News Article | December 12, 2016
Bill Gates just revealed more information about his plan, first unveiled about a year ago, to bring together a group of billionaires to fund breakthroughs in energy technology that can fight climate change. The group, which has a collective net worth of $170 billion, is one of the most star-studded and diverse ever assembled to fund any kind of technology innovation. But will the big new fund be more successful than the mostly lackluster attempt at cleantech investing of the past decade? On Monday, Gates and his group announced a new $1 billion fund -- called Breakthrough Energy Ventures -- which will invest in science-based energy research, entrepreneurs and companies in areas like generating cheap clean energy, capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions, and making buildings more energy-efficient. The fund plans to make investments in both early-stage tech projects and later-stage companies. Unlike a traditional VC fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures plans to make investments over a 20-year period, intends to offer larger amounts of capital to companies that can be commercialized, and also plans to partner closely with university labs. The fund includes investments from well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalists John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, who both led cleantech investments at their firms over the past several years. Among the list of 21 investors, big names include Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Virgin founder Richard Branson and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Board members include energy hedge fund manager John Arnold, the Chairman of Reliance Mukesh Ambani, SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner, as well as Ma, Khosla and Doerr. Gates is listed as the chairman of the board. The fund will be a rare source of new financing for energy tech innovation, an area which has been fairly neglected in recent years in many regions. About a decade ago, many investors in Silicon Valley jumped into funding cleantech startups, but years later many dropped those efforts after losing money. High-profile cleantech failures like solar startup Solyndra, electric car company Fisker Automotive, and biofuel company KiOR scared off many. However, the devil will be in the details for how the fund plans to make its investments, and if it will be more successful than past attempts. Gates, Khosla and Doerr have already funded dozens of companies around energy storage, biofuels and solar manufacturing with few big wins to show so far. Will the trio use Breakthrough Energy Ventures to double down on their prior model of investing, just with a bigger fund and with capital outside of the confines of their firms? According to the investors on a media call on Monday afternoon, their cleantech investing will be different this time around. Gates, Doerr and Khosla gave every indication on the call that the fund would take full advantage of everything they’ve learned from the industry’s past mistakes. Doerr described the fund as “bespoke,” and designed “for the unique nature of the opportunity.” “We’ll take a lot of learnings over the last decade of energy investing and apply them here,” he said. Doerr described the lessons learned as: Energy tech breakthroughs need to be revolutionary instead of evolutionary, technologies need to have a clear market and the innovations need to be backed by an outstanding team. Investors also need to take “a really long point of view,” and also be willing to put two, three or maybe even five times more capital into companies than in an average VC investment, said Doerr. He also noted that winning with energy tech breakthroughs is “harder than usual.” “I can’t guarantee that it will happen,” said Doerr on commercializing successful energy tech companies, but he said the group is focused on enabling better, faster and cheaper energy and a zero-carbon planet by 2050. “I would never underestimate the power of energy entrepreneurs to change the game here,” said Doerr. Khosla said that the fund would give investors the “ability to be patient and take larger risks.” That type of investing can also create a much better opportunity for returns, said Khosla. However, the board members didn’t provide more details on what expected returns might look like or how deals would be structured. Arnold said the fund would only make an investment if the technology could have a large impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In that way, the group is very mission-focused. Gates said that investors would take more of a hands-on approach with entrepreneurs and companies, helping them find strategic partners and follow-on financing. Within the next three months, Breakthrough Energy Ventures plans to hire managers to make its investments and do due diligence on entrepreneurs and research ideas. It’s unclear just how much involvement and influence the board members like Gates, Doerr and Khosla would have over investment choices. The selection of the management team will be very important to determine just how different this cleantech investing project will be, compared to past efforts. Will these folks come from the traditional Silicon Valley venture capital world? After it became clear that the traditional Silicon Valley model of VC investing hasn’t worked so far for cleantech, a variety of new models have been introduced. Those include Cyclotron Road, which is collaborating closely with university labs; the energy research shop of Otherlab; regionally focused groups like the Energy Excelerator; and industry-focused projects like Powerhouse. Former Khosla Ventures partner Andrew Chung recently launched a $200 million fund with 1955 Capital to invest in technologies to manage resources in emerging markets like China. Whatever team ends up managing Breakthrough Energy Ventures, they should be well versed in what’s worked and what hasn’t. Breakthrough Energy Ventures says it plans to invest on a 20-year horizon, instead of the typical VC model which expects returns in a much shorter time period, like five years. Breakthrough investors will also be willing to put in larger funding rounds -- seven-, eight- and nine-figure investments -- into established companies that can be commercialized, said Arnold. The fund, which has a pool structure, has already had a first close with a commitment of a billion dollars, and plans to have a second close in the spring of 2017. The fund will also invest internationally, said the board members. The investors, like Khosla, still plan to make their own investments through their own firms. Arnold said on the call that the group is developing a “conflict of interest” policy to examine investments by Breakthrough Energy Ventures compared to investments backed by funds from board member’s own firms. While the board members said all the right things on the media call, the fund appears to be an evolved venture capital fund with some important different parameters. But will that be different enough to get different results? The question remains if any form of venture capital is really appropriate to fund difficult-to-achieve energy tech innovations.
