Vericool raises $19.1 million for its plant-based packaging replacement for plastic coolers

Vericool, a Livermore, Calif.-based startup that’s replacing plastic coolers and packaging with plant-based products, has raised $19.1 million in a new round of financing.

The company’s stated goal is to replace traditional packaging materials like polystyrene with plant-based insulating packaging materials.

Its technology uses 100% recycled paper fibers and other plant-based materials, according to the company, and are curbside recyclable and compostable.

Investors in the round include Radicle Impact PartnersThe Ecosystem Integrity FundID8 Investments and AiiM Partners, according to a statement.

“We’re pleased to support Vericool because of the company’s track record of innovation, high-performance products, well-established patent portfolio and focus on environmental resilience. We are inspired by the company’s social justice commitment to address recidivism and provide workplace opportunity to formerly incarcerated individuals,” said Dan Skaff, managing partner of Radicle Impact Partners and Vericool’s new lead director. 

Citroën introduces a two-seat EV that costs €19.99 a month

The Citroën Ami is a new take on urban mobility. It’s electric, cheap and doesn’t require a license. In short, it’s less of a car and more of an electric scooter with two seats, doors and a heater. Jokes aside, the Citroën Ami could be a glimpse at the future of mobility.

The innovation isn’t in the technical aspects of the Ami. Citroën is positioning the Ami as an urban mobility solution. The size is perfect for narrow streets and the price is right to be competitive against public transport. The Ami is not classified as a motor vehicle. As such, operators do not need a license and can be as young as 14 in France and 16 in other European countries.

Passengers sit side-by-side in the heated compartment and under the panoramic roof. The 5.5kWh lithium-ion battery is housed under the floor and is good for up to 70 kilometers after a three-hour charge from a standard 220v outlet. The top speed is 45 km/h (28 mph).

And because it’s a Citroën, there’s a nod to the company’s quirky past: The side windows open manually by tilting upwards like the classic 2 CV.

The Ami is available to consumers in several different ways. It can be rented long term at a cost of €19.99 (including VAT) per month with an initial payment of €2,644 (including VAT). The Ami can be rented through a car-sharing service for up to a day at a rate of €0.26 per min. Or, the Ami is available for purchase from €6,000 (including VAT).

Citroën is taking orders for the Ami starting on March 30 in France and several months later in Spain, Italy, Belgium, Portugal and then Germany. The first Ami vehicles are expected by June.

Boom says its supersonic XB-1 aircraft test program will be ‘fully carbon neutral’

Commercial aviation isn’t typically the place to look if you’re after carbon-light initiatives. Jet fuel isn’t generally very green, and airplanes burn a lot of it when traversing the skies. But supersonic flight startup Boom wants to change the perception of commercial aviation as an emissions-costly prospect, starting with their testing development program for the XB-1 supersonic demonstration aircraft that will eventually lead to the development of its Overture passenger aircraft.

Boom claims this will make it the first commercial flight OEM to achieve this level of sustainability, especially from the very beginning of its aircraft flight testing and certification process. And while XB-1 and eventually Overture aren’t electric or hybrid aircraft, the way the company hopes to achieve this milestone is through a combination of using sustainable jet fuel and carbon offsets (effectively the process of buying carbon “credits” by funding projects that net reduce greenhouse gases) to reduce its overall carbon footprints to zero.

The fuel that Boom is using comes from partner Prometheus Fuel, which is a company that uses electricity from renewable power sources, like solar and wind, to turn CO2 scrubbed from the air into jet fuel. Already, Boom has tested this fuel in use during some of its initial ground tests, and its findings indicate that it should be able to use it effectively through both the remainder of ground testing, as well as into its flight program.

While there is some debate about the overall validity and efficacy of carbon offsets, provided that money from these programs is funneled into the proper initiatives, they do seem to result in more ecological good than not. And any attempt to offset the economic impact of a flight program like Boom’s, especially if it’s carried through to flying production aircraft, should be better for the environment than had no attempt been made whatsoever. Which, by the way, is the case for most new aircraft development programs.

