A clean energy company now has a market cap rivaling ExxonMobil

The news last week that NextEra Energy, a U.S. utility and renewable energy company, briefly overtook ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco to become the world’s most valuable energy producer shows just how valuable sustainable businesses have become. It’s yet another proof point that there are billions of dollars available for companies focused on renewable energy alone — and a sign that, finally, the floodgates may be about to open for companies that build their businesses to service a sustainability revolution.

Large money managers are already returning to investing in earlier stage sustainability investments after an extended hiatus. These are institutional investors like the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board and Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which could commit billions between them to technologies focused on mitigating the impacts of climate change or reducing greenhouse gas emissions across industries. The flood of dollars into renewable energy and sustainable technologies actually began in the first quarter of the year.

Some of the largest private equity funds in the U.S. like Blackstone (with $571 billion in assets under management), announced a flood of investments into renewable power generation and storage. Blackstone alone invested nearly $1 billion into Altus Power Generation, a renewable energy developer, and NRStor, an energy storage company; while Generate Capital raised $1 billion for renewable energy infrastructure projects; and Warburg Pincus (with over $50 billion in assets under management) backed Scale Microgrids, which developed clean energy and storage projects, with another $300 million. In March, the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board closed its investment in Pattern Energy Group, a $6.1 billion transaction that gave the massive money manager ownership of a renewable power project owner and developer with assets across North America and Japan.

Behind all of that massive investment will be a surge in demand for technologies that can orchestrate resources that will be more distributed and provide better energy storage and distribution technologies for a more complicated grid. Indeed, the beginning of the year saw venture firms like Lightspeed Venture Partners, Sequoia and Union Square Ventures begin to plant flags around sustainable investments in startup companies. Microsoft announced a $1 billion climate change-focused investment fund and in the second quarter, Amazon followed suit with the commitment of $2 billion to its Climate Pledge Fund that would invest across a range of renewable and sustainability-focused technology startups and climate-related projects.

“You’ve got all of this activity even without policy changes — and policy changes are even going in the wrong direction,” said Abe Yokell, a longtime investor in technologies addressing climate change and the managing partner of Congruent Ventures, in an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year. “Our general framework is that the venture model applies to some but not all of the solutions that will solve the problem of climate change.”

Environmental and social investing rises again

In 2007, John Doerr, then one of the world’s most successful venture investors and a leader at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers (now just Kleiner Perkins), delivered an emotional speech to an early audience of TED talk attendees. In it, Doerr announced that KPCB would be investing $200 million into a range of “clean technology” companies and encouraged other investors to make similar commitments. Doerr spoke of a coming climate crisis that would reshape the globe and wreak vast economic damage on communities. He wasn’t wrong.

But the solutions that the first generation of clean tech investors backed were economically unfeasible and markets weren’t then ready to embrace massive investments required to avoid what were, at the time, future risk scenarios. Prices for solar and wind energy production technologies were too expensive and energy storage options too unreliable. Biofuels could not compete at costs that would make them competitive with existing petrochemicals, and bioplastics and chemicals suffered from the same problems (along with a consumer culture that had not awoken to the perils of plastic and chemical production).

While there were a few notable successes from that first generation of clean tech companies, including, most notably, Tesla, there were far more failures. Kleiner alone poured hundreds of millions into companies like Think and Fisker Automotive, two early electric vehicle companies. Another electric vehicle bet, Better Place, lost $1 billion for investors like VantagePoint Venture Partners. The losses weren’t confined to electric vehicles. Solar energy companies, biofuel companies, grid management companies and battery companies all racked up millions in losses for a generation of venture funds.

Yokell, who previously worked as an investor at Rockport Capital, saw the failures, but managed to persevere and raise new cash with his fund Congruent. “Things are different, but they are different for 10 different reasons — not one different reason,” Yokell said. “The preponderance of dollars went into the physical layer that would drive down the cost of accessing a product or technology. Solar is a great example; wind is a great example; batteries are a great example. [But] this time around, the venture dollars that are going into the ecosystem are being applied to products and services that are going to the end product.”

This means focusing not on the generation of electricity necessarily, but managing and monitoring how those atoms move. Or in the case of food tech, making the processes of creation and distribution more efficient in addition to making new sources of supply. “Venture is a rule of exceptions,” said Yokell. “If you use what works for the venture model and apply it to Tesla [most investors] were wrong. It only takes two massive successes to prove the rule wrong.”

