves up into a roofline that is reminiscent of a coupe. The LED headlights have a segmented pattern and the traditional grille found on internal combustion engine vehicles is gone.

Kia teases EV6

Image credits: Kia

The company also revealed a new naming scheme to help consumers easily identify the EVs in its lineup. Kia said its new dedicated battery electric vehicles will all start with the “EV” prefix. A number will follow “EV” to indicate the vehicle’s position the line-up. That puts the EV6 somewhere in the middle of its upcoming lineup.

Kia said the EV6 will make its world premiere during the first quarter of 2021.

“Our aim is to design the physical experience of our brand and to create bold, original and inventive electric vehicles,” Karim Habib, senior vice president and head of Kia Global Design Center, said in a statement.

Kia’s strategy is more ambitious though than creating bold, original and inventive electric vehicles. The company said last year that it wanted to become a pioneer in the age of EVs, a brand beloved by the millennial generation and Z generation and a symbol of challenge and innovation. Kia has placed sales and product goals behind those aspirational objectives, including the launch of 11 EVs by 2025 that will give it a 6.6% global EV market share, selling 500,000 electric vehicles annually by 2026, and offering customized purpose-built electric vehicles for corporate customers.

Image credits: Kia

It’s also putting some capital behind the effort, to the tune of 29 trillion won (US $25 billion) by the end of 2025.  Kia said its targeting a 6% operating profit margin and 10.6% return on equity (ROE) ratio during this time period.

The EV6 is the first product of Plan S, a vehicle that will show investors and consumers if Kia’s grand plans are achievable. In other words, the EV6 is important for Kia.

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