Already, Boom is in the process of building the XB-1, which it will then flight test in partnership with Flight Research during a program in the Mojave Desert at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The goal is to begin testing this summer, and eventually use the information gathered from the XB-1 program (which will be able to hold a pilot but no passengers) to build out the final Overture aircraft that will offer commercial passenger supersonic flight services. Boom has secured agreements with a number of airlines for pre-orders for Overture, including JAL and Virgin.

Tesla Model 3 makes Consumer Reports ‘Top Picks’ list for 2020

Tesla’s Model 3 is among the top 10 choices for car buyers in 2020, according to Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization released its “Top Picks” of the year on Thursday, and it included Tesla’s most affordable vehicle alongside cars from automakers including Toyota, Subaru, Honda, Kia and Lexus.

The Model 3 was chosen as one of three vehicles in the $45K -$55K category, alongside the Lexus RX and the Toyota Supra. CR lauded its “thrilling driving experience,” including “impressive handling and quick precise steering [that] help it feel like a sports car.” They did ding it slightly for having a “stiff ride” overall, but said that that’s more than made up for by its long EV battery range emission free eco-friendly qualities.

Consumer Reports also specifically called out a worry about the Model 3 that “Autopilot, an optional system on the vehicle, does not require the driver to stay engaged, creating safety concerns.” Tesla has always positioned Autopilot as a driver assist feature, that still requires a driver to be ready to take over control at a moment’s notice, but critics have suggested its implementation can lead to misuse resulting in inattentiveness.

Clearly. that concern wasn’t enough to prevent CR from counting the Model 3 among its top recommendations for vehicles in 2020. Tesla also ended up ranking 11th overall out of 33 automakers in Consumer Reports’ 2020 automative brand report card, climbing eight positions from last year. The Model 3, and the rapid improvements that Tesla was able to make in its production as it scaled assembly of the vehicle, clearly helped it in the eyes the consumer-focused non-profit.

Tesla ramps up solar tile roof installations in US, eyes China and Europe expansion

Tesla appears to be ramping up installations of its solar tile roofs in the San Francisco Bay area and will eventually roll out to Europe and China, according to CEO Elon Musk, who, in a series of tweets, provided the first substantial update since the company launched the third iteration of its product in October.

The solar tile roof, which Tesla calls Solarglass, is being produced at the company’s factory in Buffalo, N.Y. Musk announced in one of the tweets plans to host a “company talk” in April at the Buffalo factory, an event that will include media and customer tours of the facility.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment seeking more information about Solarglass, including how many installations have been made to date. We will update the article if Tesla responds.

Four months ago, Musk said the company would begin installations in the “coming weeks” and that it hopes to ramp production to as many as 1,000 new roofs per week.

Tesla’s solar roof tiles are designed to look like normal roof tiles when installed on a house, while doubling as solar panels to generate power. The company first unveiled the solar tiles in 2016 and has been tinkering with them ever since. Tesla has conducted trial installations with the first two generations of the solar tiles and opened up pre-orders in 2017.

In an earnings call last October, Musk suggested that the tiles were ready for a widespread deployment, noting that “version three is finally ready for the big time.”

The solar tile roof will initially be offered in textured black, but Musk reiterated Monday plans to offer other color and finish variants “hopefully later this year.”

A pricing estimator on the Tesla website says a solar tile roof with 10 kW of solar on an average 2,000 square-foot home costs $42,500 before federal tax incentives. It also lists $33,950 as the price after an $8,550 federal tax incentive.

Tesla ramps up solar tile roof installations in US, eyes China and Europe expansion

Tesla appears to be ramping up installations of its solar tile roofs in the San Francisco Bay area and will eventually roll out to Europe and China, according to CEO Elon Musk, who, in a series of tweets, provided the first substantial update since the company launched the third iteration of its product in October.

The solar tile roof, which Tesla calls Solarglass, is being produced at the company’s factory in Buffalo, N.Y. Musk announced in one of the tweets plans to host a “company talk” in April at the Buffalo factory, an event that will include media and customer tours of the facility.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment seeking more information about Solarglass, including how many installations have been made to date. We will update the article if Tesla responds.

Four months ago, Musk said the company would begin installations in the “coming weeks” and that it hopes to ramp production to as many as 1,000 new roofs per week.