More often though, the money for venture investors is in following some basic rules of investing — chiefly look for high-margin businesses with low upfront capital costs. If something is going to take $40 million or $50 million just to figure out that it might work and then you need to spend another $200 million to prove that it does work … that’s likely not going to be a good bet for a venture firm, Yokell said.

Public markets and large corporations now lead the way

Even as most venture capital dollars shied away from investments in technology that could move the needle on climate (one large exception being Vinod Khosla and Khosla Ventures … another story), the world’s largest investment firms, money managers, publicly traded energy and agriculture companies began stepping up their commitments.

In part, that’s because the economic viability started to become more apparent for decades-old technologies like wind and solar. The costs of these energy-generating technologies made sense to develop because they were, in many cases, cheaper than the alternative. A June report from the International Renewable Energy Agency showed that renewable power generation projects were cheaper than the cost to operate existing coal-fired plants. Next year, the energy agency said, the 1.2 gigawatts of existing coal capacity could cost more to operate than the cost of new utility-scale solar photovoltaics. According to the agency:

Replacing the costliest 500 GW of coal with solar PV and onshore wind next year would cut power system costs by up to USD 23 billion every year and reduce annual emissions by around 1.8 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to 5% of total global CO2 emissions in 2019. It would also yield an investment stimulus of USD 940 billion, which is equal to around 1% of global GDP.

Beyond that, the real effects of climate change began to be felt in rising insurance payouts as a result of increasingly frequent natural disasters and money managers beginning to realize that you can’t have a functioning economy if you don’t have a functioning society thanks to social unrest brought about by rising populations consuming increasingly limited resources thanks to climatological collapse. 

In early January, BlackRock, one of the world’s largest investment firms, pledged to refocus all of its investment activities through a climate lens. The investment bank Jefferies has declared 2020 to be the shot from the starting gun for what will be a decade of investments focused on environmental, social and corporate governance. Big energy companies were already picking up the slack where venture investment left off, with firms like National Grid Partners, Energy Investment Partners and others committing capital to new energy technologies even as venture investors pulled back. In 2016, Bill Gates launched a $1 billion investment fund that would focus on climate-related investing, backed by several of his billionaire buddies (including Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr and former Kleiner Perkins managing director, Vinod Khosla) and take the big swings that many venture firms were unwilling to take at the time.

Opportunities beyond energy

Investments in clean tech and sustainability were never just about energy, although that captured a fair bit of the imagination and some of the earliest returns — in biofuels companies and electric vehicles. Now, the breadth of the thesis is being expressed in a deluge of exits and millions invested in areas like novel proteins for food production, new technologies for a more sustainable agriculture, new consumer food products, new technologies for managing power and distributing it, and fantastic new ways to generate that power.

Last week, AppHarvest, a company using greenhouse farming techniques to grow tomatoes more sustainably, agreed to go public through a special purpose acquisition vehicle, and just today, a bioplastics manufacturer is taking the same tack. With the world awash in capital and looking for high-growth companies to generate returns, sustainability looks like a good bet.

Those are the companies that have managed to access public markets in the last week. Beyond Meat captured the attention of institutional investors and the investing public with its better-tasting hamburger substitute, and Perfect Day snagged a massive investment from the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board to make an alternative to cow’s milk. In fact, Perfect Day was the inaugural investment in the national pension fund’s climate strategy. Other deals should follow.

Meanwhile, as carbon emissions monitoring, management and sequestration gain broader commercial and consumer traction, other investment opportunities will begin to open up for digital solutions.

Microsoft commits to putting more water than it consumes back into the ecosystems where it operates by 2030

One good trend in 2020 has been large technology companies almost falling over one another to make ever-bolder commitments regarding their ecological impact. A cynic might argue that just doing without most of the things they make could have a much greater impact, but Microsoft is the latest to make a commitment that not only focuses on minimizing its impact, but actually on reversing it. The Windows-maker has committed to achieving a net positive water footprint by 2030, by which it means it wants to be contributing more energy back into environment in the places it operates than it is drawing out, as measured across all “basins” that span its footprint.