News Article | February 15, 2017
We've recently written about a fantastic aid program in Rwanda where drones are used to quickly get medical supplies like blood and medicines to villages that can't be reached by car or motorbike. In that case, small drones fly out from a central hub and then return once they've made their deliveries, but in cases of natural disasters or humanitarian missions, the logistics aren't always that simple. Deliveries can be intercepted or the vehicles damaged in the process. The solution for safe deliveries during times of conflict or emergencies is a stealth system, which is why DARPA put out a call for disappearing unmanned systems and San Francisco-based Otherlab responded. Otherlab came up with an idea for a drone called APSARA that could make one-way emergency relief trips and degrade quickly once it reached its target. The body of the small drones are made from a cellulose-based material that's a lot like cardboard and filled with fungal spores to help it to biodegrade faster. The body itself looks like a stealth fighter jet in miniature. "DARPA was interested specifically in something that could degrade fairly quickly so when you deliver your supplies with a hundred of these, you don't have drones littering the ground for the next 20 years," said Mikell Taylor of Otherlab. The inside of the prototype drone contains off-the-shelf electronics that allow it to be remotely controlled. If these drones were used in a real-world application, the electronics would also be degradable -- DARPA has a separate program developing electronics that dissolve on impact. The drones are designed to land within a 33-foot radius of programmed GPS coordinates after being dropped from an aircraft tens of thousands of feet in the air though for testing they have been limited to using octocopters to lift the drones high off the ground. Depending on the mission, the body of the drone could be covered in water resistant coating to protect it from rain or floods or made from more durable materials if necessary. You can watch the prototype in action below.
News Article | February 22, 2017
When most people hear the word “drone” they either think of uncrewed military aircraft or those multi-rotor mini-copters that could one day deliver packages to your doorstep. But what if the package is the plane? That’s the idea behind the Aerial Platform Supporting Autonomous Resupply Actions drone, a cardboard glider that carries about two pounds of cargo. “It looks like a pizza box that’s been shaped into a wing,” says Star Simpson, an engineer at San Francisco robotics company Otherlab. Her team designed and built Apsara with funding from Darpa, which challenged them to develop a single-use delivery vehicle for emergency scenarios. But, Darpa being Darpa, there was a twist: The drones had to not only carry a small payload and land where you told them to—once they were on the ground, they had to disappear. Cardboard was an obvious choice. It’s cheap, lightweight, and can decompose in a matter of months. Plus, the material has a proven track record among drone hobbyists. The Apsara advances cardboard-drone design with something Simpson calls origami thinking; her team’s three-foot-wide drone is made of scored and laser-cut cardboard sheets that take about an hour to fold and tape together. Simpson calls it the world’s most functional paper airplane. Cardboard is the first step on the path toward drones that degrade quickly and completely. The Apsara’s final design actually calls for a mushroom-based material called mycelium, which Simpson says should decompose in a matter of days, not months. The next trick: Make the drone’s electronics disappear. Today, the Apsara uses a GPS unit and two wing-flap motors to bring it within 50 feet of a preprogrammed landing spot, but Darpa has another project devoted to ephemeral electronics that could soon allow it to leave almost no trace. That’s important. The Apsara is designed to be deployed by the hundreds or thousands, to deliver supplies during a humanitarian crisis, or in a battle’s aftermath. For security and ecological reasons alike, the last thing anyone wants is a landscape covered in drone bits. Now an Otherlab spin-off company called Everfly is hoping to refine the prototype for use by humanitarian groups like the Red Cross or MSF. Simpson thinks Everfly can scale the design to carry a 22-pound payload (that’s about 120 Clif bars). While it may not be as sexy as a whirring drone carrying your UPS package, we bet anyone in dire straits would be more than happy to see a mushroom wing full of energy bars gently floating in for a landing.