Tesla’s solar roof tiles are designed to look like normal roof tiles when installed on a house, while doubling as solar panels to generate power. The company first unveiled the solar tiles in 2016 and has been tinkering with them ever since. Tesla has conducted trial installations with the first two generations of the solar tiles and opened up pre-orders in 2017.

In an earnings call last October, Musk suggested that the tiles were ready for a widespread deployment, noting that “version three is finally ready for the big time.”

The solar tile roof will initially be offered in textured black, but Musk reiterated Monday plans to offer other color and finish variants “hopefully later this year.”

A pricing estimator on the Tesla website says a solar tile roof with 10 kW of solar on an average 2,000 square-foot home costs $42,500 before federal tax incentives. It also lists $33,950 as the price after an $8,550 federal tax incentive.

Diet autopilot Thistle raises $5M for health food subscriptions

What if it was easier to eat salad than junk food? Most diet routines take a ton of time, whether you’re cooking from scratch, making a meal kit or seeking a nutritious restaurant. But on-demand prepared food delivery companies like Sprig that tried to eliminate that work have gone bankrupt from poor unit economics.

Thistle is a different type of food startup. It delivers thrice-weekly cooler bags customized with meat-optional, plant-based breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, sides and juices. By batching deliveries in the less-congested early morning hours and optimizing routes to its subscribers, or by mailing weekly boxes beyond its own geographies, Thistle makes sure you already have your food the moment you’re hungry. Whether you heat them up or eat them straight out of the fridge, you’re actually dining faster than you could even place an Uber Eats order.

The food on Thistle’s constantly rotating menu is downright tasty. You might get a sunrise chia parfait for breakfast, a chicken tropical mango salad for lunch, a microwaveable bulgogi noodle bowl for dinner, with beet hummus and kale-cucumber juice for snacks. Thistle’s not cheap, with meals averaging about $14 each. But compared to competitors’ on-demand delivery markups and service fees, wasting ingredients from the grocer and the hours of cooking for yourself, it can be a good deal for busy people.

“We see Thistle as part of a movement to make health convenient rather than a high willpower chore,” CEO Ashwin Cheriyan tells me. What Peloton did to shave time off getting a great workout, Thistle does for eating a nourishing meal. It makes the right choice the easiest choice.

Thistle COO Shiri Avnery and CEO Ashwin Cheriyan with their daughter

The idea of a button you can push to make you healthier has attracted a new $5.65 million Series A round for Thistle led by its first institutional investor, PowerPlant Ventures . Bringing the startup to $15 million in funding, the cash will expand Thistle’s delivery domain. Dan Gluck of PowerPlant, which has also funded food break-outs like Beyond Meat, Thrive Market and Rebbl, will join the board.

Currently Thistle delivers in-person to the Bay Area, LA metro, San Diego and Sacramento while shipping to most of Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. Thistle actually held off on raising more since launching in 2013 to make sure it hammered out unit economics to prevent an implosion. It’s also planning broader meal options, additional product lines and fresh distribution strategies like getting stocked in office smart kitchens or subsidized by wellness plans.

“The reasons that so many food delivery companies have failed likely fall into two buckets: one, a lack of focus on margins and unit economics, and two, premature geographic expansion before proving out the business model,” says Cheriyan. “Thistle makes money similar to how a well-run restaurant would make money — by having strong gross margins, efficient customer acquisition costs and solid customer retention / lifetime metrics. We currently deliver tens of thousands of meals on a weekly basis to customers on the West Coast and our annual average growth rate since launch has been 100%+.”

It’s nice that Thistle hasn’t gone out of business, because I’ve been eating its salads 6X a week for three years. It’s been the most efficient way for me to get healthier and lose weight after a half-decade of ordering takeout sandwiches and then feeling sluggish all day. I legitimately look forward to each one since they often have 20+ ingredients and only repeat every few months, so they’re never boring.

It has helped me keep my work-from-home lunches to about 20 minutes so I have more time for writing. Thistle is one of the few startups I consistently recommend to people. When asked how I lost 25lbs before my wedding, I point to Peloton cycling, Future remote personal training and Thistle salads — none of which require me to leave the house.

Cheriyan tells me, “We wanted the better-for-you and better-for-planet choice to be the default choice.”