Microsoft hopes to achieve this goal through two main types of initiatives: First, it’ll be reducing the “intensity” of its water use across its operations, as measured by the amount of water used per megawatt of energy consumed by the company. Second, it will also be looking to actually replenish water in the areas of the world where Microsoft operations are located in “water-stressed” regions, through efforts like investment in area wetland restoration, or the removal and replacement of certain surfaces, including asphalt, which are not water-permeable and therefore prevent water from natural sources like rainfall from being absorbed back into a region’s overall available basin.

The company says that how much water it will return will vary, and depend on how much Microsoft consumes in each region, as well as how much the local basin is under duress in terms of overall consumption. Microsoft isn’t going to rely solely on external sources for this info, however: It plans to put its artificial intelligence technology to work to provide better information around what areas are under stress in terms of water usage, and where optimization projects would have the greatest impact. It’s already working towards these goals with a number of industry groups, including The Freshwater Trust.

Microsoft has made a number of commitments towards improving its global ecological impact, including a commitment from earlier this year to become ‘carbon negative’ by 2030. Meanwhile, Apple said in July that its products, including the supply chains that produce them, will be net carbon neutral by 2030, while Google made a commitment just last week to use only energy from carbon-free sources by that same year.

Polestar 1 Review: A hybrid grand tourer worthy of its $155,000 price

The Polestar 1 is stunning inside and out. But it drives even better than it looks.

This is a driver’s car. The Polestar 1 is an electric hybrid sports car, and yet it doesn’t feel like a hybrid. The power plant in the Polestar 1 is fascinating and delivers power in a way that’s different from any other electric or hybrid sports car I’ve driven. It feels like a proper gas-powered grand tourer that can keep up with the best from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi .

You’ll swear there’s a V8 in the Polestar 1. And that’s a good thing. Put your foot down, and the car plows forward with the confidence of internal combustion. The power delivery is not digital with an on-or-off feeling familiar in electric vehicles, but rather, it’s organic and fluid. Hit 45, and the torque seemingly increases, mimicking the soul of a balanced gas engine. The Polestar 1 feels more like a Corvette than a Tesla Roadster. And to me, for the first time, I have hope that the future of motoring can be efficient and enjoyable.

The Polestar 1 is a fantastic vehicle full of dumb flaws, but it gets one thing right: The hybrid powertrain in the Polestar 1 is genius. It’s spectacular and foreshadows a future where cars can change their identities to match a driver’s tastes better.

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Review

The Polestar 1 is surprising ways. During my time with the vehicle, I found myself lost in its balanced power. It’s smooth off the line and confident at speed. The 600 hp power plant is bottomless and yet restrained where needed. This car won’t beat a Tesla Model S to 60 mph, and to me, that’s ideal. As I learned from Polestar, the engineers used clever software to restrain the 737 ft-lb of torque and allow the powertrain to deliver the power pleasingly.

But first, some context: Polestar is an off-shoot of Volvo designed to explore the possibilities of electric vehicles. The company’s first car is the Polestar 1 featured here. The company’s second vehicle, Polestar 2, is a pure electric sedan that will compete with the Tesla Model 3. The Polestar 2 will be available in the coming months and has an electric range of 275 miles with a starting price of $59,900. The Polestar 1 is a hybrid vehicle and starts at $155,000.

Polestar is following a similar strategy used by Tesla. Like Polestar, Tesla’s first vehicle was a limited-run sports car, the Roadster. From the Roadster, Tesla expanded its line to more accessible vehicles like the Model S, Model X, and finally, the Model 3. Essentially, Tesla (and now Polestar) built the sexy sports car for attention, and an affordable car people need.

And much like the Tesla Roadster, the Polestar 1 has a bunch of quirky shortcomings. In the Polestar 1, the sun visor only tilts down — it cannot pull out and twist to the side. The Polestar 1’s door handles pop-out when the driver approaches the vehicle — sometimes, other times, they do not, and occasionally, they remained popped out from the car after I closed the door.

I experienced a random assortment of error messages from the Polestar 1. Sometimes, the car would beep to have the passenger buckle their seat belt, even though the passenger seat was empty. Other times, the check engine light flashed. And when one of the tires lost air, the vehicle flashed a warning, but I was unable to see the exact tire pressure to help gauge the urgency of the notice.

One more complaint: The trunk is tiny, and I don’t think it can hold more than one set of golf clubs.

And even with these shortcomings, the Polestar 1 is fantastic. It feels alive in a way that’s missing from most hybrid or electric cars. It’s balanced and controlled and has endless potential.