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration | Branch: | Program: SBIR | Phase: Phase II | Award Amount: 1.50M | Year: 2015
We have invented a new class of robotics, called `Pneubotics', that rival current manipulators in payload and reach at 1/10th the weight. Our technology leverages insights into lightweight materials and mass manufacturing to create robots that derive power, structure, and movement from pressurized air. As a result, drive trains, motors, bearings, shafts, sliding surfaces, and excess structural material are eliminated, leading to robots with extremely high strength to weight ratios, inherently human safe operation, and high degrees of freedom at low part count. This transformative new technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of automated handling of material and equipment on missions in low Earth orbit and beyond. The compliant nature of these robotic systems allows them to robustly grasp arbitrarily shaped objects and makes them ideal for operating around sensitive equipment and materials or cooperatively with humans. Similarly, due to their fluidic architecture they can be deflated and stowed for efficient transport. The work described in this phase II SBIR proposal would integrate the component development and analysis performed in Phase I to build and test a full prototype manipulation system. By incorporating optical, internal, and tactile sensors and multi-level controls that take advantage of the unique characteristics of the manipulator and seek out appropriate contact to guide motion rather than avoiding it. By testing the entire prototype system in the field we will demonstrate operation in the ground environment and learn valuable lessons for IVA and EVA applications.
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration | Branch: | Program: SBIR | Phase: Phase I | Award Amount: 113.83K | Year: 2014
We have invented a new class of robotics, called `Pneubotics', that rival current manipulators in payload and reach at 1/10th the weight. Our technology leverages insights into lightweight materials and mass manufacturing to create robots that derive power, structure, and movement from pressurized air. As a result, drive trains, motors, bearings, shafts, sliding surfaces, and excess structural material are eliminated, leading the way for robots that exhibit extremely high strength to weight ratios, inherent human safe operation, and high degrees of freedom at comparatively low part count. This transformative new technology has the potential to enable the widespread use of automated material handling on missions beyond low earth orbit. The compliant nature of these robotic systems allows them to robustly grasp arbitrarily shaped objects and make them ideal for operating around sensitive equipment or cooperatively with humans. Similarly, due to their fluidic architecture they can be deflated and stowed for efficient transport. The work described in this phase I SBIR proposal aims to develop the key technological components that will allow the production of Pneubotic systems, including novel pressure vessel based fabric actuator design, a pneumatic power architecture that exceeds electromagnetic efficiency, and dynamic models of inflated fabric structures. These components will enable the construction of a full prototype manipulation system in phase II.
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration | Branch: | Program: STTR | Phase: Phase I | Award Amount: 124.98K | Year: 2016
We propose that the key to robotic automation in unstructured environments is compliant robotic manipulators that can tolerate, sense, and leverage contact in a feedback loop. We will demonstrate an instrumented end-effector that will be capable of enhanced perception through observed and controlled contact. This approach requires: (i) a network of sensors capable of capturing the highly compliant state of the soft robot and high resolution tactile sensors for multi-point contact, (ii) integrating these sensors with a core embedded system capable of processing large arrays of sensor data and (iii) development of algorithms that can extract state/tactile information to serve as high frequency feedback to the control system. The goal of this STTR is to transfer the promising technology of elastomeric sensors from the Purdue Faboratory's research setting into a commercial product. These sensors present a solution to the remaining piece of the puzzle of how to manage and leverage the additional degrees of freedom of Pneubotics' compliant systems. Towards this goal, Otherlab will serve as the commercial expert with a deployable platform. We will provide requirements and specifications for the sensor design as well as insight into integration challenges and cost constraints. The Faboratory will serve as the experts on liquid-embedded elastomeric sensors, optimizing the design and fabrication methods to serve the commercial applications. The full system demonstrations proposed in this Phase I are feasible because we will exploit the Pneubotics' manipulators and gripper designs that Otherlab has developed through government grants (NASA, DARPA), commercial partners, and private funding.
News Article | February 15, 2017
That’s apparently what engineers at Amazon think could happen with its much-touted delivery drones. While the e-commerce giant has already delivered packages to paying customers in the U.K. using its aircraft, it did so by landing in a large patch of open ground. Now, in a patent, it has outlined how it could drop packages from the air instead. The patent describes a way to reliably eject a payload from a drone in midflight. Usually, such a drop would see the package descend along a parabolic arc, caused by the forward motion of the aircraft—but that might not jive too well with the neighbors. Instead, Amazon's idea is to apply a force as the package leaves the drone to have it descend vertically. It also suggests that the package container could have some simple built-in method of correcting its descent. It may, for instance, feature aileron-like flaps that can tweak its course, with instructions relayed wirelessly from the drone above. Amazon isn’t the only company to think that dropping parcels from the air without a motor is a good idea. The San Francisco-based startup Otherlab recently unveiled its own disposable cardboard drones, which glide a payload to their destination once dropped from a larger mother ship. But for all these bright ideas, regulations still stand in the way of drone delivery in most parts of the world—that’s why Amazon is testing the idea in rural England, after all. Until that changes, the only parcel drop you’re going to get is from the height of your mailbox.