Growing out of on-demand

Thistle has already pivoted past the business model burning tons of cash across the startup world. The company started as an on-demand cold-pressed juice delivery service, sending hipster glass bottles of watermelon and charcoal extract to doors around San Francisco. It was 2013, yoga was booming and people were paying crazily high prices for liquified lemongrass. Health made simple seemed like a sure bet to the founding team of Alap Shah, Naman Shah, Sheel Mohnot and Johnny Hwin, some of whom run Studio Management, a family office and startup incubator. [Disclosure: Hwin and Alap Shah are friends of mine, but didn’t pitch or discuss this article with me.]

Thistle eventually straightened things out with a shift to subscriptions and batched delivery under the leadership of the newly added co-founders, Cheriyan and his wife and COO Shiri Avnery. “I came from a family of physicians — both my parents, brother, and enough aunts, uncles, and cousins are doctors that they could start a small hospital,” Cheriyan, a former corporate attorney in M&A tells me. “A common point of frustration was about patients suffering from diet-related illnesses who were unable to make a lifestyle change because it was too hard.”

Avnery, a PhD in air pollution and climate change’s impact on agriculture, had become exasperated with the slow pace of policy change and the inaction of governments and corporations. The two quit their jobs, moved to San Francisco, and searched for a point of leverage for positively influencing people’s diets and interaction with the environment. They teamed up with the founders and launched Thistle v1.

A lack of experience in logistics led to the initial detour into on-demand. But rather than trying to fix the problem with VC money, Thistle stayed lean and discovered the opportunity nestled between Uber Eats and Blue Apron: sending people food they don’t have to eat now, but that takes low or no time to prepare when they’re peckish. Through its app, users can customize their meal plans, ban their allergens, pause deliveries and see what they’ll eat next.

A sample of Thistle 8 meal plans

The unit economics problem most heavily plagued the early on-demand food companies. Food / labor waste and inefficient deliveries were likely the biggest reasons why the economics were unsustainable without venture life support. We know this personally as Thistle started our delivery service as an on-demand company before quickly realizing that the unit economics couldn’t sustain a healthy business,” Cheriyan explains, regarding companies like Sprig, DoorDash and Grubhub. Beyond unsold food, “the margins very likely did not support ordering a $12-$15 single meal for immediate delivery when average hourly driver wages reached $18-20.”

Meal kits were supposed to make dining healthier and cheaper, but they proved too much of a chore and led customers to boxes of ingredients piling up unused. Munchery and Nomiku went out of business while giants like Blue Apron have incinerated hundreds of millions of dollars and seen their share prices sink.

“The meal kit companies fared a little better from a gross margin perspective (due to pre-orders and more efficient deliveries), but suffer most from an easy-to-copy business model. This led to a rise in copycats, and, as a result, heavily rising customer acquisition costs, low switching costs and poor retention,” Cheriyan tells me. “Fundamentally the meal kit companies face another challenge, which is that people have less and less time to cook and are increasingly looking for ready-to-eat options.”

Push-button health

A slower, steadier approach with less overhead, more convenience and fewer direct competitors has helped Thistle grow to 400 employees, from culinary to engineering to logistics.

Still, it’s vulnerable. It may still be too expensive for some markets and demographics. Logistics experts like Amazon and Whole Foods could try to barge into the market. Cloud kitchens without dining rooms are making restaurant food more affordable for delivery. And another startup could always take the gamble on raising a ton of cash and subsidizing prices to steal market share, especially where Thistle doesn’t operate yet.

Thistle could counter these threats by further eliminating delivery costs by selling through partners like office smart fridges where employees pay on the spot, or equipping gym lobbies with more than just Muscle Milk.

One opportunity we’re excited to test is attended and unattended retail — it would be great to be able to pick up Thistle products at your local grocery store, gym or coffee shop,” Cheriyan says. As for offices, “Today’s corporate lunchtime solutions often require a trade-off between health and convenience: either wait in line for 30+ minutes at your favorite salad spot for a healthy option, or opt into catered restaurant meals that leave you feeling sluggish and unproductive.” Thistle could help employers prevent the 3pm energy lull.