The Polestar 1 is a tourer. It’s designed to be comfortable and controlled on endless road trips. Tourers like the Polestar 1 are among my favorite types of cars. Most are broad and sweeping. In the best, the driver feels like a part of the massive machine, working in tandem with engines, motors, and gears, to achieve a common goal. This is often achieved through a competent chassis and potent powertrain, which is the same formula used in the Polestar 1.

The Polestar 1 powers off the start line with the torque pushing the riders into their seats. As speed increases, the torque increases, much like a small-block V8. At speed, the Polestar 1 settles into a grove, seemingly able to maintain any cruising speed. It carves through curves, with balanced steering and capable corning.

The hybrid powertrain comes alive on open stretches of roads. It’s not rowdy or boisterous, but understated and robust. It’s not jerky, but sublime. It’s intoxicating.

Representatives from Polestar explained to me that engineers used several techniques to deliver an enjoyable driving experience. For one, the software is used to restrain the instantaneous torque generally produced by electric motors. Second, the car’s gearbox utilizes gearing designed for long hauling, not drag racing. Because of this design, the Polestar 1 is slightly slower to 60 mph than some competitors, and yet, it’s fast enough with a 0-60 time of 4.2 seconds.

Like most cars, the Polestar 1 has several different driving modes. In pure electric, the vehicle has a range of 60 miles — the longest such range of any gas-electric hybrid on the market. In this mode, the Polestar 1 is silent and effortless. In hybrid mode, the power is plentiful but not overflowing. In Power mode, the Polestar 1 transforms into its true self as one of the best grand tourers available.

Car bros often lament about the coming age of the electric vehicle. I understand the pessimism. Electric cars often feel digital, and for most people, driving is an analog experience. Electric motors provide a thrilling experience but often lack a sporty enjoyment. The Polestar 1 achieves both.

Polestar knows the Polestar 1 will not sell in large numbers. With a starting price of $155,000, it’s selling against the best from Porsche, BMW, and Mercedes. For one, I wouldn’t get a Polestar 1 over a fully-equipped Porsche 911 or BMW 8 Series. That said, Polestar is only making 1,500 of this initial vehicle.

The Polestar 1 is beautiful and looks like nothing on the road. The hood is long and wide with the back-end stout and robust. The design is clean and straightforward. Hints of Volvo’s involvement are evident throughout the expansive front-end to the sweeping taillights to the infotainment system.

The future of motoring is electric, but that’s miles down the road. That’s okay with me. Cars like the Polestar 1 prove that gas engines still have a place in a world striving to be more energy efficient. Automotive development is evolutionary rather than revolutionary and in the case of the Polestar 1, it’s a big step in the right direction. The software used to tune the hybrid powertrain foretells a future that’s as pleasing as what’s currently available from Europe’s best.

The Polestar 1 sits in an odd spot. It’s not a mass market vehicle thanks to it very high price, and it’s hardly competitive against vehicles in its price range, too. That doesn’t stop it from standing tall as a fantastic vehicle regardless of its price. It’s exciting as a technical marvel more so than an obtainable commodity and in the world of motoring, it’s cars like this that stand the test of time. The Polestar 1 is a future classic.

Former Spotify marketing exec-turned-VC Sophia Bendz on her love of early-stage investing

Earlier this month, venture capitalist and former Spotify global director of marketing Sophia Bendz announced that she was leaving London-based Atomico to join Berlin’s Cherry Ventures.

Her stated reason for leaving the London VC firm — which mainly does Series A and Series B rounds — is that, having made the difficult transition from seasoned operator to venture capitalist, she wants to focus on seed stage where she can do more deals and work closely with founders and their teams at a much earlier stage.

Bendz is already a prolific angel investor, with a total of 44 deals in the last nine years. However, although she was promoted to partner at Atomico in November 2018 and has helped source and carry out due diligence on a number of deals, she didn’t end up leading any during her time at the firm.

That will quickly change once she starts officially at Cherry, which does far more deals per year than Atomico, being that it is focused on an earlier stage of the startup funding funnel.

To find out more about her latest career move, I caught up with Bendz the day before her announcement. In the conversation that followed, we dug deeper into how she approaches angel investing, why the new focus on seed stage makes sense, and what it’s like to compete for deal flow.

Could developing renewable energy micro-grids make Energicity Africa’s utility of the future?