News Article | April 15, 2015
Last week, an artificially intelligent robot scared me to death . The next day, I travelled to Carnegie Mellon University where I met a lab full of robots designed to do the exact opposite. Big, soft, and inflatable, these robots are Disney characters in real life. Your grandma’s going to love them. That’s the idea. I first encountered CMU’s soft robots in a crowded lab run by a towering man who looks like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Baymax, the benevolent inflatable robot from Big Hero 6. This is appropriate because this man, robotics professor Dr. Chris Atkeson, helped build the soft robot that inspired Disney’s portrayal of Baymax in Big Hero 6. One of his primary areas of interest is in humanoid robots and human-aware environments. The burgeoning field of soft robotics is exactly what it sounds like: a new method of building robots not out of hard, dangerous metal but rather out of soft, safe materials. One particularly promising method for building soft robots involves inflatable elements that can vary in firmness. In the far future, this technology could resemble the touch and feel of human flesh. For now, soft robotics look pretty much like balloons. Pretty cute, huh? That demo happened at CES in 2011, around the time that Big Hero 6 director Don Hall found the inspiration for a big, huggable Baymax. If we’re ever going to be friends with robots, we probably want them to look more like Baymax and less like the Terminator without skin. As such, the great hope for soft robotics is a future in which agile robots can interact with humans safely and without intimidation. It’s a noble and promising goal. Atkeson talked to me about how friendly androids could help the elderly live longer in their own homes. I imagined a Disneyesque scenario where plush robots watched over children on playgrounds and helped the disabled across the street. These scenes were the polar opposite of the robot-fueled violence I’d seen on screen just a couple days ago. I liked this vision for robotics. “A big problem with traditional robotics is the safety issue,” Atkesonsaid in the Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab at CMU. “That’s holding us back.” He continued, “Soft robotics is based on the technology we use to make clothes and toys. In some sense, we’ve just begun.” Along with the Soft Machines Lab—where mechanical engineering professor Carmel Majidi and his team make squishy, flexible circuits—Atkeson’s lab is making progress building more robust soft robots. A graduate student gave me a demo of a very robotic-looking arm that was completely powered by air. The muscles and tendons were actually rubber-coated hoses that could flex and expand based in varying amounts of air pressure. The sound of it is mildly horrifying, but it’s entirely safe. Furthermore, the whole thing is eventually supposed to stay covered in a soft, sensor-laden skin. It’s all utterly mind-boggling when you step back and think about it. Probably due to movies and comic books, I’ve always imagine the future would be filled with boxy grey talk bots that moved in a stiff calculated fashion. But the more Atkeson told me about how everything worked, it was obvious that this makes little sense. Not only do heavy materials gobble up battery life, but the mechanics of hard metal robots make agility a tough challenge. Just imagine a robot that doesn’t know how strong it is going to give grandma a hug. Soft robotics are air-powered and designed not to crush anything. As the name of his lab implies, Atkeson and his team take cues from nature. Humans and most other animals are soft and squishy, and that seems to be working out pretty well. Why not aim for that design? “It’s a crazy idea at all levels,” Atkeson told me. “We have to demonstrate that we can make robust, useful robots.” Out of fabric and air. It is absolutely crazy. But the more this Baymax-shaped professor tells me about composite elastimers and liquid metal alloys, the more I’m picking up what he’s putting down. After all, like his colleagues building snake-bots down the hall , Atkeson is taking inspiration from nature and building bionic machines that simply work better for more purposes. One ongoing challenge involves creating touch sensitive skin. Another strives to avoid requiring a column of wires going down the spine of these robots. Down the line, the professor hopes to integrate fiber optics into the design. As Atkeson said himself, “We have a lot of fiber-based elements that hold us together!” The Soft Robotics and Bionics Lab at CMU is not alone in this crazy endeavor. The New York Times recently profiled Otherlab, a research company in San Francisco that’s building everything from inflatable exoskeletons to plush factory pickers with arms nimble enough to draw pictures. “Every problem in mechanical engineering has been addressed with more weight, more power and more stiffness,” Saul Griffith, cofounder and chief executive of Otherlab, told the Times. “But nature—the real world—is squiggly.” Soft robotics is a long game. Rather than attempting to compete with the small but impactful existing robotics market, Griffith and his team are looking half a century into the future, when we won’t just need robots to do things, we’ll need them to do things alongside human beings, and without scaring anybody. It’s going to take some time to figure out that fine balance. In Griffith’s words: “If you’re going to make robots like you see in the movies, you have to change the game. We’re trying to look at what manufacturing will be in 50 years.” Others have gotten hip to the soft robotics movement. iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum, also now has a soft robotics initiative. Harvard researchers recently released a soft robotics toolkit to make it easier to design soft robots. A peer-reviewed soft robotics journal opened up shop last year. And meanwhile—perhaps obviously—DARPA is funding millions of dollars worth of research and development and surely exploring the military applications of this technology. Soft robotics on the battlefield is missing the point, though. Grey-beareded and imminently cheerful, Atkeson frames the technology as approachable and familiar. He describes his purpose in plain English. “We want to develop robots that help old people live in their homes longer,” he said to me smiling, as we wrapped up my lab visit last week. And if you and I are lucky, maybe we’ll live long enough to take advantage of big, soft, futuristic friends like Baymax.