The startup’s focus on plant-forward meals also centers it in the path of another megatrend: the shift to environmentally conscious diets. Almost 60% of Americans are trying to eat less meat and 50% are eating meat-alternatives like Impossible Burgers. That stems both from interest in the humane treatment of animals and how 15% of green house emissions come from livestock. But 45% of Americans say they hate to cook. That’s why Thistle makes pre-made meals where meat and egg are optional, but the food is healthy and delicious without them.

In the age of Uber, we’ve acclimated to an effortless life. The new wave of “push-button health” startups like Thistle could finally take the hassle out of aligning your actions in the gym or kitchen with your intentions.

Loliware’s kelp-based plastic alternatives snag $6M seed round from eco-conscious investors

The last few years have seen many cities ban plastic bags, plastic straws and other common forms of waste, giving environmentally conscious alternatives a huge boost — among them Loliware, purveyor of fine disposable goods created from kelp. Huge demand and smart sourcing has attracted a big first funding round.

I covered Loliware early on when it was one of the first companies to be invested in by the Ocean Solutions Accelerator, a program started in 2017 by the nonprofit Sustainable Ocean Alliance. Founder Chelsea “Sea” Briganti told me about the new funding on the SOA’s strange yet quite successful “Accelerator at Sea” program late last year.

The company makes straws primarily, with other products planned, out of kelp matter. Kelp, if you’re not familiar, is a common type of aquatic algae (also called seaweed) that can grow quite large and is known for its robustness. It also grows in vast, vast quantities in many coastal locations, creating “kelp forests” that sustain entire ecosystems. Intelligent stewardship of these fast-growing kelp stocks could make them a significantly better source than corn or paper, which are currently used to create most biodegradable straws.

A proprietary process turns the kelp into straws that feel plastic-like but degrade simply (and not in your hot drink — it can stand considerably more exposure than corn and paper-based straws). Naturally the taste, desirable in some circumstances but not when drinking a seltzer, is also removed.

It took a lot of R&D and fine-tuning, Briganti told me:

“None of this has ever been done before. We led all development from material technology to new-to-world engineering of machinery and manufacturing practices. This way we ensure all aspects of the product’s development are truly scalable.”

They’ve gone through more than a thousand prototypes and are continuing to iterate as advances make possible things like higher flexibility or different shapes.

“Ultimately our material is a massive departure from the paradigms with which other companies are approaching the development of biodegradable materials,” she said. “They start with a problematic, last-forever, fossil fuel-derived paradigm and try to make it not so bad — this is step-change development and too slow and frumpy to truly make an impact.”

Of course it doesn’t matter how good your process is if no one is buying it, a fact that plagues many ethics-first operations, but in fact demand has grown so fast that Loliware’s biggest challenge has been scaling to meet it. The company has gone from a few million to a hundred million in recent years to a projected billion straws shipping in 2020.

“It takes us about 12 months to get to full automation [from the lab],” she said. “Once we get to full automation, we license the tech to a strategic plastic or paper manufacturer. Meaning, we do not manufacture billions of straws, or anything, in-house.”

It makes sense, of course, just as contracting out your PCB or plastic mold or what have you. Briganti wanted to have global impact, and that requires taking advantage of global infrastructure that’s already there.

Lastly, the consideration of a sustainable ecosystem was always important to Briganti, as the whole company is founded on the idea of reducing waste and using fundamentally ethical processes.

“Our products utilize a super-sustainable supply of seaweed, a supply that is overseen and regulated by local governments,” Briganti said. “In 2020, Loliware will launch the first-ever Algae Sustainability Council (ASC), which allows us to be at the helm of the design of these new global seaweed supply chain systems as well as establishing the oversight, ensuring sustainable practices and equitability. We are also pioneering what we have coined the ‘Zero Waste Circular Extraction Methodology,’ which will be a new paradigm in seaweed processing, utilizing every component of the biomass as it suggests.”

The $5.9 million “super seed” round has many investors, including several who were on board the ship in Alaska for the Accelerator at Sea this past October (as SOA Seabird Ventures). The CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee has invested, as have New York Ventures, Magic Hour, For Good VC, Hatzimemos/Libby, Geekdom Fund, HUmanCo VC, CityRock and Closed Loop Partners.

The money will be used for scaling and further R&D; Loliware plans to launch several new straw types (like a bent straw for juice boxes), a cup and a new utensil. 2020 may be the year you start seeing the company’s straws in your favorite coffee shop rather than a few early adopters here and there. You can keep track of where they can be found here at the company’s website.