When Nicole Poindexter left the energy efficiency focused startup, Opower a few months after the company’s public offering, she wasn’t sure what would come next.

At the time, in 2014, the renewable energy movement in the US still faced considerable opposition. But what Poindexter did see was an opportunity to bring the benefits of renewable energy to Africa.

“What does it take to have 100 percent renewables on the grid in the US at the time was not a solvable problem,” Poindexter said. “I looked to Africa and I’d heard that there weren’t many grid assets [so] maybe I could try this idea out there. As I was doing market research, I learned what life was like without electricity and I was like.. that’s not acceptable and I can do something about it.”

Poindexter linked up with Joe Philip, a former executive at SunEdison who was a development engineer at the company and together they formed Energicity to develop renewable energy microgrids for off-grid communities in Africa.

“He’d always thought that the right way to deploy solar was an off-grid solution,” said Poindexter of her co-founder.

At Energicity, Philip and Poindexter are finding and identifying communities, developing the projects for installation and operating the microgrids. So far, the company’s projects have resulted from winning development bids initiated by governments, but with a recently closed $3.25 million in seed financing, the company can expand beyond government projects, Poindexter said.

“The concessions in Benin and Sierra Leone are concessions that we won,” she said. “But we can also grow organically by driving a truck up and asking communities ‘Do you want light?’ and invariably they say yes.” 

To effectively operate the micro-grids that the company is building required an end-to-end refashioning of all aspects of the system. While the company uses off-the-shelf solar panels, Poindexter said that Energicity had built its own smart meters and a software stack to support monitoring and management.

So far, the company has installed 800 kilowatts of power and expects to hit 1.5 megawatts by the end of the year, according to Poindexter.

Those micro-grids serving rural communities operate through subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and currently serve thirty-six communities and 23,000 people, the company said. The company is targeting developments that could reach 1 million people in the next five years, a fraction of what the continent needs to truly electrify the lives of the population. 

Through two subsidiaries, Black Star Energy, in Ghana, and Power Leone, in Sierra Leone, Energicity has a 20-year concession in Sierra Leone to serve 100,000 people and has the largest private minigrid footprint in Ghana, the company said.

Most of the financing that Energicity has relied on to develop its projects and grow its business has come from government grants, but just as Poindexter expects to do more direct sales, there are other financial models that could get the initial developments off the ground.

Carbon offsets, for instance, could provide an attractive mechanism for developing projects and could be a meaningful gateway to low-cost sources of project finance. “We are using project financing and project debt and a lot of the projects are funded by aid agencies like the UK and the UN,” Poindexter said. 

The company charges its customers a service fee and a fixed price per kilowatt hour for the energy that amounts to less than $2 per month for a customers that are using its service for home electrification and cell phone charging, Poindexter said.

While several other solar installers like M-kopa and easy solar are pitching electrification to African consumers, Poindexter argues that her company’s micro-grid model is less expensive than those competitors.

“Ecosystem Integrity Fund is proud to invest in a transformational company like Energicity Corp,” said James Everett, managing partner, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, which backed the company’s. most recent round. “The opportunity to expand clean energy access across West Africa helps to drive economic growth, sustainability, health, and human development.  With Energicity’s early leadership and innovation, we are looking forward to partnering and helping to grow this great company.”

DroneBase nabs $7.5 million in a slight down round to double down on its work in renewable energy

DroneBase, a Los Angeles-based provider of drone pilots for industrial services companies, has raised $7.5 million during the pandemic to double down on its work with renewable energy companies.

While chief executive Dan Burton acknowledged that the company was fundraising prior to the pandemic, the industrial lockdown actually accelerated demand for the company’s services.

Even with the increased demand, the company had to make some changes. It laid off six employees and refocused its business.

“In the past three months it’s become clear that this is a moment for drones as an industry,” Burton said. “We were really pushing hard as a company, certainly on revenue growth and harvesting all the investments we made in technology and having a clear, near-term view to profitability.”

The new round, which closed in May, was a slight down round, according to people familiar with the company’s business.

“We see raising a growth round later this year,” Burton said.

New investors in the company included Valor Equity Partners and Razi Ventures, who joined Union Square Ventures, Upfront Ventures, Hearst Ventures, Pritzker Group Venture Capitla and DJI.

In all, DroneBase has raised nearly $32 million in financing, according to a company statement.