News Article | February 25, 2013
Creating compelling narratives and telling solid stories can be a game-changer for early stage energy technologies — for developing products, for pitching investors, and for gaining customers and partners. At the fourth annual ARPA-E Summit on Monday around 4:30PM EST (1:30PM PST) we’ll be live streaming a discussion between Otherlab’s Saul Griffith, IDEO’s Dave Blakely, and myself, about the power of narratives for energy tech. Don’t miss this! It’s one of the only live, free online events for the show. ARPA-E is a program created by the Department of Energy to give small grants to early-stage, high-risk energy technologies that can be game-changers. Here’s to moonshots! They need some powerful stories. Watch to find out why. (If we’re running a few minutes late, be patient, we’ll start soon).
News Article | March 2, 2017
An aircraft flying at night drops a flock of unpowered drones. They carry food, medicines and batteries. After delivering their load on the ground, the drones vaporize into thin air within hours. Disposable drones that can make precise deliveries before vanishing may look like a product of Stark Industries. But the fictional giant of military technology run by Tony "Iron Man" Stark has nothing to do with them. Instead, the development of "disappearing delivery vehicles" is a project by DARPA, the Department of Defense's research and development agency. DARPA, officially called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working with several companies in the field of ephemeral materials to achieve a prototype. The name of the $8 million program is ICARUS (Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems), which alludes to the mythological hero who flew too close to the sun by using wings made of wax and feathers. The program aims to mimic the material transience that is depicted in the myth. In fact, finding a balance between the properties of the material to build disposable drones is the main challenge, says Troy Olsson, ICARUS program manager. "The material [which disposable drones will be made of] has to be reliable enough to enable the flight," but then be able to vanish after delivering its payload, he says. Options range from cardboard to polymer-based or glass-based materials. San Francisco firm Otherlab, for example, received a grant of about $1 million from DARPA in 2015 to develop cardboard-made expandable and disposable drones, according to Mikell Taylor, team lead of the project at Otherlab. All the disposable drones under development as part of ICARUS are, technically, gliders — they don't have motors like traditional drones. They have to be dropped by an aircraft and then take advantage of the wind. An on-board navigation system allows disposable drones to correct their course and land in a precise location. While the drone is flying, on-board sensors are supposed to measure wind and adjust its path accordingly. "[Disposable drones] fly themselves, which is a difference with commercial drones," which are remotely operated, Olsson notes. Ideally, disposable drones could carry payloads of three to 10 pounds. The dream result would be a prototype glider that travels from 150 to 200 kilometers [93 to 124 miles] when dropped from 35,000 feet, lands within 10 meters [33 feet] of its target and vanishes within four hours after delivering its load, Olsson says. Otherlab researchers did some actual testing. Taylor says they used off-the-shelf traditional drones to drop disposable ones from below 400 feet, the maximum altitude drones are allowed to operate under Federal Aviation Administration rules. Later, at an Army facility, researchers were able to drop disposable vehicles from 1,000 feet, she says. "We bought all the materials we used off the shelves to focus on the airframe design," she says. DARPA wants the disposable drones to be low-cost — from $250 to a couple of thousand dollars each, including the guidance and navigation system that combined are the size of a tennis ball, according to Olsson. In the battlefield, applications of disposable drones would range from bringing medicines to injured soldiers to providing any critical supply — food, batteries or electrical components — to helping troops that encounter an unexpected situation. But disposable drones may also come in handy as part of a wide-scale response to earthquakes or other disasters, when people need humanitarian supplies. "We are competing with parachute dropping, and the precision of landing is the difference," Taylor says. "For disposable drones, the range of landing accuracy is 50 feet. In an emergency situation, you want that precision."