Investors and utilities are seeding carbon markets with new startups

While most of the world agrees that carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are creating a climate crisis, there’s little consensus regarding how to address it.

One of the solutions that’s both the most obvious and, seemingly, the most difficult for the international community to agree on is establishing a market that would put a price on carbon emissions. Making the cost of emissions palpable for industries would encourage companies to curb their polluting activities or pay to offset them.

The holy grail of a global carbon market — or a collection of regional ones — has been on the agenda for climate activists and regulators since the Kyoto Protocols were ratified in 1997, but enacting the policy has proven elusive.

Now, as the results of climate inaction become more apparent, there appears to be some movement on the regulatory front and concurrent activity from early-stage technology investors to make carbon offsets more of a reality.

It’s still early days, but startups like Project Wren, Pachama and Cloverly prove that investors and utilities are willing to take a flyer on companies that are trying to enable carbon offsets for consumers and corporations alike.

These small bets for investors are complemented by the potential for outsized returns given the size and scope that’s possible should these markets actually develop.

After years of languishing in relative obscurity, global carbon markets rebounded with vigor in 2017 and into 2018, according to data from the World Bank.

Countries raised about $44 billion in revenues from carbon pricing in 2018, an increase of $11 billion, with more than half coming from carbon taxes. In 2017, the $33 billion raised by governments from carbon pricing was an increase of 50% over 2016 numbers.

However large that number may seem, it’s dwarfed by the figure required to make any real changes in industry emissions, according to the World Bank. The current pricing schemes that exist cover a small percentage of global emissions at a cost that’s consistent with achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, the latest international treaty around climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Prices need to rise to between $40 per ton of carbon dioxide and $80 per ton by 2020 and between $50 per ton and $100 per ton by 2030.

Oceans of opportunity: surveying 2020’s seafaring startup potential

Space attracts a lot of attention as an area of frontier tech investment and entrepreneurship, but there’s another vast expanse that could actually be more addressable by the innovation economy — Earth’s oceans.

Seafaring startups aren’t attracting quite as much attention as their spacefaring cousins, but 2019 still saw a flurry of activity in this sector and 2020 could be an even big year for everything aquatic.

Sounding the depths of data collection

One big similarity between space tech and seafaring opportunities is that data collection represents a significant percent of the potential market. Data collection in and around Earth’s oceans has increased dramatically in recent years thanks to the availability, efficacy and cost of sensor technologies — in 2017, it was estimated that as much ocean data had been gathered in the past two years as in all of human history. But relatively speaking, that barely scratches the surface.

Ocean observation has largely been driven by scientific and research goals, which means there’s bound to be a pretty hard cap on available funding. But ocean data has value in all kinds of private’s sector pursuits, including the potential for autonomous commercial cargo transportation (more on that later), as well as predicting weather and climate conditions that impact shipping routes, agriculture and more.

Various methods exist for collecting data about Earth’s oceans, including space-based satellite observation. Startups like Terradepth, Saildrone and Promare have all proposed various autonomous seafaring data collection vehicle designs that could leverage robotics to bring ocean observation at scale closer to home. These firms are using technology that’s been made affordable for startup budgets through miniaturization and efficiency gains evolved through the progress of the smartphone and other computing industries.

This past year, Xprize awarded millions in prize money to teams that competed in the Ocean Discovery competition for autonomous ocean floor mapping, which is resulting in spin-out ventures that have a head start on success.

As in space, data collection and observation can take many forms, so we can expect to see many industry-specific approaches emerge to capitalize on what are surprisingly large market opportunities, even for seemingly narrow types of data. Continued efforts to refine and improve robotics technologies like sensing and vision should drive even more growth in autonomous ocean observation in 2020.

Autonomous logistics

Oceanfaring drones aren’t just about data collection, however; a huge portion of the global logistics market still relies on giant cargo vessels. The drive to automate container ships is nothing new, but it’s reaching a point where we’re actually starting to see autonomous cargo vehicles embark, including this Chinese cargo ship that set out from Guangdong at the end of this year and a ship called the Yara Birkeland has begun trials out of Rotterdam and expects to be operating fully autonomously by 2022.