The new round will enable the company to focus on its data and analytics services that it has been developing around its core drone pilot provisioning technology — and gives DroneBase more financial wherewithal to expand its European operations under the DroneBase Europe, which operates out of Germany.

“DroneBase’s expansion into renewable energy reflects our belief in the growth potential of wind and solar energy industries,” said Burton in a statement. “Since many energy companies have both wind and solar assets, we are well positioned to leverage our DroneBase Insights platform to grow our global market share in renewable energy.”  

The key application for DroneBase has been allowing wind power companies to monitor and manage their turbines, improving uptimes and spotting problems before they effect operations, the company said.

For solar power companies, DroneBase offers a network of pilots trained in infrared imaging to detect anomalies like defects or hot spots on solar panels, the company said.

“DroneBase has established themselves as the drone leader in the commercial market, and its new work in renewables will have a lasting impact on the future of energy by keeping infrastructure operational for generations,” says Sam Teller, Partner at Valor Equity Partners, in a statement. “We believe DroneBase will continue to be a valuable partner in drone operations and data analysis across a multitude of industries globally.”

Uber Africa launches Uber Cash with Flutterwave and explores EVs

Uber is launching its Uber Cash digital wallet feature in Sub-Saharan Africa through a partnership with San Francisco based — Nigerian founded — fintech firm Flutterwave.

The arrangement will allow riders to top up Uber wallets using the dozens of remittance partners active on Flutterwave’s Pan-African network.

Flutterwave operates as a B2B payments gateway network that allows clients to tap its APIs and customize payments applications.

Uber Cash will go live this week and next for Uber’s ride-hail operations in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana, Ivory Coast and Tanzania, according to Alon Lits — Uber’s General Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Depending on the country, you’ve got different top up methods available. For example in Nigeria you can use your Verve Card or mobile money. In Kenya, you can use M-Pesa and EFT and in South Africa you can top up with EFT,” said Lits.

Uber Cash in Africa will also accept transfers from Flutterwave’s Barter payment app, launched with Visa in 2019.

The move could increase Uber’s ride traffic in Africa by boosting the volume of funds sent to digital wallets and reducing friction in the payment process.

Uber still accepts cash on the continent — which has one of the world’s largest unbanked populations — but has made strides on financial inclusion through mobile money.

Update on Uber Africa

Uber has been in Africa since 2015 and continued to adapt to local market dynamics, including global and local competition and more recently, COVID-19. The company’s GM Alon Lits spoke to TechCrunch on updates — including EV possibilities — and weathering the coronavirus outbreak in Africa.

Uber in Sub-Saharan Africa continued to run through the pandemic, with a couple exceptions. “The only places we ceased operations was where there were government directives,” Lits said. That included Uganda and Lagos, Nigeria.

Though he couldn’t share data, Lits acknowledged there had been a significant reduction in Uber’s Africa business through the pandemic, in line with the 70% drop in global ride volume Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi disclosed in March.

“You can imagine in markets where we were not allowed to operate revenues obviously go to zero,” said Lits.

Like Africa’s broader tech ecosystem, Uber has adapted its business to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa, which hit hardest in March and April and led to lockdowns in key economies, such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa

On how to make people feel safe about ride-hailing in a coronavirus world, Lits highlighted some specific practices. In line with Uber’s global policy, it’s mandatory in Africa for riders and drivers to wear masks.

“We’re actually leveraging facial recognition technology to check that drivers are wearing masks before they go,” said Lits. Uber Africa is also experimenting with impact safe, plastic dividers for its cars in Kenya and Nigeria.

Uber Africa Nairobi

Image Credits: Uber

In Africa, Uber has continued to expand its services and experiment with things the company doesn’t do in in any major markets. The first was allowing cash payments in 2016 — something Uber hopes the introduction of Uber Cash will help reduce.

Along with rival Bolt, Uber connected ride-hail products to Africa’s motorcycle and three-wheeled tuk-tuk taxi markets in 2018.

Uber moved into delivery in Africa, with Uber Eats, and recently started transporting medical supplies in South Africa through a partnership with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mobility Africa

In addition to global competitors, such as Bolt, Uber faces local competition as Africa’s mobility sector becomes a hotspot for VC and startups.

A couple trends worth tracking will be Uber’s potential expansion to Ethiopia and moves toward EV development in Africa.

On Ethiopia, the country has a nascent tech scene with the strongest demographic and economic thesis — Africa’s second largest population and seventh biggest economy — to become the continent’s next digital hotspot.

Ethiopia also has a burgeoning ride-hail industry, with local mobility ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber hasn’t mentioned (that we know of) any intent to move into the East African country. But if it does, that would serve as a strong indicator of the company’s commitment to remaining a mobility player in Africa.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda, Image Credits: Ampersand

With regards to electric, there’s been movement on the continent over the last year toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use.

In 2019, Nigerian mobility startup MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round backed by Yamaha, a portion of which was dedicated to pilot e-motorcycles powered by renewable energy.

Last year the government of Rwanda established a national plan to phase out gas motorcycle taxis for e-motos, working in partnership with EV startup Ampersand.

And in May, Vaya Africa — a ride-hail mobility venture founded by mogul Strive Masiyiwa — launched an electric taxi service and solar charging network in Zimbabwe. Vaya plans to expand the program across the continent and is exploring e-moto passenger and delivery products.

On Uber’s moves toward electric in Africa, it could begin with two or three wheeled transit.

“That’s something we’ve been looking at in South Africa…nothing that we’ve launched yet, but it is a conversation that’s ongoing,” said Uber’s Sub-Saharan Africa GM Alon Lits.

He noted one of the challenges of such an electric model on the continent is lack of a robust charging infrastructure.

Even so, if Uber enters that space — with Vaya and others — emissions free ride-hail and delivery EVs buzzing around African cities could soon be a reality.

RiskIQ adds National Grid Partners as securing data becomes a strategic priority for utilities

RiskIQ, a startup providing application security, risk assessment and vulnerability management services, has added National Grid Partners as a strategic investor. 

The funding from the investment arm of National Grid, a multinational energy provider, is part of a $15 million new round of financing designed to take the company’s technology into critical industrial infrastructure — with National Grid as a point of entry.

Over 6,000 companies use the company’s services already and the roster list and technology on offer has attracted some of the biggest names in investing including Summit Partners, Battery Ventures, Georgian Partners and MassMutual Ventures.

“We view NGP’s show of support as an incredible opportunity to help customers in new markets thrive as their attack surfaces expand outside the firewall, especially now amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said RiskIQ chief executive Lou Manousos said, in a statement. 

RiskIQ has spent the past ten years spidering the Internet looking for all of the exploits that hackers use to penetrate networks and have built that into a database of threats. This inventory gives the company an ability to identify which assets within a company present the most obvious threats. Its automated services constantly scan third-party code, internet-connected devices and mobile applications for potential vulnerabilities, the company said.

As a staple platform in their core security environment, our cyber threat analysts use RiskIQ regularly to enrich and identify incoming threats,” said Lisa Lambert, president of National Grid Partners and Chief Technology and Innovation Officer of National Grid, in a statement.

National Grid’s investment is a piece of a deeper partnership that will see NGP providing strategic advice for the security company as it looks to expand its commercial operations among industrial and utility customers.

 

Vaya Africa launches electric ride-hail taxi network

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, has launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa headquartered company has acquired a fleet of Nissan Leaf EVs and developed its own solar powered charging stations.

The program goes live in Zimbabwe this week, as Vaya finalizes partnerships to begin on-demand electric taxi and delivery services in markets that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia.

“Zimbabwe is a sandbox really. We’ve moved on to doing pilots with other countries right across Africa,” Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch on a call from Harare.

Vaya is a subsidiary of Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Group, which includes one of Southern Africa’s largest mobile operators and Liquid Telecom, an internet infrastructure company.

Masiyiwa has become one of Africa’s Gates, Branson type figures, recognized globally as a business leader and philanthropist with connections and affiliations from President Obama to the Rockefeller Foundation.

Working with Zimuto on the Vaya EV product is Liquid Telecom’s innovation partnerships lead, Oswald Jumira.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors, and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital product models.

Ethiopia has local ride-hail ventures Ride and Zayride. Uber’s been active in several markets on the continent since 2015 and like competitor Bolt, got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EV’s for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around two-wheeled transit.

In 2019, Nigerian mobility startup MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round backed by Yamaha, a portion of which was dedicated to pilot e-motorcycles powered by renewable energy.

Last year the Government of Rwanda established a national plan to phase out gas motorcycle taxis for e-motos, working in partnership with EV startup Ampersand .

Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto, Image Credits: Econet Group

The appeal of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets — beyond environmental benefits — is the unit economics, given the cost of fuel compared to personal income is generally high for most of the continent’s drivers.

“Africa is excited, because we are riding on the green revolution: no emissions, no noise and big savings… in terms of running costs of their vehicles,” Zimuto said.

She estimates a cost savings of 40% on the fuel and maintenance costs for drivers on the ride-hail platform.

At the moment, with fuel prices in Vaya’s first market of Zimbabwe at around $1.20 a liter, the average trip distance is 22 kilometres for a price of $19, according to Econet Group’s Oswald Jumira.

With the Nissan Leaf vehicles on Vaya’s charging network, the cost to top up will be around $5 for a range of 150 to 200 kilometres.

Image Credits: Vaya Africa

“It’s the driver who benefits. They take more money home. And that also means we can reduce the tariff for ride hailing companies to make it more affordable for people,” Jumira told TechCrunch .

The company has adapted its business to the spread of COVID-19 in Africa. Vaya provides PPE to its drivers and sanitizes its cars four to five times a day, according to Zimuto.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from delivery to motorcycle and Tuk Tuk taxis.

On the question of competing with Uber in Africa, Vaya points to the reduced fares offered by its EV program as one advantage.

The CEO of Vaya Mobility, Dorothy Zimuto, also points to certain benefits of knowing local culture and preferences.

“We speak African That’s the language we understand. We understand the people and what they want across our markets. That’s what makes the difference.” she said.

It will be something to watch if Vaya’s EV bet and local consumer knowledge translates into more passenger flow and revenue generation as it goes head to head with other ride-hail companies, such as Uber, across Africa.

AngelList India head Utsav Somani launches micro VC fund to back 30 early-stage startups

As investors get cautious about writing new checks to early stage startups in India amid the coronavirus outbreak, AngelList’s head in India is betting that this is the right time to back young firms.

On Wednesday, Utsav Somani announced iSeed, a micro VC fund to back up at least 30 startups over the course of two years. iSeed, which is not affiliated with AngelList, is Somani’s maiden venture fund.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Somani said he would write checks of $150,000 each to up to 35 early-stage startups in any tech category and enable his portfolio firms’ access to global investors and their knowledge pool. The fund will not participate in a startup’s follow-on rounds.

iSeed counts a range of high-profile investors, including Naval Ravikant and Babak Nivi, co-founders of AngelList, who are some of the biggest backers of the fund.

Others include founders of Xiaomi, Jake Zeller, a partner at AngelList and Spearhead, Sheel Mohnot, general partner at 500 Fintech, Brian Tubergen of CoinList, Deepak Shahdadpuri, managing director at DST Global, and Kavin Bharti Mittal of Hike.

AngelList launched syndicates program in India in 2018. The platform has been used for 140 investments in India since, including over 20 follow-ons in which firms such as Tiger Global, Sequoia Capital, Ribbit Capital participated.

Somani has also been an angel investor in more than a dozen startups including BharatPe, a firm that it is helping small businesses accept online payments and access working capital, and Jupiter, a neo-bank.

“I like the work AngelList India and Utsav have done since the launch. He brings energy, access and judgement to the table — the things to look for in a first-time fund manager,” said Ravikant in a statement.

Micro VCs is becoming a popular trend in the United States. Ryan Hoover of ProductHunt, for instance, maintains Weekend Fund. Somani said he has appreciated how others have been able to institutionalize the angel investing practice. According to Crunchbase, U.S. investors raised 148 sub-$100 million VC funds in 2018.

Running a micro-fund by leveraging AngelList’s infrastructure has also eased the burden starting such a venture creates for an investor, he said.

Indian startups could use any fund that backs early startups. Early-stage firms have consistently struggled to find enough backers in India, according to data from research firm Tracxn .

And that struggle is now common across the industry. More than two-thirds of startups in the country today are on the verge of running out of all their money in less than three months, according to a survey conducted by industry body Nasscom.

Somani said he is optimistic that great companies will continue to be born out of tough times. He said even his investors were aware of the pandemic and still stood by the fund.

“If you look at the market, we are seeing a number of layoffs. These are the people who would be creating jobs for others in the years to come. Entrepreneurship might be the only option for them.